From left: Bill Maher photo by Rich Fury/VF22/Getty Images for Vanity Fair; Dave Chappelle photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images; Ricky Gervais photo by David M. Benett/Getty Images
Views expressed in The Advocate's opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, Pride Media.
This is like the fifth article I've had to write about this subject. I've written them individually for Dave Chappelle, for Ricky Gervais, and for Bill Maher, but thanks to auspicious timing, I can now write one to cover all three because they all decided to suck within a couple weeks of each other.
If I'm going to be honest, I appreciate it, because covering each of their transphobic chicanery individually would be exhausting. If you haven't heard about what each of them did, let me catch you up: Gervais released a Netflix special featuring the classic bathroom predator trope, Maher is worried about the sudden uptick in the lack of bigotry, and Chappelle ninja smoke-bombed a John Mulaney show to regale the audience with attack helicopter jokes.
As I've said. I've written like five different articles about big-time comedians telling transphobic jokes for millions of dollars, and I really didn't think I could say anything terribly new or insightful that I or any other critic hasn't said before. This is the curse of being an opinion writer, having to rewrite the same takes over and over and over again until the heat death of the universe on topics we've all grown tired of but trudge through like some hot-take Sisyphus. At this point we know that they're reaching for the low-hanging fruit, that they're punching down, that they're going for tired old jokes that started off as internet memes and submissions to the Hustler humor section. So what can be said to call them out in a way that really says something cutting and powerful, and truly introduces something new to the conversation? Something that doesn't belabor about 150 extra words in the article that you're trying to pad out to 850 words. But then it came to me thanks to a documentary I just saw.
Recently, Judd Apatow put out a two-part documentary about George Carlin, a comedian that if I have to familiarize you with probably means that you're an alien here to steal our micro-plastic-filled spinal fluids. One part stuck out for me about the documentary that really in reflection really seems to resonate with these comedians' recent material. In the late 1970s, after Carlin exploded in popularity and fame, especially in the counterculture, people began to see him as a relic. The new, hot comedians saw him repeating the same banal observational jokes and the by-then boring wordplay and considered him irrelevant. Comedy had changed, and more innovative comedians were coming up behind him. For about a decade Carlin trudged through his shows and tours producing good but ultimately forgettable material until he came out with his album and special What Am I Doing in New Jersey? This is where he changed from the safe word-playing, silly observational comic to the raging cynic who kept futilely trying to warn us against our folly that we still quote to this day. The man, through sheer force of talent and will, dragged himself back from irrelevance and solidified his place in the comedic pantheon.
So what does that have to do with Maher, Chappelle, and Gervais, you ask? Well, if you have that much of a problem following narrative structure, then I really can't help you. OK, fine, I'll explain it to you. You see, comedy changes right along with society, and if you want to stay relevant and not get left behind, you have to adapt. Maher, Gervais, and Chappelle have been doing comedy for decades, longer than many of the people who now criticize them have been alive. Some of their defenders say that is why we shouldn't criticize them and we should respect their body of work. What an absurd notion. Just because someone has been doing something for a while and been successful previously doesn't mean they get to keep their current position unchallenged, especially in entertainment. The reason music, acting, comedy, and art are such competitive fields is that they are constantly changing with people rising and falling all the time as society and culture change along with people's tastes. A huge portion of that comes from people simply getting older and not adapting to the ways things change.
These comedians have found themselves in a situation where times have changed and they aren't adapting well to the things in the zeitgeist that draw attention and are ripe to have a spicy take or two given on it. The thing is, though, that these comedians are, if we're brutally honest, getting old, and the reality of getting older means being a bit out of step sometimes. What was edgy 20 years ago isn't, and what we are offended by has changed, and trying to navigate that can be hard for some folks, especially if they are used to being edgy and controversial. These comics who got their start at a time when you could be blatantly homophobic and be a huge celebrity now find themselves in an era when it would be a career killer. So they find transgender people the big "trendy" topic, and so they decide that as the big-time celebrity comics they are, they have to have a take on it. The problem is, is their takes are from 20 and 30 years ago.
These days, there are transgender comics performing on stages and telling jokes about their own experiences, like Robin Tran, who recently performed at the Netflix Is a Joke festival to a standing ovation just days after Dave Chappelle appeared. Al Val, another trans comic who has performed at the prestigious Toronto Just for Laughs comedy festival, is frustrated at all of the controversy saying, "It all feels like it's all just on a loop at this point." She also noted, "There are plenty of trans comedians who perform as a humanizing, actually funny, lived-in representation of the trans experience. It would be nice to see more of that kind of representation. ... For every explosive Gervais/Chappelle controversy there are hundreds of trans comedians begging for attention."
Another transgender comedian, Stacy Cay, who hosts several popular comedy shows on her Twitch stream is a bit blunter in her reaction: "I can't think of anyone less qualified to make jokes about trans people than cis straight men." She feels that the changing nature of comedy through social media allows more room to a diverse audience. "Straight cis comedians have dominated the club scene for too long. The views of the old angry cis straight male comedians are so overplayed all they can focus on is being angry at diversity."
This really is the core problem of the continuing controversy generated by the likes of Maher, Chappelle, and Gervais; they're sucking all the oxygen out of the room, choking off newer, younger comics hungry for opportunity. The entertainment industry has become heavily invested in established acts not just in music and movies but comedy as well because they know they can charge audiences top dollar and make a profit. A common semi-serious observation about stand-up comics is that they're all latently psychopaths, which while amusing, isn't entirely true. What is a more accurate observation is that they're all narcissists, and like all narcissists, they can think they can do no wrong. That's why they resist listening to people who tell them their material is transphobic. They've heard for years that they're the greatest of all time, and the GOAT can do no wrong. Don't believe me? Ask them, they'll gladly tell you. It doesn't help that despite people telling them they're being offensive and to be better, they can still fill a theater. Because of this, they can dismiss any criticism as "cancel culture" and that millennials or zoomers are being whiny babies. What these comedians seem to be incapable of putting together is that the audiences they are performing for and who aggressively defend them aren't the open-minded, freethinking, progressive people they think they are. Just recently, a comedian friend of mine noted his conservative Oklahoma Republican parents said they loved Dave Chappelle's latest special. Think about that for a second. The bridges they're building aren't bringing conservatives over to social justice, they're giving them permission to be transphobic.
The nature of the comedy industry is changing, allowing racially, sexually, and gender-diverse comics to bypass the years of grinding on the club circuit, which has been dominated by cis-het men. The culture is changing, and being transphobic is no longer an easy laugh. The only thing that is keeping comedians like Joe Rogan, Chappelle, Gervais, and Maher from fading into obscurity is that they can still draw enough of an audience, and their contacts in the industry still see those dollar signs they can draw through the traditionally profitable venues of theaters and nightclubs. These venues, where the audiences who sit in the dark can't be clearly seen, allows them to pretend that their audiences are still young and hip, not increasingly gray-haired and wearing a MAGA hat.
Amanda Kerri is a writer and comedian based in Oklahoma City.