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The Big Picture

A few more thoughts about all this Chappelle stuff.


Seth Simons

Oct 17 2021

7 mins read


It's true that wokeness poses no existential threat to comedy, but it’s not true that antiwokeness poses no existential threat to comedy. The normalization of racism makes comedy less safe for people of color; the normalization of transphobia makes comedy less safe for trans people. Sometimes these effects are visible only in aggregate—an art form dominated by the white and cis—and sometimes we are unlucky enough to see them in gory detail. To take one recent example, it’s bad for comedy when one of the only distributors in a rapidly consolidating industry gives millions and millions of dollars to a transphobic comedian, then makes a gruesome display of punishing trans employees who take issue with this. 


The most convincing evidence of comedy’s power to influence people is the widespread belief it has no such power. 


If we accept that someone’s beliefs are dangerous, it stands to reason that they should not be given a platform to spread them. Still, even the harshest critiques of comedians who traffic in bigotry are consistently limited by caveats like “I’m not saying they should be canceled, but.” There is nothing nuanced about taking half a stance. They'll say you’re trying to deplatform them whether you are or not, and they’ll profit off the perception you are so long as they have a platform. At a certain point you have stop trying to fend off material threats with abstract reasoning. "Spewing bigotry on a massive stage should result in professional consequences" is a perfectly uncontroversial position; it goes to show the other side's stranglehold over the discourse that so many reasonable people are reluctant to take it.


Nowhere in his apologia for the Chappelle special does Ted Sarandos argue it isn’t transphobic. Instead his argument is it’s not bad that it’s transphobic. This is the most significant expression yet of a laissez-faire attitude towards hate speech that has become the norm in comedy spaces. Here’s what the owner of the Comedy Cellar told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018, in response to a question about Louis CK’s return: 

Listen, we are really a free-expression outfit, so let me digress and say that I’ve heard and seen comedians who work for me engage in real vile anti-Semitism, and I’ve never thought I would book them less or even said “boo” to them. I always felt this is their business. I don’t have to like them, and people should not take me allowing them to perform as my approval of their character or the things they’ve done in their lives.

And here’s a co-owner of The Creek and The Cave defending Joe Rogan after his transphobic set in Austin a few months ago (typos his): 

when you sell as many tickets as Rogan does you have a lot of pull. We had almost 2M instances on our website. In about 4 hours. Yaaa well book him when he wants.

I'm happy to have an open stage that other creatives. (That sell very few tickets) a chance to perform. When other clubs open back up I hope you remember who they booked. Or anny other club. Moontower has big jay. Paramount has big jay. You can take a high horse stance but I think it's one with little understanding. 

And here’s David Spade in Showtime’s documentary about the Comedy Store

I still hope and pray that you can say whatever you want and not go down for it. If you say it on a talk show, fine. If you say it in real life and you get caught, fine. But when you’re doing comedy onstage, that’s the place, try whatever you want, break the rules, piss people off, do what everyone used to always do.

And here’s Jeff Ross on Instagram last week, under images of his show with Dave Chappelle at The Hollywood Bowl:

Comedy is not hate speech… no matter how hard I try.

It bodes very ill that the most powerful comedy buyer in the world just endorsed this view.


If comedy is not real life, but is instead an escape from real life, then why exactly should we go untroubled by the millions of people finding escape in cruel, bigoted comedy?


Still this idea persists that the proper response to hateful comedy is not to fight for its deplatforming, but to make and spotlight better comedy. This is representation politics and it’s already failed. Dave Chappelle’s opinions are nothing out of the ordinary in clubs around the country, even if you haven’t heard about it from NPR or Vulture or The New York Times. You can find similar attitudes in million-dollar podcasts hosted by the likes of Andrew Schulz and Tim Dillon, who are currently on national tours stopping at venues that will also host Hasan Minhaj, Mike Birbiglia, Wanda Sykes, and Patton Oswalt. Chappelle himself is friends with Chris Rock, Michelle Wolf, Ali Wong, Chelsea Handler, Jon Stewart, David Letterman, you get the drift. How strange that providing a space for all viewpoints somehow hasn’t stopped transphobia from becoming even more popular and profitable. 


One fundamental problem is that comedy is a social club. You play by the rules to get ahead, then you get ahead and start enforcing the rules. One of those rules is that everyone gets to say whatever they want free of consequence. Another is that actually you can’t say anything questioning the club’s dogmas, such as the right to say whatever you want free of consequence. A third is that you don’t ever, ever criticize the popular kids. In a reasonable world, the sort of naked transphobia on display in The Closer would incur severe social costs. Comedy is not a reasonable world.  


It’s worth dwelling on the logic comedians like Chappelle use to justify their vicious mockery of marginalized people: that by joking about X, they are treating X as equals; that in fact it’s language like “punching down” that marginalizes people by implying they’re inferior, unable to take a joke. Smart, successful people believe this! The prevailing wisdom in this art form is so backwards that it’s seen as a sign of high-mindedness, skill, and integrity to be an “equal-opportunity offender,” rather than a sign that you must not believe anything at all. 


It is fashionable even on the left to bat away concerns about “offensive comedy” on the grounds that comedians are not lawmakers or corporations, they are entertainers. This is a strain of the same anti-intellectualism that holds comedy is a magical form of speech conveying no meaning whatsoever to audiences who form intense parasocial relationships with their favorite comics for no particular reason. It is also fundamentally at odds with the left project of opposing fascism, whose rise depends on the use of propaganda to create a culture of victimhood, delegitimize progressivism, and enforce patriarchal social hierarchies. But good luck getting this industry of people constantly expressing political opinions to admit their art form has political ramifications. 


Judith Butler:

The anti-gender ideology is one of the dominant strains of fascism in our times. So the Terfs will not be part of the contemporary struggle against fascism, one that requires a coalition guided by struggles against racism, nationalism, xenophobia and carceral violence, one that is mindful of the high rates of femicide throughout the world, which include high rates of attacks on trans and genderqueer people.


Dave Chappelle is 48. Joe Rogan is 54. Andrew Schulz is 37. Tim Dillon is 36. We’re stuck with these people for a long time. Right now they’re winning.

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Also: I forgot to mention this the other week, but I recently went on the podcast More Perfect Union, co-hosted by Humorism friend Ward Anderson, to talk about comedy. You can listen here if you're interested.

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