In college, I began a side gig as a stand-up comedian. It was an excuse to perform in front of my fellow students, since we all shared the same circle of cafeteria food, quirky professors, dorm life, and other things I could riff on.
When I moved to Washington, D.C., and performed under an alias, things proved to be much more difficult. The audiences didn’t share as many circles, so it wasn’t easy to make everyone laugh. Once I got through some impressions and tried for some “clean” comedy, I would always come back to being crude. It was simply a desperate attempt at making people laugh by grabbing the low-hanging fruit. I didn’t last long, because frankly I started hating the experience and my turn toward being foulmouthed.
Which brings us to another coarse comedian, Dave Chappelle. Instead of being the center of conversation for some new series that viewers can't stop watching, Netflix has been grabbing headlines over the past few days for Chappelle's controversial new comedy special. But more than what Chappelle said, Netflix's handling (or mishandling) of the fallout has drawn sharp criticism and shows that — potentially like in the case of Facebook — greed often does not respect decorum or boundaries
Briefly: This is Chappelle’s sixth special for Netflix, and all of them have generated huge download numbers for the streaming service — that means lots of cash. As we reported previously, in the new project The Closer, Chappelle "announces himself to be 'Team TERF,' comments about trans women’s genitals, and sides with DaBaby disparaging people living with HIV." At one point he even tells an anecdote about beating up a lesbian.
The National Black Justice Coalition released a statement in response, saying Netflix “should know better” and calling for the removal of The Closer.
And the NBJC is not wrong: In 2020 Netflix released Disclosure, a documentary that examined the history of trans representation on-screen. The film, which was marketed as a Netflix Original, not only traced this representation but contextualized how those portrayals impacted the daily lives of trans folks who were not celebrities.
In posts on social media this week, Laverne Cox and Trace Lysette resurfaced some of those clips. In them, trans folks relate how trans people are so often made the butt of jokes on-screen, which can be linked to people finding the mere presence of trans people in their daily lives to be something worth laughing about — this is an experience Cox knows personally.
GLAAD released a statement after the debut of The Closer, agreeing with the assessment: “Dave Chappelle's brand has become synonymous with ridiculing trans people and other marginalized communities. Negative reviews and viewers loudly condemning his latest special is a message to the industry that audiences don't support platforming anti-LGBTQ diatribes. We agree.”
Some, though, have come to his defense. During his routine, Chappelle told a story about a friend and fellow comedian, the late Daphne Dorman — a transgender woman. He told the crowd that Dorman took her own life, and he questioned what the trans community did for her. He claimed nothing and said she was a part of his “tribe.”
Two of Dorman’s sisters came out in defense of Chappelle, according to The Daily Beast. The media outlet received texts from both sisters in response to Chappelle’s reference. “Daphne was in awe of Dave’s graciousness,” Dorman’s sister Becky wrote in a text. “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. Why would her family be offended?”
“Dave loved my sister and is an LGBTQ ally,” Dorman’s younger sister Brandy added in a text message. “His entire set was begging to end this very situation.”
But many people didn’t feel that his set was “begging to end” his rocky relationship with the LGBTQ+ community, even though he ended his special by saying he would be pausing on jokes about LGBTQ+ people. “I’m telling you, it’s done,” he said. “I’m done talking about it.”
If anything, Chappelle’s latest Netflix performance has seemingly added gasoline to the fire of his relationship with the community. It has also caused considerable pain for many, including some who work for Netflix, who spoke out against Chappelle — according to a report in The Verge, the trans employee resource group at Netflix is planning a company-wide walkout next Wednesday.
As we dig down now, it’s apparent that the problem is squarely in Netflix’s lap, and it has responded awkwardly to the imbroglio. Last Friday, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos addressed staff members through a memo. In it, Sarandos wrote, “Particularly in stand-up comedy, artistic freedom is obviously a very different standard of speech than we allow internally as the goals are different: entertaining people versus maintaining a respectful, productive workplace.”
According to The Verge, the walkout organizers felt this most saliently described the conflict: of values projected internally and values that are proliferated externally (to an admittedly larger audience). “As we’ve discussed through Slack, email, text, and everything in between our leadership has shown us they do not uphold the values to which we are held," the organizers said. "Between the numerous emails and non-answers that have been given, we have been told explicitly that we somehow cannot understand the nuance of certain content.”
But there was a reason why the company felt this way, according to Sarandos, who spoke the quiet part out loud: “[Chappelle’s] last special Sticks & Stones, also controversial, is our most-watched, stickiest, and most award-winning stand-up special to date.”
You see, it’s all about the money. Netflix won’t do anything to disrupt the cash cow that is Chappelle, regardless of the fact that the company has backed another project that explicitly lays out the real-world ramifications of the proliferation of projects like his. Those learnings are thrown out in favor of capitalism.
Coincidentally, Netflix announces its quarterly earnings next week, and prior to those delicate announcements, the company’s lawyers and PR teams work 24/7 to make sure the right message is communicated to investors. If Netflix is seen as caving on one of its top-rated, money-making programs, that sends the wrong message and therefore negatively affects that vaunted stock price. That’s the company’s biggest concern.
Curiously, Sarandos added something somewhat bizarrely in his dispatch to employees: “Several of you have also asked where we draw the line on hate. We don’t allow titles on Netflix that are designed to incite hate or violence, and we don’t believe The Closer crosses that line.”
It’s really hard to read that explanation and take it seriously. People listening to Chappelle have no choice but to come away with the idea that gays, lesbians, and most specifically trans women are nothing but a joke and deserve little respect. Or worse, it stirs contempt in some, particularly in this day and age when trans rights are under assault.
Chappelle is a comedian, and comedians can be clean like Ray Romano or foul like Chappelle. But regardless, shouldn't we expect a level of effort? A level of craft? As Disclosure illustrates, there's a difference in laughing at trans folks and laughing with them. And while one takes a little more thought and effort, one could assume that given the millions Chappelle is raking in for his specials, he could take the time to do the latter.
Speaking from experience, I would say he could put in at least a little more effort rather than going after the lowest-hanging fruit.
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.