And how that leads to the world’s richest man getting booed relentlessly at a comedy show.
On Sunday morning, at 2:49am local time at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, Elon Musk tweeted, “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci.” It was exactly the kind of unfunny, unoriginal “joke” that’s become emblematic of Musk’s transformation into right-wing troll — and yet, it did some level of numbers on the platform he now lords over.
That night, Musk tried to wrap up a whirlwind day of rebranding himself as Twitter’s new king of cringe by taking the stage during Dave Chappelle’s performance at the Chase Center in San Francisco. By all accounts, this should have been a grand slam for Musk. He’s on home turf in Silicon Valley, and no matter how blue the city might be politically, these were folks attending a Dave Chappelle show. Chappelle is no stranger to shifts toward the reactionary right, as he took $120 million from Netflix and gave the platform six comedy specials in which he increasingly tried to work through his own personal grievances with trans people.
If there was ever an audience primed to hear Musk make the pronoun joke, it was Chappelle’s. And yet…
As Chappelle closed his set, he introduced Musk to the 18,000-seat arena by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, make some noise for the richest man in the world.” By the time the crowd realized he meant Musk, the boos started raining down. And they kept coming, reportedly for a solid 10 minutes.
Chappelle is no stranger to this type of situation. He himself got showered with boos while at his alma mater last year, and he still tanks the occasional show despite more than three decades of experience at the mic. But there was nothing he could do to stop the crowd from serenading Musk with their disapproval. Chappelle cracked that the people booing “have terrible seats” and said that Musk’s whole business model is “Fuck Earth, I’m leaving anyway,” so why would Musk care about the opinion of these poor booing earthlings?
While the comedian’s filibustering managed to get some laughs, every single time Musk lifted the mic, the boos returned. It got so bad that Musk asked, with an air of desperation in his voice, “Dave, what should I say?”
The answer was nothing, because there was not a damn thing Musk could do to win over the crowd. Not even having him shout “I’m rich, bitch!”, despite the catchphrase having Borat’s “My wife” levels of cultural ubiquity — the type of thing you’ve heard whether or not you’ve ever seen an episode of Chappelle’s Show.
The moment was a fascinating one, a bit of a reality check for Musk. (Though, to be clear, he’s certainly not learning any lessons from it. Musk spent Monday tweeting about “the woke mind virus” and claiming that 90% of the audience was cheering and the 10% that booed were just “unhinged leftists.”) Twitter isn’t real life. While Musk might be able to rack up likes and laughing emoji quote tweets from his groupies and reply guys, the same instant gratification isn’t guaranteed once he logs off.
And the whole thing made him look desperate: for attention, for affection, for approval. He knows Chappelle is about as cool as it gets in his new circle of reactionaries, but the second they joined together on stage, their differences became clear.
Chappelle, for his many faults and unquestionably transphobic turn in recent years, remains occasionally insightful — his 8:46 special following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 is a particularly affecting reminder of how incisive he can be when he turns his attention back to the powers that be rather than the powers that he perceives. He also has an undeniable stage presence and ability to command attention, which is part of the reason it’s so disappointing to see him relegate his powers to punching down at trans people while swearing they have mystical power over the media.
That charisma helps explain why a good portion of Chappelle’s audience seems able to overlook his transphobia. So does three decades of building credibility as a man battling institutional inequality. In his late-stage calcification as a gleefully wealthy icon of comedy, Chappelle’s crowd is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as a person who is not malicious, just critical.
Musk, meanwhile, has none of that to stand on. For one, he has zero stage presence and couldn’t even manage to get a cheap joke out — not even the type of low-hanging garbage that he tweets all day, like, say, “Pay me $8” or, “This show is brought to you by Twitter, where I made comedy legal again.”
Musk wants to be liked — desperately so. He positions himself as a champion of…something. Free speech on some days; of the human race, almost always. But he’s made a heel turn online, thinking that he’s just playing to a new audience. The best heels in wrestling lean into the characteristics that people dislike about them and eventually manage to win over an audience, making them love to hate them. Chappelle, a true professional, can pull that off for his audience. Musk cannot.
Musk assumed that he and Chappelle were aligned, and spent the entire day playing that up online, as if he could build up cred before taking the stage. But as messed up as Chappelle's late-stage transphobia is, and no matter how much it's clouded his legacy, the comedian does actually have a legacy. He's built his career on cutting to the bone of America's ongoing problems with racism, and for that, he's earned emeritus status with some viewers.
Musk, on the other hand, has simply done what rich guys do. He tried to buy his way into comedic credibility by poaching writers from The Onion and launching his own satirical website that failed spectacularly. When that plan tanked, he just started stealing memes and jokes, posting them on Twitter without attribution. He gets virtual laughs from his sycophantic followers, but it turns out they weren’t in the seats at the Chase Center when he grabbed the very much not-virtual mic.
Musk stepped in front of Chappelle’s crowd expecting a hero’s welcome, only to be booed into oblivion. It should be a good reminder to the flailing Twitter boss: You’ve merely adopted this persona, and not everyone is buying it. Tweeting transphobic garbage might get some laughs from the Too Online conservatives of the world, but it doesn’t play outside of that arena.