Dave Chappelle Reveals His Comedy Blind Spots in New Netflix Specials

Dave Chappelle doesnt offend me.

Im not saying it to be mean. Im saying to be funny. And everything is funny until it happens to you.

Even as I recoil at the latest bit of controversy-baiting in Chappelles new Netflix specials (particularly Equanimity, the more formal of the two), I recognize that my criticisms of the still-funny 44-year-old comedian arent rooted in how offended I am by his words. My feelings arent hurt. Im not angry at him. That word offend is wielded like a knife, and many times, when discussing a public figure or public discourse, its wholly inappropriate. And in railing against PC culture and our all-too-easily offended national state, Dave Chappelle makes it clear that he doesnt give a shit if you are offended by what he says onstage.

I make it a point to never feel bad about anything I say up here, he declares directly in Equanimity.

Filmed in his home turf of Washington, D.C., Equanimity is an interesting title for the bigger special: even-keeled, calm, grace under fire. It suggests that the beloved comic sees himself as the cooler head in a world thats burning. Or maybe he feels hes withstood a certain amount of fire himself and remained unflappably Dave. The latter seems more true; in his latest specials, Dave Chappelle refuses to be anything but Dave Chappelle.

Chappelle tackles the controversy of his spring Netflix specials head-on. His bewilderment at having been charged with transphobia after joking about trans women (Lets go to the club and trick niggas into fucking us. Yeah.) is tempered with both empathy for the community he routinely mocks and more jokes about that community. His argument is that anyone who would think his words are an excuse to go out and harm someone is an idiot and he doesnt hate trans people because everyone deserves to be happy. The moral of the story? Dave Chappelle makes fun of everybodyyou can get these jokes, too.

With all thats swirling in the ether currently, isnt it reckless to charge women with being weak as they try to get justice against powerful men?

As Trey Parker and Matt Stone continually spoof pop culture through the most pointed (and juvenile) lens via their long-standing Comedy Central hit South Park, is it fair to demand that Dave Chappelle morph into someone other than the insightful, biting, sometimes sophomoric funnyman hes always been? White liberals are all-too-eager to castigate Chappelle as though hes a uniquely problematic jokester with waning relevance. But Chappelle, like other comedians such as Chris Rock and Tina Fey, shot to the top of the industry in the late 90s/early 2000s as edgy, necessary voices for audiences who had been famously marginalized by the white-male-centric comedy perspectives like Jerry Seinfeld and Clinton-era Saturday Night Live. Nonetheless, in the same way that Feys feminist persona and work from that period failed in addressing or reflecting women of color, Chappelles sardonic look at race and politics never really seemed to hear the women or LGBTQ members of his core audience. Hes still just Dave Chappelle.

And, no, Dave Chappelle doesnt offend me. He does worry me.

Watching a brilliant comic work through his hang-ups in real time can make for compelling stuff; its at the core of the genius of Richard Pryor. Watching Pryor go from the brazen mind that gave us routines like Super Nigger and That Niggers Crazy to a man renouncing the N-word after a 1979 trip to Africa is part of his evolution as an artist. Chappelles journey may one day make for a similar transition. Like Pryor, Dave needs to re-examine how he sees his own people before he can move forward; but unlike Pryor, its women and transgender black folks that he needs to recognize as sharing of the black experience and black perspective. He needs reminding that the struggle of black Americans isnt limited to the oppression of black men by the establishmentits inherent in the oppression of all black people and in how black people have been subjugated within our community.

Dave mines his own inadequacies throughout both specials. Hes forthright in acknowledging that hes not the most informed on every subject he touches onstage (I never said I was right) but the introspection is undercut by Daves own disdain at the bitch ass niggas who insist that hes done something wrong. Its unfortunate, because deflecting to defiance in the face of sensitive criticsin turning an audiences being offended into a badge of honorChappelle misses the chance to truly push himself. Its bold funny guy vs. the snowflakes, and so Dave doubles down, daring anyone to get offended at him just being him.

