Editor’s Note: this piece contains strong language.
Dave Chapelle is a sellout.
His latest stand-up special for Netflix, "The Closer," is his last one for a while, according to him.
Good, he should spend some more time working on better material.
The comedian is famous in recent times for his numerous controversies, all of which center on his penchant to make jokes about the LGBTQ community. For a lot of us Black people though, we knew him as the mind behind the masterful "Chappelle's Show," a Comedy Central series that aired from 2003 to 2006. It was one of the few shows that felt built from the ground up to be for Black people, almost exclusively.
Shows like Disney's "The Proud Family" or Adult Swim's "The Boondocks" were Black shows, but "Chappelle's Show" wasn't a sitcom, it wasn't expected to follow a narrative. It was a sketch comedy show that did anything it could to get a laugh, and it always would.
With sketches centering around wild scenarios such as a klansman being a blind Black man who thinks he's white, or a racial draft where representatives of different races decide where racially ambiguous people belong, Dave Chappelle had created a runaway success. It was then understandable when it made headlines that he decided to cut ties with Comedy Central after only two seasons. He walked away from $50 million and disappeared.
He left the fame and fortune for a quiet life and was the center of many rumors of saying he left for Africa, having been tired of being a minstrel for white audiences who were laughing for wrong reasons. He did indeed go to Africa after suddenly stepping away from an incredibly lucrative deal with Comedy Central but then settled in a small city in Ohio.
He was largely unseen and unheard of for years, but he then started making more and more appearances. He fully returned to the limelight by the time of Donald Trump's presidential election, which in many ways had made the race even more of a hot topic than it was. People were excited to see what he'd bring to the conversation.
He's Dave Chappelle. He knows about race. He's intelligent and clever and he'll make a mockery of all the racially charged issues of the day.
His comeback was primarily through a deal with Netflix. Originally, Netflix was in hot water because the comedian didn't want his titular show on the streaming platform and made it very publicly known, so Netflix was quick to remove it. Soon after, Netflix and Chappelle had come to an agreement. He'd have Netflix host his stand-up specials, for a fee of $20 million per show.
His shows were largely seen as a return to form for the comedian, but there was an element not seen before in his work. There was a weird slant toward making jokes about the LGBTQ community, and more generally toward shock humor. The laughs weren't as smart as the ones in his show, a decade old at this point, but relied much more on the taboo nature of the topics to audience reactions.
Of course, this led some critics to commit the ultimate crime — they said the comedian isn't funny. Writing for Variety about Chappelle’s first two specials with Netflix, "Deep in the Heart of Texas" and "The Age of Spin," critic Maureen Ryan puts it simply.
"But some of the jokes about gender and sexuality seem like they were exhumed from a comedy special from the ‘70s or ‘80s,” she said. “No, feminists don’t necessarily have short hair; yes, it’s worth changing your ‘pronoun game’ for trans people because there’s no justifiable reason not to.”
While this would mostly go under the larger pop-culture radar, his next few would be the center of many controversies, especially the 2019 special titled "Sticks and Stones."
By this point, Chappelle leans in hard to the idea of "pushing the envelope" and testing his boundaries in comedy. This manifests in homophobic, transphobic and sexist jokes. But in between the onslaught of offensive — and more importantly, unfunny — bits, he tries to instill a dose of moral clarity by saying he's just practicing free speech and cancel culture is an awful development around comedy.
Of course, this is coming from a person that is making millions for being offensive on stage. He even compares the usage of the slur "faggot" to be akin to the slur "nigger" and questions why he can only say the latter of the two.
By this point, I'm curious. Where did he go wrong?
Before all this, his jokes pushed the envelope, they touched on things that most would never think of doing, but they weren't this offensive.
I went back to "Chappelle's Show" and had a great time. Some things didn't age well, sure, but the show was overall great. I noticed a distinct lack of Black women and gay people, but their omission felt more like a decided element of the show. Their absence wasn't out of fear of offending someone, it just felt like the writers knew that it wasn’t their place to talk about it.
Despite the show bearing his name, Chappelle was only one of many writers. I thought maybe this is just how he is alone without great names like Paul Mooney or Charlie Murphy to help write his material. Maybe his comedy is better suited for the sketch and less for the stage.
I got my answer in his latest special. "The Closer" is supposed to be his last for a while and I dreaded watching it. Before even starting it, I knew it was him at his worst, with bits about siding with the transphobic ramblings of J.K. Rowling, the author of the “Harry Potter” book series. He made tons of headlines before I even pressed play.
This latest special of his is full of the low-brow, offensive humor which defines lesser comedians. He opens with a joke about Magic Johnson having AIDS and an antisemitic joke that implies Jews are secret rulers of the world, a known alt-right belief. He, of course, follows this up with a paltry "it's only gonna get worse from here!" For all his faults, he's not a liar.
Chappelle puts his feelings clearly.
"You can shoot and kill a nigga at Walmart but you better not hurt a gay person's feelings."
The rest of his show continues to push this false dichotomy as if we can't be outraged at multiple things at once. He laments how much success and progress the LGBTQ community is getting while Black people are still struggling against police brutality. He peppers in smart dialogue about how some gay people can still enact oppression in other ways, such as a white gay man calling the cops on a Black straight man. But for every moment of clarity, there are at least three terrible jokes about a time where he beat up a woman at a bar.
While I was offended, I was also just bored. It wasn't funny. The joke here, repeatedly, is that he's a misbehaving child that got caught breaking the rules. He makes jokes about the definition of womanhood and why he should be allowed to use slurs against lesbian women and then says "I'm a feminist." He name drops far greater and smarter minds like Sojourner Truth, as if his rhetoric matches hers. He mentions a late friend of his who was trans and it's touching, but he's quick to point out that she'd laugh at his jokes. For all the emotion in his words, he's using a dead friend as a shield from criticism.
At one point, he outright says his issue isn't with gay people, with women or with transgender people — his problem is with white people. And at that moment, it clicks for me. Chappelle simply can't fathom that there are Black people he's betraying when he makes these jokes. He might mention Stonewall and vaguely allude to "old-school" gays, but in his mind, LGBTQ is completely separate from Blackness. His defense to all his criticism is simply that he's a Black man only offending white folk, but that's simply not true. His loudest critics are Black, and he's conveniently ignoring them.
He's been noticeably silent since the show, only gloating about his success. Meanwhile, employees at Netflix have staged a protest in response to the new special. The leader of this protest was recently fired under suspicion of leaking metrics about the streaming platform.
His material is weak, only carried on by spitefulness and a check. He brags about how he left $50 million and walked away from fame but doesn't mention that he walked right back for a bigger check to do even worse material.
As credits rolled, laden with images of Chappelle with his comedian friends, there were also pictures of protests and powerful Black leaders, as if Chappelle is the new vanguard. But he isn't. He's old news, upset that he's not as revered as he once was and clinging to anything that might make headlines. He's not leading us to new understandings about race and sexuality, he's digging his heels into the ground and demanding we stay there with him. We've already moved on from him, he just doesn't realize it yet.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified the gender of the Netflix employe dismissed from their job.