Review: Dave Chappelle – The Closer
Dave Chappelle might well be one of the GOAT stand-up comedians, but I doubt this particular show will be seen as a career high. The Closer has generated a backlash from many in the trans community and employee walk outs at Netflix in protest over its content. Chappelle states that he doesn’t understand what the idea of punching down in practice. From a creative standpoint of a comedian that statement is understandable, everyone and everything should be a target – as long as it gets a laugh. A few jokes directed at a demographic is fair enough, but when you dedicate half of a stand up special towards one group – it has to raise the question: why?
Not only did this decision seem egotistical, obsessive, and unnecessary, it proves disappointing to those who want to hear Dave’s take on other subjects. He might not care about being dragged on twitter ‘because it’s not a real place’, however it still feels like we’re dragged as an audience into a spat we want no part of. Chapelle famously left a 50-million-dollar deal to continue a show with Comedy Central over creative concerns his audience were laughing at him (rather than with him) when playing up racial stereotypes in certain sketches. Therefore, it would stand to reason that as a creator Chappelle has a wariness of feeling he cannot speak truthfully on stage.
I understand how criticism of this special (or any critique of stand-up comedy) can be framed as oversensitivity or an attempt at censorship. This almost seems how Chappelle would like to frame himself throughout the show, taking on the woke mob trying to cancel another career. The disappointing thing about The Closer isn’t that the jokes are offensive, that much we’ve come to expect. Many lines crossed, references to ‘space Jews’ and being molested by a catholic priest to name but a few. I do think Dave Chapelle is a master of joke telling, and genuinely funny. Neither would I suggest that there is no humour to be derived from gender dysmorphia, or that those jokes shouldn’t be told. Nevertheless, in eulogising about the LGBTQ community for 40 straight minutes as if he has a sort of score to settle, Chapelle begins to wear thin.
Chapelle makes jokes about his jealousy of the political gains LGBTQ have made framed in a way that contrasts that struggle as apart from the black community. Almost completely side stepping the idea that black and ethnic LGBTQ people might be some of the most vulnerable. It also doesn’t acknowledge other reasons for that political traction in recent years such as trans people being used as a political football to wind up the Christian right wing in order to get Trump elected, the fact that many trans people feel they are fighting for their right to exist, or even that the LGBTQ autistic community is excellent at online activism (all of which might have made better jokes). Of course, a gay person can be racist, but that in no way makes LGBTQ experiences a solely white phenomenon. Perhaps this doesn’t come from a place of ignorance and Dave genuinely has a distrust of the concept of intersectionality or having his free speech taken away, however I still find it hard to understand that queerness is somehow an enemy of black people or a threat to his craft. There are instances of the white gay community gentrifying and buying up low-income housing in black areas, there are also reasons the black community would be wary of groups co-opting their struggle and movements. I also acknowledge I wouldn’t have the first clue of what being black is like in the U.S or the U.K. This still doesn’t make the lazy and repetitive jokes about trans people any more palatable or justify why as a comic he would devote so much effort towards this grand sermon.
The truly tiresome moments are where it feels as though Chapelle is stating a viewpoint, rather than telling a punchline. There is the exhausting ‘gender is a fact’ line, when any real dialogue with the trans community would’ve informed Chappelle about the difference between sex and gender and that nobody is claiming they can change their DNA. He also can’t claim to be a TERF whilst simultaneously claiming trans women are women. The defence of J.K Rowling, who recently penned a book about a cross dressing serial killer, only further illustrates his lack of insight and empathy. Whilst Chappelle makes contrary claims throughout, or uses the act of telling jokes to excuse himself, he is still effectively reinforcing the belief that trans people are sexual predators, sick, ill or in costume by likening male to female transition to blackface and defending Rowling. The low hanging fruit of bathroom politics is here – all that was missing is a joke about trans athletes and we’d have filled the bingo card.
The show closes around a story about a trans comic Dave supported called Daphne, who sadly took her own life. Despite the tragic outcome and genuine affection shown towards her, the lazy jokes continue – completely undermining the reason for including her story. Ironically this comes across as “I can’t be transphobic, I have a trans friend” and attributes the blame of what happened to Daphne on the LGBTQ community itself (as if they themselves are responsible for the issues they’re facing by being hypersensitive) and attempts to frame himself as the victim. The overt renormalisation of transphobia might not have been what Dave wanted to achieve here, and the ideal of wanting to be able to laugh together sounds like a genuine one. But it will take a lot of work from Chappelle himself to achieve this, and I’m glad he claims he is done covering this particular issue. The Closer is a painful and disappointing watch, mainly because some of his many fans will take these claims in earnest, leaving us further from laughing together than before.
Image credit: https://www.netflix.com/title/81228510