Who could have imagined, ten years ago, that we as a culture would be hankering for more Kristen Stewart movies and fewer Terrence Malick films and Dave Chappelle stand-up specials?
Nothing creates a legend quite like an artist walking away at the height of their popularity. Nothing ruins a legend quite like coming back, particularly the way Chappelle did. Chappelle didn’t just return to the world of stand-up specials after a long absence: he flooded the market with four stand-up specials, all available on Netflix.
That might seem excessive but the Half Baked star has a lot of transphobic material to spread around. At this point, Chappelle is nearly as notorious for the problematic nature of his transphobic material as he is for being a comic genius.
Before his unfortunate return, I, like everyone else in the world, was a big Dave Chappelle fan. But when I started reading about the sheer volume of transphobic material in his four specials, I suddenly felt absolutely no need to watch any of his specials. Part of it is the sheer volume: one special, maybe, I could digest, but four specials is a giant fucking comic wasteland filled with transphobic landmines.
I’m generally of the mindset the you should experience entertainment before expressing a strong opinion about it. At the same, I am not going to support transphobic performers by watching their work any more than I am going to watch a comedy special that’s anti-Semitic, or racist, or homophobic.
Besides, I’ve read so many articles about the special and seen so many quotes that I almost feel like I’ve experienced a lot of his four special already, albeit vicariously, and what I've gleaned has been overwhelmingly negative.
And everything I’ve read makes Chappelle sounds like a self-aggrandizing bully consistently saying nasty, cutting things about one of the most vulnerable and demonized groups in our society. I’m talking about Chappelle saying that he believes trans women because they, in his indelicate turn of phrase “cut their dicks off” or expressing physical revulsion at the thought of Caitlyn Jenner naked.
But it’s not just the trans community that Chappelle found hilarious. He’s also amused by the Louis CK scandal, joking, “One lady said, ‘Louis C.K. masturbated in front of me, ruined my comedy dreams. Word? Well, then I dare say, madam, you may have never had a dream. Come on man, that’s a brittle-ass spirit.”
As a writer, I admire a phrase like “brittle-ass spirit.” As a comedy buff, I appreciate that that's a well-constructed joke but it’s also ugly, mean, misogynist and unfair. It’s victim-blaming in the most overt sense.
Chappelle is using his enormous power and visibility to make fun of a woman for not being strong enough, in his mind, to cope with sexual harassment or the brutal realities of the world. He’s not being a bold truth teller saying things no one else will. He’s just another dude telling women who have been harassed to suck it up, shut up and accept a certain level of harassment as part of being an adult in show-business.
One of the things I’ve historically enjoyed most about Chappelle is the clear delight he takes in his work, in that sly smile that creeps across his face when he’s in the zone. I loved the conspiratorial tone of so much of his comedy, the sense that he’s confiding truths in the audience, not just making jokes.
The idea of that smile being deployed immediately following transphobic is sad and disconcerting.
Here’s the thing: Chappelle can say whatever the fuck he wants to. But I also reserve the right to be officially done with him as a stand-up comedian. Thankfully, he’s given me an awful lot of new material to deliberately avoid.
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