About Chappelle’s Trans Jokes
Comedy can be offensive, Chappelle’s problems are bigger.
Sean King described Chappelle’s arguments in The Closer as “Oppression Olympics”: the debate about whether LGBT people or Blacks are more oppressed. The central metaphor of Chappelle’s argument is a story about DaBaby, a rapper who, while shopping in Walmart in 2019 with his one-year old and five-year old children, was assaulted by men with guns — one of whom he killed. DaBaby was cleared of all wrongdoing; a court of law ruled the incident self-defense and the rapper integrated the story into his music. Fast-forward to July 2020: while performing concert in Miami, DaBaby hyped a crowd by saying, “If you didn’t show up today with HIV, AIDS, any of them deadly sexually transmitted diseases that’ll make you die in two or three weeks, put your cellphone light in the air.” This man is publicly inviting a whole crowd to shame the subpopulation of the most vulnerable HIV-positive people who are literally dying of AIDS. Cool, cool.
Contrasting these two DaBaby stories, Chappelle introduces the centerpiece of his argument: “In our country, you can shoot and kill a [Black person], but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.” In a sleight of hand, he parlays the LGBT criticism directed at his and DaBaby’s entertainment flubs into examples that LGBT people are holding back Black progress, dramatically begging “the LGBTQLMNOP population…” to “stop. punching. down. on my. people,”
It’s evident from the details that the argument Chapelle extrapolates here requires a deeply dishonest spinning of DaBaby’s story. In the process of weaving this dishonest argument, it neglects key realities: performers absolutely do get cancelled for being racist regardless of their sexual or gender identity: if Demi Lovato stepped on stage wearing blackface, they would undoubtedly lose contracts. These populations are also not discrete: Black people are also trans people, AIDs victims are also people of color. And comparing the civil rights progress of LGBT and Black Americans doesn’t make much sense, as the movements for Black and queer liberation are not in competition. In the raw political forum, LGBT and Black rights movements are collaborators; the Democratic Party’s coalition relies on both caucuses to vote for each others candidates and legislation.
Perhaps The Closer is exactly what Chappelle calls it: a negotiation. “I’ve come to negotiate for the release of DaBaby”, he opens, addressing LGBT people. To claim that LGBT people are the enemies of black progress, rather than acknowledging errors or adapt his humor to adapt to changing times, is a form of Trumpian negotiation strategy, straight out of Roy Cohn’s playbook: deny, deflect, destract, counter-attack.
The Closer is also a series of grievance stories. Chappelle tells four stories about fights he has with LGBT people. In one story, a white gay man calls the cops on Chappelle during an altercation. Rather than reifying the truth that it is this man’s whiteness alone that affords him the pathological power to threaten a Black man with the police state, Chappelle calls out the man’s homosexuality, which he infers from his outfit. Scanning for homophobia undercurrent in his crowd, Chappelle asks “is it possible for gay person to be racist?” suggesting he pushes a subversive message. But of course gay people can be racist. Disabled people can be racist. Immigrants can be racist. Whether that white man calling the cops is gay or disabled or immigrant isn’t relevant: his whiteness is. In another instance, Chappelle punches a lesbian, eliciting laughs from the crowd when he says he thought she was a man. Repeatedly, he re-litigates these interpersonal battles; it is Chappelle licking his wounds with mocking jokes cowardly thrown down from the podium.
Some people will surely see in Chappelle’s commentary the necessary voicing of the argument that gay people can indeed be racist. In addition to overt and subtle racism, there is an obnoxious suggestion voiced by white LGBT people that compares their hardship to that of people of color in America: this ignores deep and structural differences in these hardships. But Chappelle’s jokes are not about shedding light on this nuance: Chappelle bluntly argues that LGBT people, as a group, are specifically and systematically oppressing Black people. This is a different and unjustified assertion, and it is a distraction from barriers to Black and LGBT liberation that are very real.
Chappelle suggests that because AIDS victims or trans people are sometimes defended by “cancelling”, these populations wield great power. But the fact that someone might face consequences for making fun of people with AIDS does not make people with AIDS powerful menaces to be taken down. “Cancellation” is a crumb of power: it is merely our collective better judgement to defend the vulnerable. This is punching down.
If we regard Chappelle as a social commentator, his job is to illuminate. If we regard him as a satirist, his job is to take down the powerful. The Closer does neither — it both misleads and targets the weak.
Most damningly, The Closer is not funny. At least South Park’s trans and AIDS jokes are hilarious while they offend, but when Chappelle, confused about a pronoun, lands the punchline, “one they or many they?” — who in America hadn’t already heard this pronoun joke? In his story about him punching a lesbian, he jokes that he thought she was a man, and later mocks “frumpy” lesbians for speaking out against rape, because no one wants to rape them. Are these the insightful jokes of a $350,000-per-minute comedy mastermind: lesbians look like men; men don’t rape ugly women; they pronouns are confusing? In another story he imagines a trans woman pulling out a big penis at a urinal. It’s barely slapstick. He does not even put effort into a description, because he lacks the lived experience to draw the joke from; it is a fiction imagined up from the 2-dimensional space of his own fear. In reality, trans women are terrified to enter public bathrooms because, in reality, trans women get beat up and murdered there. In reality, many trans women have deeply uncomfortable, distressful relationships with their penises. In reality, many trans women are Black. The reality is that laughing at this trauma is cruel, particularly cruel when you are a rich and powerful spokesman who people look up to for leadership, and you are mocking a people with astronomical rates of suicide, homicide, and public mockery. This is punching down.
There’s a live recording of Tig Notaro’s first brilliant standup act after her breast cancer diagnosis. She gets on stage and introduces herself while the audience applauds, “Hi. Hi. How are you, I have cancer.” Having bought tickets to a comedy show and expecting to be made to laugh, her audience laughs. “I have cancer,” she repeats, and again they laugh. At some point, she translates this into brilliant and honest comedy, grappling with her week-old diagnosis in real time. What’s instructive about those first few minutes of Ms. Notaro’s skit is that the comedians we love inherit the inertia of good expectations. Having paid money to join Chappelle’s audience, having chosen him to entertain us after a hard day, we want to laugh so much that sometimes we may do so, regardless of how funny “one they or many they” is.
Once the sloppiness of Chappelle’s execution comes into focus and I let dissipate the decades-old veneer of social commentariat genius I built up around him, I realize that few of the jokes are deeply memorable, and that Chappelle’s greatest punchlines could be behind him. The jokes in The Closer are a decades-old kind of tired. Rewatching, it became easy to understand that a $24.1 million contract might’ve been enough reason to throw together 68 minutes of standup, whether or not he had something meaningful to say.
Comedy can be and sometimes even must be offensive, but when it is offensive, it needs to be true. And it absolutely needs to be funny. The Closer is neither. The trans activists who say the Netflix special should come down are wrong; it should stay up and we need to talk about it. The jokes must be allowed to age poorly. The piece should stand as a living tombstone to the irrelevance Dave Chappelle walked himself into. Let him take his $24.1 million to the bank, but 100 new comedians deserve contracts 1/100th that size to make new and innovative comedy. Now, more than ever, we need new heroes who have something true to say, who illuminate the darkness and lampoon the powerful. Make room.