"It's funny till it's you."
That's one of the first lines heard in one of the two new Dave Chappelle comedy specials (Equanimity and The Bird Revelation) that just came out on Netflix. As a comedian, I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly, since so much of comedy is mocking the things other people say or do. But I also appreciate this point as a person, since I have been offended by comedy routines and bits before. I was a big South Park fan before I outgrew its sense of humor, but what also turned me off from the show was the ignorant and offensive "Ms. Garrison" season, when the morally repugnant Mr. Garrison gets a sex change and proceeds to run through all the worst trans tropes. I was conflicted about it, because I had laughed along for years with the show's mocking of almost every other group but had suddenly caught the vapors when it came to skewering me.
I pondered whether I was a hypocrite for drawing a line at my own minority being mocked, and the more I thought about it, I came to realize I was not -- but I was still wrong about some things. That's the problem with the newest Chappelle special, in which he spends almost 15 minutes railing about "the transgenders."
There are numerous contradictions in Chappelle's routine that frustrated me, because for a guy whose material is normally very thoughtful, clever, and pragmatically progressive, it ended up being some of the most cliched things I've seen and heard. His bit included jokes about hairy knuckles, manly voices, and "cutting your dick off." For a guy who opened the show bragging about how good he is at writing jokes, this stuff was "first-time open-mike" bad. Since my local scene is rather young and progressive, I haven't even heard this kind of stuff personally in a while, but it was the kind of material that barely progresses beyond stoned chatter that some buddies believed was clever in the moment. If I'm going to be insulted and mocked, I can still respect it when it's clever and well-written. But this stuff, from a guy who makes incredible amounts of money doing something I can only dream of, is insulting in its hackiness. It was so 1994 Def Comedy Jam, I expected to see Kid 'n Play in the balcony.
What bugged me most was the privilege, double standards, and hypocrisy Chappelle demonstrated onstage, which are so much a part of stand-up comedy they deserve mockery in and of themselves. One of the most lazy and common things you find is the,"I'm cool with (insert target here) but..." line so many white people, men, and straight people hide behind to deliver their prejudiced or ignorant material. It's the comedy equivalent of "I don't want to sound racist."
I've been around so many different types of people that I 've come to believe that most aren't truly malicious -- largely because I spent so much time living as a "straight white dude" that I was in reverse stealth mode. I often witnessed people unaware of their own ignorance and biases that come from privilege; people who, when called out on such biases, often get offended and counterattack. No, it's not just white people who do it when it comes to race, but straight/cis people, men, wealthy people, etc. That's what Chappelle's whole bit was -- an offended reaction to being called out, while insisting that he was "cool with them."
The irony in this was that he insisted at the beginning that he "never feels bad about anything" he says onstage, but how a letter from a transgender fan made him stop and think, which led to the bulk of the material. Clearly he felt bad, or else he wouldn't have spent over 10 minutes explaining how cool he was with trans people by using those defensive jokes. The whole time he spent bouncing back and forth between talk of how everyone should "live a life of dignity" and talking about how funny the existence of trans people is to him. Part of living with dignity is not being mocked by someone with a large platform -- the proverbial "punching down."
While at the end of his set he denounces, in passing, anyone who would use his material to attack trans people, he seems to have failed to learn some of the lessons he has talked about when it came to his own show, specifically white people using it as an excuse to say racist things hidden behind "jokes" they heard. Chappelle's friend Chris Rock once had what was one of the most brilliantly written routines ever, a reflection about black culture called "Ni**as vs. Black People." While it's still considered one of the best-written bits ever, Rock has sworn never to do it again because it gave license to people to espouse racism by using his words out of context.
I truly believe that Chappelle is "OK" with transgender people, but being "OK" doesn't mean you aren't still prejudiced or bigoted. During his routine, Chapelle attempts to defend his views by talking about how he once unknowingly danced in a club with a trans woman only to be mocked by his friends; he was horrified but later took the woman out for a bite and they connected (not physically). That story doesn't say what he thinks it says about him. It demonstrates that while on the surface he is not aggressively prejudiced, he still has the all too common fears men have when associating with trans women and the threats they pose to their own identity and masculinity. I don't hold this against him, since I can have my own internalized phobias and fear when my identity is threatened. However, it's what we do with it from there that's important. Instead of learning from that experience, Chappelle ends up going on a well-paid defensive rant that allows him to have his ignorance and biases, and a platform too.
What's really upsetting though, is his double standards. This passage from the Netflix special comes to mind:
My problem has always been with the dialogue about transgender people. I just feel like these things should not be discussed in front of the blacks. It's fucking insulting, all this talk about how these people feel inside. Since when has America given a fuck how any of us feel inside? And I cannot shake this awful suspicion that the only reason everybody is talking about transgenders [sic] is because white men want to do it. That's right, I just said that. If it was just women who felt that way, or black dudes and Mexican dudes being like, "Hey y'all, we feel like girls inside," they'd be like, "Shut up, n***r, nobody asked how you felt. Come on, everybody, we have strawberries to pick!" It reeks of white privilege. You ever ask yourself why it was easier for Bruce Jenner to change his gender than it was for Cassius Clay to change his fucking name?
Chappelle's clear anger and frustration about trans people being a topic of conversation and framing it as an act of white privilege erases trans people of color and fails to recognize the intersectionality of systemic ignorance and oppression all trans and people of color face. This is frustrated by his constant insistence about how we need to respect and understand one another in his material.
I wasn't so much offended by Chappelle's trans material in his special. I was, however, overwhelmingly disappointed by him. For a guy who was launched to stardom by leading a show that provided brilliant social satire on issues in America, who has spent years touring small clubs and doing talk shows talking about how we need to respect one another, he failed so miserably to live up to his own standards. I've heard how Chappelle will often just sit down and chitchat with total strangers after a show for hours on end, which is a great way to get to know people and find new material. But it seems that Chappelle, like so many other people with platforms and their own entrenched biases and privileges, hasn't stopped to listen to or learn from his critics. He's retreated behind the wall that so many comedians and entertainers do, be they white people or men of any color who use the "it's just jokes" or "I mock everyone" defense.
No, I'm not really offended by Chappelle's bigoted material, I'm offended that he fails so massively to self-reflect or live up to his own expectations of others, and that his jokes sucked.
AMANDA KERRI is a writer and comedian based in Oklahoma City. Follow her on Twitter @Amanda_Kerri.