Ok. So, I watched The Closer.
That’s not exactly breaking news, but several friends have asked for my thoughts on it. It makes sense they would ask, given all the online debate(s) about it. I’m a Black man. I’ve done stand-up. And I’ve been known to offer up a social critique or two…or ten…or…you get the point.
So, I watched it. I didn’t watch it the way I watched Killin’ Them Softly or every single episode of Chappelle’s Show in which he appeared, gleefully expecting genius commentary. I watched it the way I’ve watched Dave’s most recent work, braced.
As I suspected, overall I was disappointed.
I wasn’t disappointed with Dave’s comedy chops. We all agree that he’s a great comic, though I would not say he’s The GOAT. (More on that in a moment.) No, I was disappointed with some of his disheartening choices. So much of the hour seemed dedicated to “I can say whatever I want!” And while that is, of course, true… or true enough in context… I found myself thinking, “You can say anything and this is what you chose?”
You’re too brilliant, Dave, for me to believe that you don’t understand that you can be in a position to “punch down” at someone even if “their people” were never slaves.
You’re too insightful for me to believe that a man who explains walking away from his massive Comedy Central deal, at least in part, because he was troubled by the perceived racist quality of an executive’s laughter, doesn’t get that comedy, even when a monologue… is a dialogue… that the laughter coming from many in that live audience and in the broader Netflix audience was not laughter laced with love for your friend, Daphne, but with just the kind of oppressive inhumanity your fans applaud you for opposing and exposing when you discuss race.
You’re too worldly for me to believe that “I have a trans friend!” is a defense any serious person would take seriously even as your jokes provide comfort and safe harbor for people who mean women like Daphne the absolute worst and who, emboldened in that safe space you make all the safer, propose and impose laws like the bathroom bans you reference.
I read comments and commentary from many, asserting that what Dave delivers are “just jokes.” But that “defense” is ahistorical, afactual, and just plain wrong. Art has been shaping thinking and behavior since it appeared on cave walls. Dave isn’t giving us “just jokes” any more than D.W. Griffith “just made a movie.”
Chappelle didn’t personally attack any transgender person and, so far as I know, Griffith didn’t hang a single Black person from a tree. But the attitudes and behaviors they gave life to are quite real and they’re responsible for the societal pollution their artistic machines have generated.
Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists in a context. And in the context of 2021 America, transgender youth are contemplating, attempting, and dying by suicide at rates that dwarf their cisgendered peers. In the context of 2021 America, transgender Americans are four times more likely to be the victims of violence. They’re not “just jokes” when our laughter drowns out very real cries of pain.
And that brings me to a comparison to the comic I believe is The GOAT: Richard Pryor.
Where Richard Pryor leveraged his powers to bring us stunning introspection, Dave, in all his brilliance, traffics in insolence. The former offers humanity a hug, while the latter gives humanity the finger. For me, the former demands immense courage, while the latter springs from artistic cowardice. One of the most powerful and amplified voices of our time took an hour and all the hours that were dedicated to molding that hour and spent the majority of it encouraging us to laugh at the “other.”
It’s not worth arguing whether that was punching down. But I can say with confidence that Dave Chappelle is too brilliant, too insightful and too worldly to seriously believe this was a fair fight.