CW: Transphobic remarks
On October 5th, comedian Dave Chappelle released The Closer, the final installment in a series of standup specials he performed for Netflix. As is unfortunately customary for Chappelle at this point, widespread controversy has been stirred over remarks he made throughout the special – specifically those that involved the trans community.
“I’m Team TERF,” Chappelle proclaims towards the final leg of the special, before going on to state, “Gender is a fact… Every human being in this room, every human being on earth, had to pass through the legs of a woman to be on earth.”
These comments, as well as the criticisms that activists and fellow entertainers have lodged against them, have been at the forefront of media attention. It’s subsequently been the sole mission of diehard Chappelle fans and free speech warriors everywhere to stick up for the poor, defenseless comedian, with carefully considered and mind-changing rebuttals such as “stop being sensitive” and “it’s just a joke”.
“Just a joke” is key here. It suggests that Chappelle’s critics have just simply failed to consider that he’s a comic with a raw, vulgar and often inflammatory sense of humour. This is simply untrue – his critics have considered this, and have come to the conclusion that the jokes just simply aren’t funny.
The Closer received a negative reception, as well as Chappelle’s previous special, Sticks and Stones. But this was not at all ignorant of the fact that many of his offensive remarks were intended to be humorous. The overwhelming consensus amongst his detractors isn’t that he’s a bigot; rather, it’s that he’s a shadow of his former self, relying on cheap, formulaic punchlines and the kind of shock humour that reeks of someone desperately clinging to relevancy.
Reading these critiques, I was reminded of a video made by one of my favorite comedians, Paul F. Tompkins, in 2016 titled ‘Political Correctness Doesn’t Censor Comedy, It Keeps Comedy Fresh’. In it he states, “In most cases, audiences are not telling [comedians] ‘You can’t joke about this’. What they’re saying is ‘That wasn’t funny’. And that’s a different thing.”
But those kinds of criticisms aren’t important, because clearly anyone who doesn’t like the special is a woke snowflake who got their feelings hurt.
This sentiment seems to run rampant every time a comedian is criticised for this kind of ‘edgy’ humour. It’s an ironic phenomenon, given how the right claims that they can’t criticise women, the LGBT community or other minorities without being called a bigot of some kind. Any valid or even constructive criticism that could be made about an edgy comedian’s jokes is cast aside in an effort to chalk up all disapproval to people getting ‘offended’. This is the Conservative Comedy Cheatcode.
To clarify, ‘conservatism’ is used in this sense as a catchier and more alliteration-friendly stand-in for ‘socially regressive’ in some cases, and ‘bigotry’ in others. By no means am I attempting to argue that Chappelle or many of the other comedians that utilise this kind of humour are genuinely conservatives (the moving ‘8:46’ is proof that Chappelle still won’t be on Fox News any time soon). But right wing-talking points, like constant complaints about ‘cancel culture’ and unflinching belittlement and vilification of the trans community, have been the cornerstone of his recent material. Regardless of what pundits tell you, there’s a lucrative market for anti-left comedy. As long as the jokes make fun of the right people and steer clear of ‘political correctness’, their actual quality couldn’t matter less to right-wingers. This has very much worked in Chapelle’s favour, as The Closer has some of his weakest and most surface-level material yet.
Many of his jokes at the expense of trans people boil down to the same genitalia-based humour that a teenage boy might write in a toilet cubicle. His pronouns-related quips are similarly juvenile and predictable (“People use ‘they’ as their pronoun, but that’s a plural! They’re just one person! Get it? What’s the deal with transgenders?”). Elsewhere, he espouses similarly dime-a-dozen stereotypes about feminists and lesbians, makes an eye roll-worthy reference to paedophilia in the church, and even manages to sprinkle in a bit of anti-Asian racism when talking about his experience with COVID-19.
There were times where Chapelle’s special felt akin to the content of right-wing YouTubers like Steven Crowder, who hides behind the veneer of “comedy” to justify some truly horrendous comments and stunts. His success is one of the clearest examples of the Conservative Comedy Cheatcode – despite being involved in stand-up and the entertainment industry from an early age, he really only found success through being platformed by conservative media groups, and producing political discussion-based videos such as the infamous ‘Change My Mind’ series. Almost all of his standup material and the ‘comedy’ found on his YouTube channel entirely hinges upon lazy stereotypes of some sort. When he does attempt to validate that ‘comedian’ descriptor on his Wikipedia page nowadays, it almost always involves a lazy stereotype of some sort.
Closer to home, Australian comedian Isaac Butterfield has built an entire career off of this ‘edgy’, Reddit-quality humour, as evidenced by the. If you watch his ‘Most Offensive Jokes’ compilations on his YouTube channel., you’ll be treated to a barrage of anti-SJW quips that your ‘edgy’ friend when you were 15 might have told you at recess, having read them on Reddit the previous night. It’s the epitome of lowest common denominator comedy, and yet he’s amassed a huge following on YouTube and continues to sell out stand-up shows. Despite his sincere assertion in one of his shows that “it’s hard in the comedy industry for a white guy”, Isaac has had an exceptionally easy rise to fame thanks to courting the anti-left, anti-PC crowd.
There’s the old adage that comedy should push boundaries. Comedy should make people uncomfortable. But conservatism and bigotry are the antithesis to ‘pushing boundaries’. Dave Chappelle, much like anyone utilising the Conservative Comedy Cheatcode, is not discomforting the comfortable – he’s taking cheap shots at a continuously attacked and oppressed community whilst re-affirming the worldview of a close-minded audience. He’s targeting the underdogs – a method of comedy that legendary comic George Carlin, whose free speech advocacy continues to be misinterpreted by people who will defend Chapelle to the grave, famously expressed disapproval of.
Conservatives providing support without question to any comic who gets criticised for telling careless, outdated jokes is, in essence, no different to their long history of attempting to censor genuinely challenging or provocative art. It’s actively spitting in the face of creative innovation and artistic progression.