On Oct. 5, comedian Dave Chappelle released his final Netflix special, titled “The Closer,” to mixed reviews. I had been a fan of Chappelle for a long time, and felt that he was an intelligent, caring soul. Chappelle once turned down $50 million from Comedy Central in order to make another season of “Chappelle’s Show,” increasing my respect for him by not selling out. He hosted Saturday Night Live after Trump’s and Biden’s elections; both times exhibiting how much he cares about those he disagrees with, while navigating the difficulties of bipartisan respect. After watching those monologues, I was more fascinated by the heart of his political closing than by his humor. However, I was disappointed after watching his final Netflix special.
“The Closer” changed my mind about Chappelle. Rather than focusing the direction of his jokes on the oppressors, he focused on the oppressed, mocking the transgender community in particular. The more I think about it though, the less I care about what Chappelle thinks. He is just one man. The real problem is that he made these jokes on an internationally broadcasted special, potentially convincing millions to sympathize with transphobia.
Joe Rogan, a friend of Chappelle’s, defended the comedian in his podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience.”
“There’s fun in making fun of each other and we have to accept that and then I need to know your real feelings about gay people, your real feelings about trans people,” Rogan said. “But we got to be able to joke around about each other and if you get down to Dave Chappelle’s real feelings … he loves everybody.”
Rogan is right about that duality in comedy; it is okay to joke about difficult topics as long as people do not confuse that with your real feelings. Chappelle attempts to have those two levels, bringing up cancel culture and the impacts of harmful comments online.
Unfortunately this is undercut by Chappelle berating the trans community. Chappelle literally calls himself a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist and does not condemn transphobia. Even in his response to the controversy on Oct. 25, he did not apologize for inciting transphobia. He firmly denounces cancel culture, but leaves his stance on transphobia obnoxiously ambiguous. He is not following Rogan’s advice because he refuses to make his true position clear.
Chappelle has made a career out of offensive and shocking comedy, which is why I believe he is surprised by the backlash. He does not seem to realize that there is harm in those jokes. Just because they get a laugh from folks , that does not make them ethical. They perpetuate negative narratives and can ingrain reprehensible ideologies in viewers through their widespread distribution.
If someone is less familiar with the trans community and watches “The Closer,” they might assume that trans people consistently attack people for telling jokes, that it is okay to make light of their struggle and maybe even that it is okay to hate trans people. The reason Chappelle’s special is so problematic is because he takes a tense issue, and instead of explaining it thoroughly and working to heal the partisan laceration, he mocks the trans community and makes transphobia sympathetic to viewers. Chappelle’s spreading of this hateful ideology, whether accidentally or not, is disappointing.