Comedian Dave Chappelle and his latest Netflix standup special, The Closer, are having what the entertainment industry calls a water cooler moment.
This means A LOT of people are talking about it and equal amounts seem to either love it or him or are angry (Note: Or worse) about him and it.
This is especially good for Netflix, which shelled out $24.1 million for Mr. Chappelle’s latest – now what shall we call it – act, rant, therapy session?
Perhaps all three.
Well, whatever we want to categorize it as one thing seems crystal clear. Despite public protests and inside objections from its employees, the once behemoth darling of streamers has no plans to pull it from circulation or curtail its love affair with the comic.
This is especially good for Mr. Chappelle, who may or may not continue his Netflix relationship but is seething about the potential of being cancelled for, among other things, his comments about trans people and the LGBTQ community in general.
Here’s an article that sums up the controversy far better than I could, or want to:
I like to be part of the world and stay informed, so I feel obligated to investigate all water cooler moments. I am also not easily offended by art and generally enjoy standup comedy.
So despite being part of the LGBTQ community, white and Jewish – a trifecta target when it comes to Mr. Chappelle’s humor – I truly wanted to give his latest a fair shot.
I mean, what could he possibly say that would shock me or be something that, in some way, I haven’t heard before?
It’s the same old sh-t I’ve been hearing since I was a teenager, only packaged with a 2021 spin. Chappelle is nowhere near original as he thinks and pales in comparison to predecessors like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin. He doesn’t have the observational acumen of Chris Rock, the engaging danger of Mo’Nique or the intelligence of Sarah Silverman. Or even the ranting hysteria of Lewis Black.
Not to mention he can’t hold a comic candle to Wanda Sykes.
Instead, what he is, is a one-man band of his own grievance and privilege. And it’s singularly and most particularly unappealing.
But worse, it’s simply not funny.
I have no doubt Chappelle would dismiss my comments as my own resistance and aversion to watching an unapologetic, powerful man I find personally threatening and different from myself owning his power and throwing it back in my privileged face.
See, Chappelle is a smart and clever guy who has set up an unwinnable situation for both his detractors and, ironically, for himself.
Object to what he’s doing and you don’t get him, are taking his comments out of context or are so privileged and full of yourself and your own POV that you’re part of the problem.
On the other hand, he presents an egomaniacal persona that begs anyone who’s trying to understand where he’s coming from to loathe him. He unabashedly refers to himself (but couches it as the view of what others say) as the GOAT (aka Great of All Time) of comics. This as he continually reminds his audience that he’s really, really rich and really, really famous as he is. So much so that he even gets in a remark about how he’s the guy who left $50,000,000 on the table, a veiled reference to when he notoriously left Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show in the early 2000s.
Whatever. I mean, I don’t have to like the guy or want to hang with this version of him in real life. Truth be known, maybe the whole thing is an act, much in the supersized macho bravura performance of Andrew Dice Clay in the eighties. Which seems like an apt comparison because in this special Chappelle comes off about as funny and just as obnoxious.
Chappelle’s jokes about gay people include barbs and stories about glory holes (Note: Look it up) and deep-voiced mannish lesbians. He dissects trans people in terms of their physical body parts vs. their emotional gender identities, fixating on their “vaginas” as the meat equivalent of an Impossible Burger.
Which begs the question of whether he even realizes there is an entire trans community of humans born with vaginas and categorized as female but inside are really…..ugh, just let’s table that for now.
There are meandering thoughts about race that feel promising. But then Chappelle comes out with hackneyed analogies like Bruce Jenner becoming female was more easily accepted than when Muhammad Ali changed his name.
Does he not realize that Ali changed his name more than half a century ago, a time when Jenner’s transition would never have been accepted, easily or otherwise, in the US, if even possible?
It’s not that we don’t get the innate American racism he’s talking about, it’s that the observation lacks any kind of punch at all. And it’s nowhere near worthy of Ali.
Chappelle is on to something when at one point he notes that the early women’s liberation movement shied away from including Black women and/or lesbians for fear of conflating it with civil rights or gay liberation. But he entirely loses the thread when he tries to tie it into a critique of #MeToo in a way that meanders into meaninglessness.
He admits he’s jealous of how well the LBTQ rights movement has done in comparison to civil rights but peppers it with retro lines about being molested by a priest that dare us to wonder whether this, indeed, really happened to him or is simply an easy target for him to poke at the predatory nature of homosexuals and one’s indoctrination into gay sex.
Of course, this is the case for many of the stories he tells. Are they true, are they fiction or are they some combination of both?
Certainly, that is the right and method for any comic. The invention of a persona that’s them but not quite them yet distanced just enough for the audience to laugh at.
Yet in his closing 20 minutes, the most written about part of The Closer, he tells an elongated story he positions as true confessional and asks us to give him the benefit of the doubt.
What it amounts to is a sometimes amusing and seemingly heartfelt diatribe about a trans friend/comic who bombed as his opening act, then during and after his show proved she was funny, which caused him to admire her and want to help her career out further.
But when his friend some days later defended Chappelle publicly she got dogged on social media and wound up killing herself, something he partially attributes to cancel culture and specifically blames on those who determined to cancel HIM.
Well, of course the origins of any suicide are unknowable. And of course, social media critiques have gotten out of control and have become ugly, if not at times, lethal. And certainly no decent person revels in the personal destruction of another human being.
Yet Chappelle determines to take this select moment in time and use it as some sort of proof that he’s not the transphobic, homophobic or whatever phobic person his critics portray him to be. He uses it as his self-defense and battering ram against anyone who dare accuse him of anything.
This is not unlike the guy who says that having one Jewish friend doesn’t make him an anti-Semite or that working with one Black person with whom he happily has lunch with weekly inoculates him from being a racist.
The truth is that for every statement we make and/or action we take there is a reaction. And these change from moment to moment and decade to decade, especially for those who willingly choose to do public social commentary.
What seems to truly bother Chappelle and other comedian/social commentators (e.g. Bill Maher) is that they can’t make the same kind of jokes using the same kind of language that they made back in the eighties without impunity.
They don’t like it that the ground underneath them is shifting. And they hate that the groups they once felt free to marginalize are now, en masse, becoming more powerful than them.
In other words, they hate the readjustment.
Well, guess what? They can still say ANYTHING they want. ANYTHING. But in 2021 there are new consequences to it because audiences, like workers, are reclaiming their power.
We can fight it out in the public space and reach compromises. But don’t keep reminding me of how great and successful you are in an act where all you do is pretty much moan and groan about how misunderstood you are by the marginalized groups that criticize you because you’re further marginalizing them.
Better yet, don’t listen to what they’re saying at all. Instead, try to hear it and see them.
Be as obsessed with that as you are with being seen and heard and then maybe you’ll be on to something.