“You can’t pretend that comedy, reckless or otherwise, doesn’t have after-effects in the real world. It does: it can reinforce (or challenge) how people think. It gets repeated in the playground, and the workplace. It isn’t consequence-free.” — Brian Logan1
He rests comfortably on a stool as far downstage as possible, practically sitting in the audience, and lights up a cigarette. With relaxed posture and a confident—but never smug— look on his face, he works the crowd with ease. He speaks more quietly than you’d expect a stand-up comedian to, and the audience leans forward in their seats to listen. They’ve given him their undivided attention—and he’s earned it. He takes a drag of the cigarette and says, “I was right once, remember that?”2
After disappearing from show business for twelve years, Dave Chappelle returned to the public eye with no fewer than four Netflix stand-up specials in 2017. One of these four specials, entitled The Bird Revelation, heavily features Chappelle’s musings about the #MeToo movement. It will come as no surprise to hear that because of his statements about this sensitive issue, his special drew criticism. However, Chappelle is no stranger to controversy—one might even argue that he built his career upon it. His popular sketch comedy show from the early 2000s, Chappelle’s Show, was known for pushing the envelope with its satire of racial stereotypes and politics, often flirting with the line between funny and offensive. More recently, all four of his new specials have sparked controversy, to varying degrees, for his statements about Bill Cosby, transgender people, and sexual assault in Hollywood.
Chappelle dives right into the topic of #MeToo era Hollywood at the top of his Revelation set by saying, “I’ve been in show business thirty years, I never realized how much danger I was in!” The audience laughs at his sarcasm—Chappelle is obviously not in the same kind of danger as most women in Hollywood. He dwells specifically on the allegations against Louis C.K.—Chappelle’s contemporary who was “#MeToo-ed” that year. “All these allegations were terrible,” Chappelle starts, “but Louis’s allegation was the only one that made me laugh.” He proceeds to make light of C.K.’s acts, as if they were not a big deal. This dismissive view of the allegations against C.K. seems to inform many of his thoughts on that case and the #MeToo movement in general. Most egregiously, Chappelle calls the women who accused C.K. “weak,” saying they have “brittle spirits,” for dropping out of the comedy industry as a result of C.K.’s harassment. In reference to one woman who said C.K. masturbated while on the phone with her, Chappelle says, “Bitch, you don’t know how to hang up a phone?” The audience laughs, and Chappelle presses further, “How the fuck are you going to survive in show business if this is an actual obstacle to your dreams?”
His comments are riddled with victim-blaming rhetoric—when discussing Kevin Spacey’s assault on a minor, he says it “seems like the type of situation that a gay fourteen-year-old would get himself into.” He even goes so far as to claim that many women coming forward in the #MeToo movement “sucked the dick and got buyer’s remorse.” Chappelle punches down onto survivors of sexual assault for roughly the first eighteen minutes of the special, and circles back to the topic of #MeToo several times throughout the rest of the set. Every time he brings it up, his speech is stained with apathy and insensitivity. So why isn’t the audience disgusted by his coldheartedness? Why do they laugh and applaud?
The problem is that Chappelle is great at his job. He’s a master of the craft of stand-up, and in The Bird Revelation, he proves that by wielding certain performance techniques as a tool to avoid getting panned for his offensive jokes. For example, his casual and conversational performance style in this special has a very specific function that allows his set to work: It gets the audience on his side. Chappelle chilling on a stool in a small venue, very close to the audience, and talking in a seemingly unassuming, unrehearsed kind of way feels much more personal than a huge, high-energy stadium show would feel. With the style of this special, we feel less like we’re watching a millionaire comedian and actor putting on a show that we paid to see, and more like we’re just hanging out with our buddy Dave. This style affords him likability and allows him more wiggle room in saying offensive things—“reckless talk,” as Chappelle calls it—because the confessional style gives us the impression that he’s working his ideas out in real time, and we get to be a part of his thought process. That makes it harder to get mad at him, because it seems like he’s making himself vulnerable to us. But the truth is, no matter how confessional and conversational it comes off, he’s not actually having a dialogue with the audience. It’s still a performance, and it’s still a gross misuse of a celebrity platform. He’s not actually the vulnerable one here; the survivors who he punches down at are the vulnerable ones.
