Dave Chappelle strikes again, and audiences aren’t all laughing
By, Matthew Fraser, Editor in Chief
Could it be that Chappelle has lost his once sharp wit and instead fallen on clumsily rehashing old, offensive and largely thoughtless jokes?
Few comedians have commanded the feelings and interests of audiences as thoroughly as Dave Chappelle. Over his 33 years long career, Chappelle has entertained and delighted audiences from the small home screen to the biggest theatres and arenas in the world. His eponymous sketch series, The Chappelle Show is often considered the greatest sketch comedy show ever made and has been immortalized by way of its satirizations and outstanding quotables. In many ways, Chappelle’s comedic resume speaks for itself, and I count myself as a fan.
However, over the past handful of years, Chappelle has drawn the ire of a certain demographic. Despite the arguments that he punches across lines, equally dispensing his wit and critique, the LGBTQ community has taken offence to many of his jokes. In particular, the transgendered community has felt the most unjustly targeted by the comedian’s pen; so much so that their rage has trended multiple times on Twitter and been thoroughly expressed in print. According to the comedian himself, many members and their supporters have made their grievances known personally to Chappelle. But has Chappelle really been punching down or are his comments being misinterpreted by a group he claims to be too sensitive? Could it instead be that Chappelle has lost his once sharp wit and instead fallen on clumsily rehashing old, offensive and largely thoughtless jokes?
In Chappelle’s most recent Netflix special, The Closer, the comedian sets himself the task of addressing his naysayers and ending the mischaracterizations he feels they make. However, along the path to straightening out these misunderstandings, Chappelle can’t seem to help himself from baiting the very people that he aims to pacify and address. He goes so far as to ironically name himself both a feminist and a transphobe. These often successful efforts at drawing rage have yielded criticisms both legitimate and bad faith, thoughtful and knee jerk while obscuring whether or not Chappelle is arguing in integrity.
For most people who are vaguely aware of the controversy, they probably know that Dave Chappelle proudly stated “I’m team TERF”—an acronym that stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist. One online political commentator named Vaush picked out this particular line for criticism and reflection. Given that Dave Chappelle begins his special by stating that he believes that transwomen are in fact women, Vaush points out that that beginning standpoint immediately makes him completely and totally incompatible with the TERF ideology. Vaush points out that TERFs believe that it is very much impossible for someone born with male genitalia and assigned male at birth to become a woman. Many TERFs believe that the very presence of transwomen in female spaces silences and invalidates the voices of “real women.” In pointing out this fact, Vaush begins to lay the groundwork for the argument that Chappelle is woefully uneducated on the things that his opining on.
This line of thought is expanded on by one Conscious Lee, a TikTok’er gaining growing popularity on the intersectional and black-led social media scene. In a video made for TikTok, reposted on Instagram, Lee argues against Chappelle comparing Blackface to transgenderism. Lee’s point is that the inherently disrespectful and racist practice of blackface is wholly separate from the legitimate existence of individuals whose gender identities do not conform with what they were assigned at birth. Lee argues that to conflate the two is an act of both gaslighting and dog-whistling. He continues his criticism by pointing out that Chappelle has given five percent thought to the issue of transgenderism and that in turn, his musings seem profound to those who have not given the question any thought at all.
Yet the criticisms of Chappelle did not come solely from the internet spaces he doesn’t think are real, newspapers and magazines including The Guardian and Vox Media’s Vulture published critiques as well. Craig Jenkins in his review for the Vulture points out that Chappelle once walked away from $50 million because he realized too many audience members were laughing because of racist stereotypes as opposed to laughing at the racist stereotypes. In Jenkins’ eyes, that comic has seemingly left behind his previous principles and sensibilities to defend millionaires and rehash old, tired and antiquated transphobic jokes. As a result of these jokes—made in consecutive specials—Jenkins points out that Chappelle is at the centre of an outrage he cultivated; this creation of his has meant his audience is populated with people who cheer at anti-transgender bathroom bills. In essence, Chappelle has drawn the criticism onto himself and attracted people who may legitimately be transphobic.
