Whether it’s Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Tracey Morgan, or Sarah Silverman, for some comedians, comedy and controversy go hand in hand, and on March 21st Dave Chappelle joined those ranks.
In both of his one-hour specials released for Netflix last month—”The Age of Spin: Dave Chappelle Live at The Hollywood Palladium” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas: Dave Chappelle Live at Austin City Limits” — Chappelle joked about transgender people for which he’s been receiving blowback. It’s a response that highlights the disparity between comedic intent and societal interpretation. These two specials were meant to not only be the comedians biggest cash cow to date, but were to mark an even bigger comeback a decade after the end of Chappelle’s Show.
When Michael Richards infamously erupted into a graphic, racist tirade against a black audience member at the Laugh Factory, there was nothing comedic about it. Devoid of nuance, creativity or thought, it was 100 per cent anger. What Dave Chappelle did on stage was shocking, as it was meant to be, but was totally removed from hate. I won’t tell you where in his act the jokes occur — that would rob you of the benefit of context. I will say, though, they are crude and unquestionably offensive. But that detail shouldn’t guide the conversation.
What is and is not offensive is subjective — a fluid line that ebbs and flows from individual to individual. It’s for that reason that I do not undermine the feelings of others, and the same reason why comedians can’t work with every audience member’s tastes in mind. It’s a vague but ever-present line over which the skilled dance, the clumsy stumble, and the reckless barrel. What is important it intent. A word may carry its own weight, but in an industry like stand-up comedy that habitually augments and rebrands language, things can get lost in translation, and often on purpose. Any comedy nerd could tell you there’s a big difference between Louis C. K.’s use of “nigger” and Michael Richards’, yet on the surface both seem equally deplorable. Ultimately, like Sarah Silverman or Richard Pryor, a comic may set their own personal restrictions and resolutions, and rightfully so, but an hour that is built with palatability in mind is one that says nothing at all.
In the first special, “The Age of Spin,” Chappelle makes the joke that’s received the most criticism so far. Commenting on transgender people and the social hurdles they still have to overcome, he notes that much like the Civil Rights movement, their fight for equality might be a long one. The bit then descends into the silly, with Chappelle pointing out how transgender people are safer than black men in a lot of neighbourhoods, then telling a (fictitious) story about a transgender executive beginning a meeting by throwing her “discarded dick” on the conference table. He follows it with a hypothetical conversation between a man and his friend trying to convince him to get a sex change. As any comic who’s ever had to answer for their jokes on a split screen the morning after can tell you, transcripts aren’t comedy. They’re evidence.
Before diving into his bit, Chappelle offers the audience an anchor — the standup equivalent of a disclaimer. He first delivers his take on the LGBTQ movement speaking as “Dave Chappelle, the American.” This Chappelle is glad to see society’s widespread embrace of those who are queer and questioning, remarking that it is indicative of a cultural shift towards understanding. Then, like Robert Goldthwait morphing into Bobcat, or Andrew Clay shifting into Dice, Chappelle performs a deft and familiar pirouette, becoming “Dave Chappelle, the black man.” This change in perspective is important to note, but in the Chappelle-induced hysteria that follows it can be easy to lose sight of his objective.
In “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” Chappelle’s second special, he uses a conversation with a gay former classmate to be frank with the audience about how, despite his full support for the LGBT community, it’s still in many ways foreign to him. In The Age of Spin, he speaks of what a shock it was to see Bruce Jenner, an athletic anomaly from his childhood, become Caitlyn. Chappelle not only compares the black and LGBTQ communities, but contrasts the hypermasculinity often found in black culture with the choice to change one’s sex. He speaks on how disorienting it seems, and in comedic fashion compares the feeling to a penis launching out of a purse onto a conference table. He supports the LGBTQ community, but in a moment of honesty shrouded in humour, he is admitting that he doesn’t totally understand.
Following his departure from Chappelle’s Show, Chappelle was elevated into the status of philosopher-king, a stratosphere inhabited by the greats of generation — the Lenny Bruces, the Richard Pryors, the George Carlins. A kind of comic whose status is secured not by a promise to be a role model, or a commitment to keeping audiences comfortable, but by a persistent campaign to observe, question, and challenge. Once again, Chappelle’s jokes were indeed offensive to some, but to stop the discussion there, to not look deeper and search wider, does his work a disservice.
Embedded within his jokes is the kind of plain, vulnerable honesty that sets great comics apart. With the skill and awareness of a weathered comic, he was able to acknowledge the legitimacy and honour of a movement he doesn’t quite understand, and able to do so without posturing, or softening his edge. And so while it may be obvious that we’ve evolved and are no longer the same kids who roared for “The Racial Draft” or “How Old is Fifteen Really?”, it’s clear that he’s not the same Dave Chappelle either. His comedy might still be silly, introspective, and critical, but he’s doing it unfiltered and honestly this time. And that’s the best way possible.