Dave Chappelle does not make it easy.
He is one of the most brilliant stand-up comics in the business. But he also makes a sport of challenging his audience — putting ideas in front of them that he knows are uncomfortable and unpalatable to those invested in modern notions of how to talk about feminism, gender, sexual orientation and race.
Sometimes, he does it to make a larger point. But at times, especially during his latest special for Netflix, The Closer, he also seems to have a daredevil's relish for going to dangerous places onstage and eventually winning his audience over — regardless of what he's actually saying.
Of course, these days, the fix is in. Chappelle is considered the Greatest of All Time among many comedy fans — he says it about himself, wryly, toward the end of the special — and The Closer finds him surrounded by an enthusiastic audience in Detroit ready to go wherever he takes them.
That much is obvious, early in the special, where he talks about an idea for a film centered on an ancient civilization that discovered space travel, left the planet and then came back, determined to claim the Earth for their own. His punchline is the title for the film: Space Jews.
Even the adoring audience in Detroit took a breath on that one. "It's gonna get worse than that," Chappelle retorts, laughing. But I'm not sure it did. Because that was pretty awful.
Coming from Chappelle, a joke like that felt like a dare. He knows, in the moment, that such a punchline will briefly break the spell he has on the audience, make them rethink their allegiance to him, at least for a second. And he'll have to work a little to get them back on his team again — which he does.
(He also knows reviewers like me will quote the joke and criticize him for it, which I am. I don't really care what point he's trying to make; a joke that sounds like antisemitism gets a hard pass from me.)
And the message Chappelle has for those who have criticized him about transphobic, homophobic or any other phobic jokes seems to be: Race trumps all.
This idea surfaces when he talks about rapper DaBaby, who was pilloried publicly for making homophobic comments during a concert in July. Chappelle jokes that DaBaby "punched the LGBTQ community right in the AIDS" before recalling a 2018 incident in which the rapper was involved in a fight inside a North Carolina Walmart where another person was shot and killed.
"In our country, you can shoot and kill a n*****," Chappelle says. "But you better not hurt a gay person's feelings."
What Chappelle doesn't say is that DaBaby claims he was defending himself against two men who tried to rob him and his family in the store. Eventually, he was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge — carrying a concealed weapon — though the family of the 19-year-old who died insists that DaBaby started the fight.
In The Closer, Chappelle eventually says he's jealous of the progress the gay rights movement has made in America. "If slaves had oil and booty shorts on, we might have been free 100 years sooner," he cracks.
But lines like that assume that the struggle over oppression is a zero-sum game — that because some gay people have access to white privilege in America, all their concerns about stereotyping and marginalization are hollow and subordinate to what Black people face.
It ignores the fact that there are plenty of nonwhite gay people who face oppression for both their sexual orientation and their race. And, of course, opposing these public statements of homophobia isn't just about making gay people feel better; it's about keeping the anger and prejudice behind those words from becoming widely acceptable or turning into action.
Too often in The Closer, it just sounds like Chappelle is using white privilege to excuse his own homophobia and transphobia.
Because Chappelle is brilliant, his words about DaBaby make an important point; it is sad that more people know about DaBaby's homophobic comments than his involvement in this deadly encounter. But there is more to the story outside his simplistic framing, which seems designed to excuse some pretty hurtful words.
"Gay people are minorities until they need to be white again," Chappelle says as the capper to a different story about his conflict with a white man who called the police. The comic says the man he nearly fought was gay.
And, yes, we know what calling the police on a Black man can mean in a post-George Floyd world. But if some belligerent jerk were confronting me in a nightclub, I'd probably call the cops, regardless of the race of the jerk. And Chappelle refuses to consider this possibility.
He goes on to joke that for years, he thought the word "feminism" meant "frumpy d**e." That the #MeToo movement was "silly" because wealthy women in Hollywood didn't fire their agents and uplift women working in the mailroom. That, just when he figured out how to nail white people on their racism, some white people changed the game by declaring they were changing genders.
Chappelle recalls how he once asked why it was easier for Caitlyn Jenner to transition in public than for Cassius Clay to change his name to Muhammad Ali, ignoring the obvious answer: Ali adopted his name 50 years earlier. Thankfully, times also eventually change.
The fact is, these are all complicated topics, tough to encapsulate in a single punchline or anecdote. And watching Chappelle talk about them is like watching somebody use a chain saw as a letter opener.
Worse, it is obvious during The Closer that Chappelle cannot stand dealing with people who confront him over his more controversial jokes. More than once, he relays a story about someone getting in his face about how he has talked about women, gay people or transgender people, accusing him of "punching down."