In The Bird Revelation, Dave sits center stage for a smaller crowd in whats billed as a more intimate and spontaneous show in Los Angeles. Here, he tackles the recent wave of sexual-assault allegations coming out of Hollywood. Riffing on Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Charlie Rose, Chappelle reserves his more pointed commentary for fellow comedian Louis C.K., who has been accused of sexual misconduct by several women. In the wake of the accusations, C.K.s movie I Love You, Daddy has been shelved, FX cut ties with C.K., TBS suspended production on a C.K.-produced animated series, and Netflix announced it wouldnt be producing the comedians second planned comedy special.

Jesus Christ, they took everything from Louie, Dave muses. It might be disproportionate. I cant tell. I cant tell. This is like where its hard to be a man. One lady said Louis C.K. masturbated in front of me. Ruined my comedy dreams. Word? Well, dare I say, madam: You may have never had a dream.

Dave acknowledges that the women are right, but cant resist diminishing their experiences (They sound weak) and decrying whats happening to men in the industry (You cant make a lasting peace this way fear does not make lasting peace). For a guy who seems to be so clear-eyed in matters where black men have been abused, exploited, and victimized, Dave Chappelle still has a major blind spot when it comes to everyone else. Maybe Chappelle filmed his special before the Russell Simmons allegations became widely known. When black women are among the victims, who stands with them? And do those jokes seem as funny?

Offended is the word most callously tossed around in criticism and in defense of comedy. Its as if so many of us assume that the only reason one would have to criticize a comedian is being personally offended by what was said. But if a guy onstage screamed Fire! or Hes got a gun! it wouldnt warrant criticism because of offensivenessthe criticism is warranted because the behavior is reckless. With all thats swirling in the ether currently, isnt it reckless to charge women with being weak as they try to get justice against powerful men?

Dave Chappelle always has moments in his standup shows where the punchlines pause, and the grin goes awaywhere he gets dead serious and delivers commentary or makes a historical reference with candor and clarity. In last springs Age of Spin, he mused on the legacy of Bill Cosby in the wake of rape allegations against the legendary comedian:

I remember that hes the first black man to ever win an Emmy in television. I also remember that hes the first guy to make a cartoon with black characters where their lips and noses were drawn proportionately. I remember that he had a television show that got numbers equivalent to the Super Bowl every Thursday night. And I remember that he partnered up with a clinical psychologist to make sure that there was not one negative image of African-Americans on his show.

In Equanimity, the most somber moment is when Chappelle recounts the story of Emmett Till, the black teen who was murdered in 1955 Mississippi for supposedly whistling at a white woman. Prefacing it as a history lesson for those in the audience not born in America, Chappelle breaks down the horrific story of Tills lynching and the acquittal of his killers, and praises Tills mother as a fucking gangster for making sure that her sons deformed face was seen in an open casket at his funeral.

I dont have to pretend that the crimes against black trans people mirror what black people as a whole have faced for centuries; but I do recognize pain and hate. Like Dave Chappelle, I see the foolishness in white people who act as though black National Football League players are committing a sacrilegious act by kneeling during the national anthem. The underlying spirit in those white fans outrage is that black athletes shouldnt force them to face their disregard for the deaths of black citizens at the hands of police officers. I also see how transgender black people have to contend with their own kind of disregardthe kind that says horrific deaths, like the stabbing of Dee Whigham in Mississippi in July or the murder of 59-year-old MxBostick, who died in May after being attacked in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, simply dont matter that much. I dont need for there to be 400 years of murdered black trans women to know theres a problem that needs to be addressed. And part of addressing it is not endorsing the stigmatizing of members of my community who may be the most vulnerable members of that community. R. Kelly jokes are still all the rage while R. Kelly still sells out shows and the black women he victimized continue to pop in and out of the news with no resolution in sight. Lets keep making jokessome of the most insightful commentary comes from humorbut who should be the punchline?

Dave Chappelle doesnt offend me. But he does worry me. I worry that weve become so preoccupied with offensiveness that weve turned being offensive into a virtue. Youre brave if youre unafraid to say what others dont like. But as Chappelle points out, we have a president in office whose base clearly believes him to be brave because he says what others dont like. His approach to policy, diplomacy, and national discourse dont offend me. They scare the hell out of me.

You cant be right all the time. But we sure as hell dont need to make a virtue out of being wrong.

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