America is always on fire or underwater. COVID-19 has killed millions of people around the world. Income inequality is out of control, and fascism is on the rise. But the most urgent threat society faces right now, at least according to Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix special, is that the LGBTQ community can viciously snatch away Kevin Hart’s lifelong dream of hosting the Oscars in 2018, forcing the star to settle for simply being a prolific zillionaire comedian, actor, and mogul.
If that sounds like a familiar topic for a Chappelle special, it should. He was mad about Hart’s pitiable fate in 2019’s Sticks and Stones—the grievance exhibition that, according to the New York Post, got him “canceled,” and, according to reality, earned him two Emmys and millions of dollars. This topic should also sound familiar, though, because Chappelle’s previous, interchangeable Netflix specials have also spent a bizarre amount of time on jokes about the LGBTQ community and its aggressive response to any perceived slight. How dull must Chappelle’s life be if this is what he most wants to talk about onstage?
The Closer is positioned as the comic’s Netflix swan song, and the prelude to an extended break from filming specials altogether. With six hour-plus sets under his belt in just four years, it’s hard to remember how exciting it was when Netflix initially coaxed Chappelle into a partnership, putting out his first collection of jokes since the early aughts, with the promise of more to come. Little did we know then that the streaming deal would find him churning out specials at a rate that defies quality control.
At this point, Chappelle has become the Netflix of comedians—he doesn’t tell jokes, he spews content. Just about everything he says on stage now seems designed to joylessly fill time in the cadence of a joke. Fittingly enough for a comic who was once famous for how long he could remain on stage, consuming his Netflix output is now a feat of endurance. The content is unpolished, repetitive and vindictive, and it just goes on and on.
A hefty percentage of this latest special consists of stories about people confronting the comedian to complain about how offended they were by his previous stories, an ouroboros of boring comedy. If Chappelle is to be believed, his entire life these days consists of one screaming confrontation after another. He presents these experiences as radicalizing, but he should probably be grateful considering how much real estate they take up in his routine. If he didn’t have all these nearly identical stories, his special would only last 10 minutes or so.
Either that or he’d have to actually start crafting original joke premises again.
But who needs new content when there’s so much, uh, classic joke fodder to choose from? The Closer recycles some of Chappelle’s old joke concepts, like the idea that being trans is like a white person pretending to be Black. It dusts off prior punchlines, verbatim, in order to describe the blistering reaction to them, and leans on topics that Jay Leno would find dated. Mike Pence is gay, goes the punchline to one joke that feels at least four years past its sell-by date, and would have been lazy and unfunny back then. The #MeToo movement was stupid because, according to Chappelle here, it involved crocheting pink pussy hats—something that happened at the Women’s March in 2017, about nine months before the #MeToo movement began. Do I even need to mention he is still mystified about Glamour naming Caitlyn Jenner one of its Women of the Year in 2015, and has nothing to say about her recent political face-plant? By the end of the special, I was astounded that Rachel Dolezal’s name is never mentioned.
What’s most confounding is that when Chappelle isn’t making jokes about gay and trans people, he’s trying to defend himself against the perception that he makes jokes about gay and trans people. I would call his insistence gaslighting if I didn’t occasionally update my arsenal of things to complain about and jettison that one due to overuse. One might conceivably believe that Chappelle is just a well-meaning guy who is misunderstood, if he didn’t take such clear delight in saying things he knows will get him in trouble. (And by “get him in trouble,” I mean, “possibly win him another couple of Emmys.”)
Several jokes start with Chappelle presenting himself as low-key enlightened, only to undercut the sentiment with trolling humor. At one point, for instance, Chappelle mentions that he finally looked up the definition of feminist and was surprised to find out he technically qualifies. “All these years, I thought it meant ‘frumpy dyke,'” goes the punchline, followed by a Bugs Bunny-style ain’t-I-a-stinker grin and ad lib commentary about how he will probably get crucified now, since too many people can’t handle jokes this bravely awesome in 2021.
Eventually, we learn the origin story for Chappelle’s anti-trans crusade. He was apparently confronted onstage 16 years ago by someone calling his jokes transphobic, after which an unnamed LGBTQ publication put out an article about the incident, and now “every time I talk with anybody from that community ever since, they always repeat the talking points from that article.”
Obviously, this is not true. The reason I know that is because I just sat through so many stories about people confronting Chappelle over his more recent trans jokes.
What seems to really be fueling his obsession with this topic is that LGBTQ rights are, in Chappelle’s estimation, advancing more quickly than Black liberation. If there is an empirical truth to which of the two marginalized groups is the beneficiary of more recent advocacy, I wouldn’t dare speculate. In pitting the two in opposition, though, the comic somehow fails to concede just how much overlap there is between them. He is mad at LGBTQ people on behalf of Black people, as though no one could possibly be both—or at least not without being more of a good sport about hearing jokes at their expense.
“Any of you who have ever watched me know that I have never had a problem with transgender people,” he says at one point, inexplicably. “If you listen to what I’m saying, clearly my problem has always been with white people.”
Obviously, this, too, is not true. The reason I know that is because I just sat through Chappelle comparing all trans women’s genitals to Impossible Burgers, not merely those of white trans women. Even if some of his trans jokes are indeed vehicles to broader observations about white people, and others are meant in his mind as rebukes to a specific shade of trans person, the overall effect is the same. Trans people get examined and othered and the audience laughs. Not to worry, though, because Chappelle closes out his special by explaining, through a story about a now-deceased friend, that the comedian has discovered a trans person who is acceptable in his eyes.
That’s right, one of the all-time sharpest analyzers of racism thinks “I can’t be anti-[x] if I have an [x] friend” is a good defense!
As Chappelle puts it, a trans person need only not discuss pronouns, avoid confrontation, and laugh loudly at all of Dave Chappelle’s trans jokes, and he will gladly recognize their humanity. Everyone else apparently deserves what they get.
I’m not questioning Chappelle’s right to crack jokes about the LGBTQ community or anything else, and I’m certainly not trying to cancel him, whatever that would even look like. All I’m asking is why, at this late date, with every beautiful and horrible element in the vast spectrum of all things real and imagined, he feels compelled to keep making so many LGBTQ jokes, to the exclusion of almost all other topics—and how it’s physically possible that he is not as sick of telling them as I am of hearing them.