* Firstly, some elaboration on week 1! Namely that I was in no way advocating the taking of hallucinogens! I was much more interested in the lectures of Terence McKenna, his reflections on modern culture and the link those substances possibly had in our human past. The ‘stoned ape theory’ suggests that what enabled homo erectus to evolve into homo sapiens was encountering magic mushrooms and psilocybin. As humans began to domesticate wild cattle, this in turn brought us in closer contact with cow dung and the mushrooms often found around it. In McKenna’s view this accounts for the sudden doubling of the human brain 200,000 years ago, and therefore the development of our complex language, art, and culture. Thought of a highly speculative and often derided theory whilst McKenna was still alive, it is only recently with more research into the therapeutic applications of such substances (ptsd, trauma etc) has the stoned ape theory regained people’s interest and consideration. *
Review: Dave Chappelle – The Closer
Trigger Warning: Offensive Language, Homophobia, Etc
Dave Chappelle’s Netflix Journey comes to a controversial end.
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 (still available on Netflix at the time of writing) has generated a backlash from many in the trans community and employee walk outs at Netflix in protest that the special remains available on their platform. Around the halfway point Chappelle states that he doesn’t understand what the idea of punching down even means 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. He also infamously left a 50-million-dollar deal to continue The Chappelle 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. So, it would stand to reason that as a creator Chappelle has a wariness of being censored or feeling he cannot speak truthfully on stage. But what if your truth is hurtful, badly researched, or just plain wrong?
But isn’t it all just jokes, bro?
I understand how the criticism of this special can easily be framed as the sensitive woke mob trying to cancel and ruin another celebrity’s career. This even seems how Chappelle would like to frame himself throughout the show, taking on the cry-babies with his outrageousness. However, the disappointing thing about The Closer isn’t that the jokes are offensive. That much we’ve come to expect – there are 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 jokes about transexual people should never be told, the idea that there is no humour to be derived from gender dysmorphia is absurd. However, where things start to fall apart is when Chappelle chooses to eulogise about the LGBTQ community for the last 40 minutes of his special as if he has a sort of score to settle.
Is the idea of punching down so important? In 1980s, the U.K stand-up circuit saw the rise of what was deemed then ‘alternative comedy’. This developed as a rejection of the classist, racist and sexist acts of the working men’s clubs at the time (Bernard Manning etc). It was also a rejection of the assumed values of the then Thatcher government and changed the idea of what a comic was (or had to be). This opened the industry to more surrealist acts, routines with a political message, or the shocking revelation that women might be able to be funny in their own right. From this ethos, do we have a clearer idea of what punching down means in practise – to assert authority over people less powerful than you?
George Carlin seemed to have a clear idea of what punching down meant, and the role of the comedian as an outsider or underdog. Yet U.S comedians such as Norm MacDonald (R.I.P) and Doug Stanhope remain fans of the words retard and faggot (even defending their use in semantic terms) in a way that no successful UK comedian would get away with. Perhaps this could be accounted for by the idea of free speech holding a greater significance in the U.S. Whilst racial stereotypes (which can be accounted for by the different demographics and history of slavery), and overt sexism might get a bigger laugh, the U.K can hardly claim to be puritanical. Roy “Chubby” Brown and Jim Davidson are still able to sell out tickets (though would never be broadcast). Shows like Mock the Week or Top Gear (now the grand tour) often blur the line, and political satire from ‘Have I got News For You’ never holds anyone to account for long (outside of the idea that “they’re all as bad as each other”). Neither is UK comedy devoid of tropes or stereotypes – the number of times I mention I grew up in Liverpool only to hear the “calm down, calm down” Harry Enfield sketch repeated back to me (a sketch that’s almost 40 years old!). My point is that whilst punching down might be considered as poor form for a comedian here or in the US – crossing ‘the line’ and challenging people’s assumptions is also a big part of making people laugh. Often that involves being offensive and perhaps becomes a question of style and much as it is about the dynamics of power. Bruce, Carlin, Pryor, Hicks, and Dave Chapelle himself have often unpackaged difficult topics in a way that empowered the disadvantaged, but many did so with a few ‘pussy jokes’ help things along. Stand-up comedy is complicated in this regard, and I’m not trying to start a debate about subtext or intent; rather pinpoint exactly why The Closer made me uncomfortable. Neither am I trying to lay the blame at any comedian’s creative process (something I have great respect for) or at the feet of a perceived ‘overly sensitive’ online discourse culture. My problem with the special was the content and the statements made by Chappelle throughout the show.
A few jokes directed at a certain group is fair enough, but when you dedicate half of a stand up special towards them – it has to raise the question: why? Not only did this decision seem egotistical, obsessive, and ultimately unnecessary; it was also disappointing to those of us who might want to hear other content or ideas from the highly regarded Chappelle. 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. When Chapelle makes jokes about his jealousy of the political gains LGBTQ have made, it is 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: 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, however I still find it hard to understand that queerness is somehow an enemy of black people. 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’ patter, when any real dialogue with the trans community would’ve informed Chapelle 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 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.