The Guardian called upon a trans comedian named Dahlia Belle, for her response to The Closer. In that response, Belle criticizes the erasure of black trans people in Dave Chappelle’s special while also arguing against his use of Daphne Dorman to protect himself. In both of these criticisms, Belle is well supported, as it seems that no one who made valid criticisms of Chappelle overlooked the rank non-intersectional view he holds of the trans community. Belle’s criticism of Chappelle using his late friend Daphne as a shield was also well considered as even I saw his use of Daphne Dorman as some sort of totem of his trans acceptance. Worse than the ‘trans-friend-who-died card’ is the fact that the use of Dorman as a totem did not stop him from misgendering her to cap off his joke and close his special.
Yet for all the validity of these criticisms, I can’t bring myself to not enjoy Chappelle’s special. My respect for the criticisms given coupled with my understanding—limited by my cis-gendered identity—of the trans movement cannot help me from appreciating the work that Chappelle has done. Even some of the other critiques he made ring true to me despite the fallacies employed. Part of this centres on the fact that much of what Chappelle does revolves around juxtaposition.
One of the portions that gained the most traction and discussion early on was his relating the rapper DaBaby’s previous altercation, resulting in the shooting death of another. In the special, Chappelle states clearly “DaBaby shot and killed a n***a in Wal-Mart in North Carolina. Nothing bad happened to his career.” Though he leaves out the crucial context that DaBaby was not the aggressor and that all charges were dropped, the underlying proposition is worth considering: are black lives valued differently than LGBTQ lives? I stress that the circumstance Chappelle uses is not in fact congruent, but it is something worth debating given that much of the black cultural image sold for consumption revolves around glorifying the killing of black men.
One of the things Chappelle seemed particularly upset with was the accusation that he punches down on groups ill-equipped or disproportionately hindered in their ability to respond. Chappelle seems to take quite seriously the accusation that he is a bully, and on this note, he finds a supporter in me. His jokes (if charted across his long career) are delivered with equal aplomb to all targets. For this reason, I am torn between laughing hysterically at his commentary and shaking my head shamefully at my enjoyment. I laugh because it is clear to me what the joke is and how it should be received; the shock value and the absurdity are easily grasped by me. But at the same time, I am aware of why different sections of the population view the jokes as meanspirited or even hateful.
Maybe I am impacted by the fact that I see equal derision as part and parcel of normalizing a class, meaning, when Chappelle begins to narrate the difference between cis-gendered vaginas and transgendered vaginas, the shock only adds to the hilarity I feel. Chappelle drawing the comparison between animal-sourced meat versus Beyond Meat or Impossible Meat, against lady parts is to me an apropos comparison. It is not lost on me that many transgender people and their allies will think the comparison is transphobic, but I still think the line about “Beet juice not blood” is both apt and funny.
If nothing else, the comparison is important in distinguishing the cisgendered experience and the transgendered experience. Though it certainly isn’t the most profound juxtaposition, the fact of the matter is that a girl’s first period is considered by some to be an important event. Without using that belief to denigrate, one important aspect of the trans woman’s experience is being viewed and accepted as a woman without certain functions or even the presence of that piece of anatomy. The joke is meant only to highlight that there is a difference and that there can be a humorous view of that difference. Speaking about that difference should be no different than speaking about the differences between the black and white experiences. Maybe I’m blinded by my own biases, but I see the “Impossible pussy” line as part of the efforts to normalize these human experiences.
However, the criticism that I most considered was the argument that even if Dave Chappelle is not himself transphobic, the jokes he makes inadvertently normalize transphobia and lend cover to more nefarious characters. I consider this argument the most given that bad-faith actors have already begun to use Chappelle’s mainstream acceptance to forward their anti-trans agenda. When people like Steven Crowder prop up Chappelle’s work as a useful shield for their own transphobic beliefs, the fact that he and Chappelle are far more at odds than aligned is buried. What is seen, however, is that the legitimacy that could be seen in Chappelle’s work is somehow paralleled in Crowder’s rants. People who hold these transphobic views crave the subterfuge of legitimacy they get from defending and connecting to Chappelle’s jokes and that subterfuge is truly dangerous to the goal of widespread trans acceptance.
I am under no illusion that this or any other work will convince Chappelle’s detractors of the goodwill and inoffensiveness of the man. Just as the many criticisms I read and watched could not convince me of his malice, so too will this be unconvincing. But it is worth acknowledging the legitimate issues that people have with Chappelle. Still, I do hope that Chappelle’s humour can one day return to uniting most people as opposed to hurting an important minority.