When People Forget That Comedy is Comedy: On the Backlash to Dave Chappelle’s New Specials

As most people in the developed world know by now, released two new specials, The Age of Spin: Live at the Hollywood Palladium and Deep in the Heart of Texas: Live at Austin City Limits, simultaneously on Netflix this past Tuesday. To say that they were some of comedy’s most anticipated specials to date would be an accurate assessment, and so far the reception has been mostly positive. At the time of this writing, the two-episode collection has 168 user reviews and four stars on Netflix, and various media outlets have shared  some glowing words about Chappelle’s return to his comedy throne. As is bound to happen with any creative work, however, the specials do have their detractors.

The vast majority of the people who have negatively reviewed the two specials (his first in 13 years) have taken issue with one particular facet of Chappelle’s performance: his lines about transgender and gay people. There have been  a few articles written about Chappelle’s  insensitivity toward the LGBTQ community, often referencing tweets like this:

or this:

The troubling bits center around Chappelle’s thoughts on Bruce Jenner, gender reassignment surgery, gay marriage, and other LGBTQ issues. In some cases, Chappelle is openly in support of the topic at hand (i.e. gay marriage or other civil rights issues), but goes about discussing it awkwardly, using words like “prison fags” that malign him in the eyes of people who might otherwise agree with him.

In this particular instance, it appears that the delivery of the message is overriding the message itself, and that perhaps some viewers didn’t watch the specials with an appropriately sized grain of salt. The great thing about Chappelle’s comedy is that it is multifaceted: While many people consider him to be a wise comedy sage (a role he does fill from time to time on stage), he’s also equally at home discussing the surreal and absurd. He can talk to you in a fatherly way about the state of race relations in Trump’s America, but then jump right into a bit about “The ol’ mousetrap in the pussy trick.” The problem arises when people who have seen him be prescient or political once or twice before begin to expect that from him all the time, an issue that happens with many comics. Some can’t seem to understand that a comedian can be both astute and crass, or an ally and an instigator.

When you enter a comedy club (or sit down to watch a comedy act at home), you’re signing a social contract acknowledging that the things you’re about to hear may be outlandish, they may be offensive, they may be inflammatory, but they are being said for the sake of comedy. The words coming out of the comic’s mouth are not necessarily their tried-and-true beliefs; more often than not, they’re some inflated or warped version of their actual views that have been crafted in a way that gets a reaction from people. The comedy club is supposed to be one of the few bastions of free speech that’s left, a place where you can say whatever ridiculous, mean thing you want and be able to leave without anyone thinking any less of you. That only works, however, if you can separate the comic’s on-stage persona, which is, in essence, a character, from the person themselves. Some folks aren’t capable of doing that, or simply don’t care to.

To be a comic in the time of the PC movement is a tough prospect indeed. It’s not enough to just be funny nowadays, you also need to be #woke, use all of the proper in-group lingo, and “punch up” at whatever targets the individuals in your audience arbitrarily decide are fair game. It’s telling that one of the biggest names in comedy history has released over two hours of new content after 13 years since his last special, yet much of the attention is being directed at only a few minutes of that material. While not all of the opinions Chappelle expressed in the specials come across as particularly thought out, they don’t have to be; After all, Chappelle is a comedian, not a university professor. Chappelle may be #woke sometimes, but he doesn’t have to be all the time. Sometimes, he just wants to lament the loss of Bruce Jenner, and that’s okay. While it’s certainly within anyone’s rights to not enjoy said material, the effort it takes to construct an elaborate think piece surrounding two minutes worth of speech from a guy getting paid to talk about his dick would probably be better directed elsewhere.

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Bill Tressler

Bill is a writer and comedy enthusiast from New York. An avid gamer and podcast fan, he strives to always toe the line between charming irreverence and grating honesty.