Chappelle may craft his monologues to make the audience think. But that doesn't mean he necessarily wants much of a dialogue, especially with people who don't like his ideas.
The Closer ends with a poignant story about transgender comic Daphne Dorman, whom he befriended and allowed to open for him during a club appearance in San Francisco back in 2019. Dorman died by suicide that same year; Chappelle says she took a lot of criticism online for defending him against allegations that he was transphobic and for denying he was "punching down" in his material.
Earlier, Chappelle says this performance, his sixth special with Netflix, will be his last for a while. He also says he won't joke about LGBTQ topics anymore.
"I'm done talking about it," he says toward the end of The Closer. "All I ask of your community, with all humility: Will you please stop punching down on my people?"
That line, with all of its terrible assumptions about who "your community" is and who "my people" are, just made me terribly angry and disappointed. Because untangling homophobia, transphobia, racism and white privilege requires a lot more effort and understanding than Chappelle makes here.
But if I were gay and heard a line like that from a wealthy, Emmy-winning comic at the end of a special that millions of his fans will likely watch and cosign, I'd probably have a simpler response:
An earlier version of this story misquoted comedian Dave Chappelle's joke about feminism. The story has been updated.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
In his latest Netflix special called "The Closer," comedian Dave Chappelle leans into his reputation for pushing boundaries. In the special, he says he doesn't hate gay people; he's jealous of them. And we want to warn you what he says can be offensive to the LGBTQIA community.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "THE CLOSER")
DAVE CHAPPELLE: We Blacks, we look at the gay community, and we go, look how well that movement is going. I can't help but feel like if slaves had baby oil and booty shorts...
CHAPPELLE: ...We might have been free a hundred years sooner. You know what I mean?
MARTINEZ: Some say Chappelle went too far, specifically with jokes that could be construed as homophobic and transphobic. Trans workers at Netflix are reportedly planning a companywide walkout next week according to Verge. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans wrote a review. He's here with us now. Eric, we've seen a lot of fallout from this special. What's the latest?
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: We've seen, basically, that a transgender staffer who tweeted criticism of the special was suspended along with a couple other people, but she's now saying that she's been reinstated. And there's a sense that there's growing protests about this. You know, a producer who worked on the show "Dear White People" also said that she was going to stop working with Netflix. So these comments have brought a lot of reaction. There's a section of the special where Chappelle says several times that, quote, "gender is a fact," expressing allegiance with people who said that transgender women are not women. And as you can tell from the clip that we played earlier, he also suggests that gay people's fight for their civil rights have progressed farther and faster than Black people, perhaps because of white privilege, and that idea seems to ignore the fact that there are a lot of gay and transgender people who are not white.
And in my review of the show, I noted that Chappelle seems to be using the fact that some gay people might access white privilege to justify criticizing, quote, "the gay community" in his jokes, and that's an oversimplification that keeps marginalized groups pitted against each other, which I don't think really helps anyone. And because he's this brilliant comic with an unparalleled ability to communicate with an audience, he's able to make these questionable ideas go down pretty smoothly.
MARTINEZ: Eric, Chappelle's defenders say - and he says it, too, in his special - that it's all about cancel culture.
DEGGANS: Well, you know, first of all, being so-called canceled has never been better for Chappelle's career. I mean, "The Closer" is one of Netflix's most watched shows in the U.S. this week, and the company has supported him. I don't think he's in serious danger of cancellation, though acting as if he is has certainly helped rally his fan base. Now, I don't want to see the special taken off Netflix, but I do want people to face the truth of what he's actually saying. It's also obvious that Chappelle uses jokes as an idea delivery system. He's making people think about important issues. So is it fair to joke without irony that women who aren't transgender should resent when a transgender woman like Caitlyn Jenner is treated like a woman?
MARTINEZ: You know, one more thing - Raiders coach Jon Gruden recently resigned after emails that came up with homophobic and sexist language, and some of Dave Chappelle's fans said that proved his point because news had emerged earlier of a racist email. He apologized, Gruden apologized, and his job seemed safe at the time. What would you say to that?
DEGGANS: Well, I'd say this is exactly what I'm afraid of - marginalized people looking at other oppressed groups and criticizing their success instead of supporting each other. The Gruden issue isn't simple, and these issues aren't simple. And pretending that they are does no one any good.
MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Eric Deggans. Eric, thanks a lot.
DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAKAYA MCCRAVEN'S "BUTTERSCOTCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.