Dave Chappelle, the LGBT community, and comedy

Dave Chappelle is considered by many to be the funniest man alive.  But a significant segment of society isn’t laughing these days.  Chappelle is no stranger to controversy but he saved his strongest words for the final of a in a Netflix series, aptly named The Closer.  The controversy stems from his jokes about transgender men and women, a portion of the population Americans seem hyper-focused on lately.  

Why all the sensitivity?

One of the most significant reasons that critics of Chappelle are upset is due to the vulnerability of transgender citizens.  Men and women who identify as transgender are four times more likely to be victims of violence when compared to other Americans.  The suicide attempt rates for transgendered people worldwide range from 32%-50%, often before they reach the age of 21.  This doesn’t even account for the rates of depression among the transgender community, which is four to five times higher than rates typical people experience.  

Regardless of how a person views the issue of gender, there is undoubtedly a problem which needs help.  In some capacity, every person has ridiculed or mocked a group that seemed so contrary to the rest of society.  It seems strange that a man would genuinely believe he is a woman and would take on those attributes (or for a woman to take on that of a man).  On the surface, it’s an easy joke to make because humans always make fun of that which we do not understand or isn’t the norm.  Chappelle’s jokes have often pointed towards the odd nature of transgender men and women.  However, the best moment in The Closer demonstrated a valuable lesson for everyone.

Chappelle was recounting his friendship with a transgender comedian, Daphne Dorman, and during Chappelle’s routine, there was banter from on stage with Dorman who was in the audience.  Chappelle was laughing and spoke about how he appreciated Dorman, but he didn’t understand.  Dorman somewhat drunkenly replied that Chappelle didn’t need to understand, but only recognize Dorman was having some type of human experience.  

We don’t need to understand what transgendered people are going through to acknowledge their humanity and the difficulty of what it must be like to genuinely believe you are the wrong sex.  I think that would cause quite a bit of emotional trauma for any person.  One need not use the preferred pronouns of a person, donate to the LGBT movement, or wave any type of flag to recognize people are struggling.  Every person deserves a measure of dignity because they are a human being. 

I’ve never been a fan of identity politics, but I must also confess that society built the identity politics of marginalized groups such as the LGBT community.  Mainstream Americans spent decades telling the LGBT community that they were less than human.  Consider how many pejoratives exist for homosexuals or transgender men and women.   This provides a sense of how we have demeaned them as individuals.  If we, as a society, spent years calling people names and making fun of them, can we become upset when they lean into the identity and make sexuality the core of their political belief or who they are as a person?  

Dave Chappelle is a comedy genius 

Most followers of Dave Chapelle first learned about him from Chappelle’s Show, a sketch comedy series which aired on Comedy Central in 2003-2004.   Some of the sketches from this show are among the funniest I’ve ever seen and many of them still resonate with viewers nearly 20 years later.  In two brief seasons, Chappelle not only created some memorable sketches and characters, but he incorporated a gaudy list of celebrity guest stars, including Snoop Dogg, the Wu Tang Clan, John Mayer, Wayne Brady, and Rick James (no one can forget him).  

After those two phenomenal seasons, Chappelle walked away from Comedy Central and a $50 million contract.  It wasn’t until circa 2013 when Chappelle went back to working stand-up comedy full time.  Chappelle’s most recent endeavor includes filming a number of his stand-up comedy routines as Netflix specials.   

One of the most enduring aspects about Dave Chappelle’s work is that he has developed his craft.  Chappelle’s Show wasn’t exactly lowbrow humor, but it wasn’t the highest form of the art, either.  The recent Netflix specials from Chappelle have demonstrated a change to a humor I tend to appreciate more — observational comedy.  He looks at the situations in the world and notices ironies or quirks we either overlook or aren’t bold enough to mention.

After releasing Sticks & Stones, Netflix and Chappelle received a large amount of negative feedback because he made fun of the transgender community.  This didn’t deter Chappelle because everyone knows that the one thing you never tell a comedian is not to joke about that topic.  It only fuels them to do it more.  

Everyone loves a good joke as long as it doesn’t make fun of their ‘tribe.’  And this is where the identity issue of the LGBT community will make Chappelle’s humor problematic.  He’s making fun of their identity and it doesn’t matter if his observations are right or wrong.  Once your group becomes the latest punchline for Chappelle, well, all of a sudden, it’s not funny anymore.  It’s no different for racial groups or religious groups or political groups.  And the gag is that Chappelle makes fun of everyone.  No one is off limits for him and the moment your group believes they should be, Chappelle will put them in the crosshairs.  I don’t believe Chappelle is singling out the transgender community because he wants to shame them for being transgender.  He wants to shame them for thinking they’re above being the subject of a joke.

