Dave Chappelle’s controversial special: How does comedy progress?

October 30, 2021
Dave Chappelle arrives to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2019 in Washington, D.C.
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Dave Chappelle‘s latest Netflix special is raising questions for fans and comedians about what rules should be applied to the art of comedy. 

“The Closer,” the sixth stand-up special in Chappelle’s deal with Netflix, provoked backlash with its transphobic commentary, leading Netflix employees to walk out in protest when co-CEO Ted Sarandos doubled down on his defense of it. Chappelle later responded to the feedback from his special with a clip from a recent set.  

“I want everyone in this audience to know that even though the media frames this that it’s me versus that community, that is not what it is,” Chappelle said in an Instagram clip posted Monday. “Do not blame the LBGTQ (sic) community for any of this (expletive). This has nothing to do with them. It’s about corporate interest, and what I can say, and what I cannot say.”

‘You will not summon me’::Dave Chappelle on engaging with trans community; fired Netflix employee speaks

The discourse on what a comedian can and cannot say has taken place for weeks.  Among the heavily debated topics on social media: Was Chappelle “punching down” on the trans community? Which comedians should be given platforms? And is comedy protected by free speech? As the conversation continues, comedians are evaluating how the genre evolves from this point.

Here’s why:Netflix’s support of Dave Chappelle is setting a dangerous precedent

“Times change, people change, society moves in a direction. … I feel like there’s this misunderstood idea of free speech as it’s related to comedy,” says Jake Kroeger, founder of theComedy Bureau, an organization geared toward “advancing the art form of comedy” in Los Angeles. “You can say what you want … but also people are free to feel and express how they feel about your comedy, and that’s how it goes.”

What does ‘punching up’ or ‘punching down’ mean in comedy? 

Critics of “The Closer” say Chappelle was “punching down” on the trans community because, as a Black comedian, he was attacking a marginalized group to which he doesn’t belong. Denzel Belin, a Minneapolis-based sketch comedian and writer, describes the terms “punching up” and “punching down” as a societal hierarchy. 

“Punching up” in comedy is when a comedian makes jokes about a group that is “more advantaged in life” while “punching down” is when a comedian makes jokes about groups less advantaged in life from their perspective, Belin says

Chappelle acknowledged his jokes were about the marginalized LGBTQ community – “gay people are minorities,” he said – but only “until they need to be white again.” He ignored Black members of the LGBTQ community by erasing them from the butt of his jokes, saying they are Black before they’re queer. 

‘What do we want? Accountability!’:Netflix employees protest over Chappelle special

Comedians have faced repercussions for punching down in the past. Shane Gillis was fired from “Saturday Night Live” shortly after it was announced he’d be joining the cast in 2019. The white comedian, who still does comedy shows, was let go from the show after his derogatory remarks about Asian people resurfaced on the internet. 

More:‘SNL’ fires Shane Gillis over racist comments, four days after hiring him

“Silicon Valley” actor Jimmy O. Yang has made jokes about the Asian community where he feigns an Asian accent and talks about stereotypes, but he hasn’t come under fire for his jokes because he is part of the marginalized Asian community he’s targeting. 

Paulina Pinsky, who teaches a special course in comedy writing at Columbia University tailored for high school students, says “punching up” is a lesson she emphasizes to the future comedians in her class.

“I’d rather arm each student with, ‘Punch up and don’t punch down,'” Pinsky says. “If you start from a place of ‘do no harm’ and respect for other people, then the comedy is bound to be stronger.”

She adds: “These rules exist because not everyone is a comedian. What you think is funny may not be funny to everybody else.”

How can comedy change in ‘The Closer’ era?

Kroeger says newer comedians are getting an education as they “stand on the shoulders of giants” of today’s big names like Chappelle.

“What comics now are learning is that, yes, there are rules to comedy and they are, to a degree, important.” Kroeger says. “But you can break them, and if you are creating your own following, your own space, that’s valid (and) that’s legitimate.” 

With the growing number of comedians who are emerging on social media and podcasts, Kroeger adds “you can hear voices in comedy from so many different corners.”

But Belin says that still, “there’s just not enough representation” on larger platforms. 

More:Netflix film, TV report highlights diversity wins, losses: ‘I almost fell off my chair’

Chappelle, who is still performing comedy sets, Monday announced plans to host screenings of his new documentary “Untitled” around the country throughout November. The comedian said that, after the “Closer” controversy, he was disinvited from showing the documentary at film festivals. 

“When we just turn on these same comedians, we really put a lot of emphasis on what they have to say,” Belin says. 

He adds that there are “so many different voices and perspectives on a community” but when we focus on one voice, “pervasive stereotypes continue to flourish.” 

Kroeger agrees, and says representation in comedy has room to grow. 

 “The needle is moving, forward but it’s moving oh so slow,” he says.  





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