Like a lot of comedy fans, I was waiting for Dave Chappelle to release the last installment of his Netflix stand-up series. Back in 2016, he signed a deal that would pay him $60 million for a series of comedy specials. The Closer, which was released on Oct. 5th, was his sixth.
I’ve been a fan of Chappelle since he first appeared on Def Comedy Jam back in 1992. His witty delivery and sarcastic spin on social issues won me over instantly. Anything that had Chappelle in it, I was watching. I’ve seen Half Baked, his 1998 cult stoner classic, so many times I have the dialogue memorized. And by the time The Chappelle Show debuted in 2003, the rest of the world caught on to what I had already termed comedic genius. The show took jabs at race, politics, and music. The coolest part for me was its incorporation of performances from the hottest Hip Hop artists of the period. The show was cutting edge. It was different. I felt like as long as he wanted to do the show, Comedy Central would keep him on.
Then, almost as quickly as he rose to pop culture success, he walked away from it, subsequently taking the $50 million Comedy Central put on the table with him. I thought the man had lost his mind, if I’m being honest. Who walks away from that much money? Was he on drugs? Was it mental illness? A myriad of scenarios ran through my head. Turns out, he simply had real ethical concerns with how Black people were being portrayed on his show. I got it, even if it meant I wouldn’t see another Dave Chappelle sketch comedy show or comedy routine.
But the new Netflix deal would mark his return. Of course I was amped to hear some new material. We’d experienced a disastrous Donald Trump presidency, George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter. So there was a lot…and I mean a lot of jokes to be told. But as much as I wanted to laugh, the “holding my stomach, gasping for air” laughing that I did watching The Chappelle Show, I felt something different. Sure, there were plenty of funny moments, but these new comedy specials felt like I was watching a man mature right before my eyes, trying to make sense of a world that he looked at differently than everyone else. But I also saw a brilliant comedian who made me uncomfortable with some of the new material. I felt like his time out of the spotlight may have hampered his ability to read the room.
Although he raised the ire of many in the LGBTQ community with his previous specials, particularly 2019’s Sticks and Stones, The Closer is Chappelle doubling down on the transgender jokes. And for me, it sullies his overall set. Sure, it’s Dave Chappelle. You know what you’re getting. All you have to do is look at his past work – his 2018 Saturday Night Live monologue, his appearances on late night talk TV – and you know that he plays by his own rules. Netflix knows that controversy sells, so it makes business sense on their end to air it. But Chappelle perhaps isn’t paying attention to how the world has evolved. And as smart as he is, his comedy is going to have to evolve too. The same way Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx’s comedy would have had to evolve. The same way Bill Cosby’s “respectability politics” comedy would have to evolve. The same way I expect Eddie Murphy’s comedy will have evolved when he tackles his own Netflix comeback in 2022.
This year stands to be the deadliest for transgendered people in history. Most of those who were killed were Black transgendered people. Not only is it lazy and unimaginative to continue to take jabs at an already marginalized community, it’s irresponsibly inciteful. There are those who agree with Chappelle who are willing to use violence to make the same points. As benevolent as Chappelle may feel his queries – as sincere as he wants it to come across – this is a different time.
No, I’m not calling for Dave Chappelle to be “canceled”. Cancel Culture isn’t even a real thing to me. I’m not even saying that he shouldn’t make the occasional joke. I don’t want Netflix to pull the special. Most importantly, I’m not going to debate the “Black struggle vs the LGBTQ struggle”. That’s not my point here. My point here is that it’s time out for folks acting as if gender fluidity is a concept they can’t grasp. My point is that, in 2021, we must always lead with compassion. We must always lead with consideration of others. It’s immature to keep judging the grit of a group of people by the level of their reaction to being offended.
With the power and influence Chappelle yields with a microphone in his hand, he’s got to learn that it’s OK to “be nice” sometimes. It’s OK to not publicly voice an “opinion” if that opinion harms another human being. Yes, we need to discuss the racism that exists within the LGBTQ community. Yes, Black people are still being killed for being Black. But we damn sure aren’t being killed for being heterosexual. I’m not mad at Dave, I’m disappointed. A comedian who I can rightfully consider to be one of the “GOATs” should be able to deliver high quality and thought-provoking content without constant transgender digs.
Comedy is supposed to be cutting edge but it’s not supposed to be ignorant. Here’s hoping Chappelle takes this next break from stand up specials and has the hard conversations he needs to have. I’m not looking for his position to change. I’m looking for his delivery to grow up.