If Chappelle and other comedians stopped making jokes about various groups because of their vulnerability in the world, or because their feelings were hurt, they would have to find other jobs.  Didn’t like those jokes about the transgender community?  Well, folks are going to have quite a bit to be upset about.  Chappelle makes fun of white people, black people, Asians, Jews, heroin addicts, domestic abuse victims — and don’t forget the Michael Jackson and R. Kelly jokes.  

People who are angry with Chappelle are upset because he’s right about many of his observations about our society.  For instance, Chappelle brought up rapper DaBaby, whose career took a substantial hit after he made homophobic comments at one of his concerts.  DaBaby was quickly dropped from several concert lineups and widely condemned on social media.  Chappelle brought up the fact that DaBaby shot and killed a 19 year old in a Walmart a few years ago and that wasn’t enough to derail his career but some hurtful comments towards the LGBT community at a concert stopped everything for this man’s career?   Chappelle is trying to point out the irony involved about what makes up stop supporting an artist’s career.  

Chappelle also joked about how the LGBT crowd turned on J.K. Rowling, author of the widely popular Harry Potter series.  Last year, Rowling made several tweets regarding her thoughts on gender, including the notion that hormones given to children who identify as transgender is dangerous and similar to the overprescription of mental health medication. She might not have expressed any views about the matter but people on the left lost their collective minds when Rowling ‘liked’ a tweet that transgender activists questioned.  

The backlash against Rowling was swift and fierce.  The beloved author was a little less beloved, and the LGBT folks ascribed a name to people like her.  Rowling is a ‘TERF,’ they said.  This stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, a word which characterizes feminist women who do not want to include trans women (men who identify as women) in the definition of who constitutes a woman.  Simply put, Rowling is an anatomical woman who doesn’t think trans-women are women.  And it isn’t meant to be a compliment. 

While I’m sure the extreme left applauds the labeling of Rowling, Chappelle finds it laughable and most Americans probably do, also.  Maybe you don’t believe me, and that’s okay.  But one snippet of evidence might be the ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, where critical reviewers only scored it 43% ‘fresh,’ whereas the users gave it a 96% rating.  The masses love Chappelle because they believe he’s right about his observations 

Chappelle joked about the heroin epidemic which has decimated West Virginia.  I’ve had friends and former students who struggled with addiction and ultimately died from heroin overdose.  Chappelle made comparisons between the current heroin problem, which largely affects poor white people, and the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 90s, which affected poor black people.  And there I was, laughing.  

Cancel culture is not the answer 

Netflix is standing by Chappelle despite a wave of criticism.  They’re making money on Chappelle and they don’t believe he crossed any lines in terms of their values.  And there are several reasons why an attempt to ‘cancel’ Dave Chappelle is an exercise in futility and dangerous to the country.

1.  There is nothing LGBT supporters can hold over Chappelle.  The man has a net worth of $50 million and he has walked away from money once already.  He does’t care about social media.  Chappelle is happy to make people laugh and if people don’t like him, that’s okay too.  Critics can’t take away his marketability.  There’s nothing the critics can do to him.

2.  Chappelle is receiving support from trans comedians.  As mentioned previously, Chappelle developed a friendship with trans comedian Daphne Dorman and opened doors professionally for what he believed was a fellow artist. (Side note:  Dorman committed suicide in 2019.)  Dorman’s family also supports Chappelle.  Daphne’s sister, Becky, told The Daily Beast, “Daphne was in awe of Dave’s graciousness … She did not find his jokes rude, crude, off-coloring, off-putting, anything. She thought his jokes were funny. Daphne understood humor and comedy—she was not offended.”  

Flame Monroe, another trans comedian, surmised that in comedy, nothing is off limits.  Monroe noted, “As a comedian, I believe that I don’t want to be censored.  The world has become too censored.  All of this, what you can say and cannot say is ridiculous. Comedians are put on earth, and the safest place for us on the planet is us on the stage with a willing audience that’s willing to listen. We say things that other people are afraid to say, and we say them hopefully in a funny way, so you use your own mind to do your own critical thinking and think for yourself.”

Other trans and gay comedians had mixed reviews, and that’s okay.  But the support from some of the members of this community make it difficult to make Chappelle disappear.

3. Shouting down, labeling, and ‘cancelling’ only leads to more Donald Trumps.  In 2016, a number of moderate and conservative voters grew tired of being labeled bigots, homophobic, or transphobic.  They gave up trying to discuss issues and went to the polls, voted for Donald Trump, and felt like they made a statement (a terrible statement).  This is what happens when we attempt to shut down discussion or debate by labeling opponents or just engaging in a clap back.  

The LGBT community is working under the presumption that their policy positions are always correct and beyond contestation.  They may succeed in shutting up the opposition in the short term, but those same ‘bigots’ quietly go to the polls and vote Republican.  

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