Five specials later, Dave Chappelle still doesn't get it
'The Closer' has smart observations but lands with bigoted, clueless conclusions.
At this point Dave Chappelle is considered the greatest comedian of all time by many, a fact he refers to in his new Netflix special, poignantly titled The Closer. It’s an apt title in theory, not just because it will be his last in a series of specials aired by the streaming service, but also because “a closer” is how comedians refer to the big last laugh the whole set builds up to, the kicker that’s ideally supposed to stick the landing and neatly tie up the whole set. And boy can you tell that Chappelle is trying to close with a bang. In a tense hour-long journey, Chappelle decides to zero in on some of his biggest critics, the LGBTQIA+ community—and to many, it was a bomb.
In true Dave Chappelle fashion, the comedian comes out swinging to let his Detroit audience know that no one and nothing is off the table. He immediately mocks victims of pedophilia and uses Covid as a narrative device to joke about the uptick in hate crimes against Asian people, particularly those inflicted by black people. He sets the scene: this is not a safe space. That’s a hill comedians have wanted to die on for some time, especially when fighting the battle of censorship from the pedestal of comedic celebrity. It’s a bit of a cultural stalemate specific to the genre: people who get offended by jokes are prudish, puritanical and thin-skinned, and the comedian is the brave artist revealing societal truths through offensiveness.
But in The Closer, Chappelle directs this creative frustration directly at the trans community in particular, a group whom he says accuses him of “punching down,” an accusation he takes clear offense to, and seems to think is impossible because he is a black man. And in some ways during the special, this stance of racism trumping misogyny and homophobia, lands. He criticizes the #MeToo movement for its inherent privilege in being led by the wealthy white women of Hollywood whose gestures were mostly performative. He retorts that “Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t tell everyone to keep riding the bus, but just do it matching outfits”—he told them to “get off the bus and walk.” And according to Chappelle, he’s “the one who left $50 million on the bus and walked,” thus giving him an authority to speak on these issues of protest against the white supremacist heteronormative patriarchy.
It’s a moment that sets the tone for the rest of The Closer, a mix of hate-speech flavored jokes and a moral superiority that is supposed to justify the tongue-in-cheek slurs. And perhaps when he’s lobbing blows at the women’s march—albeit speaking through the voice of a “friend” who according to him said she hoped “those white bitches get tear gassed”—this reads, because we all can agree that white feminism needs to be checked at every gatekeeping and gaslighting opportunity. But when he turns his momentum directly towards transgender people, he seems to want to dismiss the fact that there are trans people of color, and they are a minority that incurs some of the most bigoted violence in this country—violence which is often fatal and goes unprosecuted.
He jokes about outing trans people, beating up trans people, peeing with trans people and pronouns. He seems to want to round every offensive base possible. He plays a cat and mouse game of starting to sound like he might be leading the jokes to a progressive place, only to let the “gotcha” moment be more transphobia. He takes issue with Caitlyn Jenner winning a Woman of the Year award, because Cassius Clay had a harder time changing his name—ignoring the roughly 50 years of progress in between those two cultural moments. He jokes about “looking for adams apples” to see if he’s in the presence of trans people, and backs defamed author J.K. Rowling for her status as TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist), which he then decides that he is as well. “I’m Team TERF,” he proudly states.
It’s a comedy special that wreaks of the complexities of our current times, and unfortunately pulls forth all of its complex tragedies instead of humoring its triumphs. The transphobia hinges on arguments made early in the special based on an incident in which DaBaby shot a 19-year-old in an altercation at a Walmart, who ultimately died. The link he draws is that killing a black man didn’t get DaBaby cancelled, but offending queer people did—”He hit the gays right in the AIDS!” Chappelle jokes. There is a legitimate argument to be made about white fragility causing more public outcry than actual violence perpetuated against black people, but that argument can’t be made at the expense of all of the violence perpetuated against the queer community as well—especially the trans community, and queer communities of color.
“This is precisely the disparity I wish to discuss,” Chapelle boldly states after highlighting the DaBaby debacle. He underlines the argument, “You think I hate gay people, but really I’m jealous of gay people. I’m not the only black person that feels that way.” He continues to joke that black people look at the gay community and envy “how well that movement is going.” And yet again, there is truth at the core of the set up of these jokes. But when he goes on to say that he doesn’t like present day gays and that he misses the “Stonewall gays,” the subtext there is that he relates more to and celebrates more validly a queer community that was more violently pursued.
He repeats multiple times in his unrelenting rant against transgender people that “gender is a fact.” Statements like those are why there is mass outcry this week against the special, with GLAAD having put out a statement, multiple Netflix employees condemning the special, and even a former Dear White People show runner vowing to never work with Netflix again. In the end Chapelle tries to clarify that his problem isn’t with trans people, it’s with white people. But yet again, in no way are all queer, nor trans people white. He raps up the monologue with a story about transgender comedian Daphne Dorman, whom he had open for him in San Francisco in 2019, and who died by suicide days after receiving backlash online for defending Chappelle’s jokes. It is an awkward ending that creates a wall from which it seems he thinks people can’t throw stones. Because a transgender woman “was in [his] tribe,” who tragically died, it is supposed to justify everything he’s said, or at least end in a proverbial “so there.”
He ends by vowing to never discuss the “LGBTQ” community again. "I'm done talking about it," he starts to conclude. "All I ask of your community, with all humility: Will you please stop punching down on my people?" As he solemnly exits, it’s unclear who that line is meant for. Is it a suggestion that trans people are perpetuating violence against black people? Against comedians? The rallying cry for solidarity to end racism, transphobia, homophobia and misogyny can certainly fall on deaf ears, but none more deafly than Chappelle himself.