Something that sets Chappelle apart from other comics that allows him to perform this material is the fact that, in this special, it seems like he’s rarely ever joking. Obviously he says things that make the audience laugh, but he says them in a seemingly earnest way that suggests he’s not really kidding about the content of the joke. Most comedians would say something offensive and try to squirm their way out of controversy by saying, “It’s just a joke,” “I was only kidding,” “I’m not being serious,” etc. But Chappelle never uses one of these excuses. Again, because of the confessional style of his performance and the fact that he usually isn’t pushing punchlines or fishing for laughs during the most controversial moments, it’s appears that he’s not “just kidding” when he says these things— he’s telling us how he really feels, or at least that’s what he wants the audience to believe. That turns out to be a lot harder to reckon with than your run-of-the-mill “edgy” comedian whose defense is always that they don’t mean the offensive things they say. If Chappelle were to use the defense “it’s just a joke,” after every controversial statement, then one could argue that every joke must have a kernel of truth, a premise, that the comedian believes in order for the rest of the joke to make sense, and thus some part of him must really believe the rhetoric that the jokes promote. Chappelle skips this step by conveying seriousness through his straightforward performance—he lowers his voice, and learns toward the audience, and tells them exactly what he thinks.
Another notable example of a comedian who affects a very serious tone is Hannah Gadsby, who spends a great portion of her Nanette (2018) special talking sincerely about the many traumas she has surmounted in her life as a gay woman and as an assault survivor. The two comics are, presumably, trying to achieve the same effect of getting the audience to listen and empathize with them. The difference, however, is that Gadsby is talking about her own experience, and her own trauma, while Chappelle is co-opting other people’s stories and using them to promote his apathetic rhetoric. Chappelle would like you to believe that he is speaking from personal experience, so as to give his opinions the illusion of validity, he ties almost every offensive comment back to his own life experience. For example, he often relates or compares the adversity that women face in show business to the adversity that he, as a black man, faces is show business. He often weaves the two topics together seamlessly, and while the two issues obviously have intersections, they are two very different issues. For example, when an audience member presumably gets up to leave or maybe says something in protest of Chappelle’s comments about #MeToo, Chappelle says this:
I know Louis is wrong ma’am, I’m just saying, I’m held to a higher standard of accountability than these women are. Don’t forget who I am, don’t forget what I am. I am a black dude. And don’t ever forget how I got here . . . I know you’re upset, I know you’re right, but come on, baby, it’s me. I was right once, remember that? I remember. I walked away from $50 million—a lot harder than walking away from Louis’s freckled dick . . . And yet here I am tonight. Did my dream die? No.
His personal experience in show business is a valid topic to discuss in his show, but he doesn’t just discuss his own struggles—he uses them as a way to invalidate women’s struggles by comparison. Chappelle seems to view oppression as a contest, in which nobody is allowed to complain if they aren’t facing the exact same type of adversity as he is. This is also apparent in his other special, Equanimity, in which he says,
My problem has always been with the dialogue about transgender people. I just feel like these things should not be discussed in front of the blacks. It’s fucking insulting, all this talk about how these people feel inside. Since when has America given a fuck how any of us feel inside?3
This quote is rife with problematic rhetoric (for starters, it implies that black trans people don’t exist) but is largely just another example of Chappelle invalidating other people’s experiences by citing his own.
Chappelle does not know what it’s like to be a woman, and yet he speaks with such authority about how women should go about solving their #MeToo related problems. This lack of understanding causes many contradictions in his speech. For example, he goes on a tangent about how women should be putting “the system” on trial, rather than the individual perpetrators, and we can only put the system on trial “if everybody says what they did,” and admits to how they participated in the system. In the very next sentence he says it was wrong for women to call men out and drudge up their past infractions. But isn’t everybody supposed to own up to what they’ve done? At another point in the set he says that whistleblowers like Colin Kaepernick should be rewarded for risking their reputation and job to stand up to an oppressive system, and that if we rewarded good people like that, “Harvey Weinstein wouldn’t rape for forty years because a bitch wants a stupid-ass part.” This same man devoted the first quarter of his set to viciously attacking the whistleblowers who exposed Louis C.K. His rhetoric just doesn’t add up.
Because Chappelle is only interested in validating and discussing his own life experience and his own problems, his disinterest in women’s issues allows him to spew “reckless” speech without thinking twice. His fundamental misunderstanding of the power dynamics that allow assault to happen are indications of this apathy. Harvey Weinstein doesn’t rape because “a bitch wants a stupid ass part,” he rapes because he is a rapist. It’s not as simple as hanging up the phone on somebody, or saying no to somebody’s advances, or “walking away from Louis’s freckled dick.” If he cared about women’s experiences, he wouldn’t have said most of the insensitive things he said during his set.
The most disturbing part about Chappelle’s set is that it is being broadcast to millions of people through one of the largest streaming platforms in the world. As much as Chappelle may want to downplay his platform by putting on such a casual performance, it doesn’t change the fact that his words have a huge impact, and many people look up to him. By using his platform this way, he contributes to the system that he claims needs to be dismantled and investigated. I’d like to believe that Chappelle is a good person, and it seems he wants to believe that too, as he often reminds the audience that he’s on “our side,” of the #MeToo movement. But it doesn’t matter whether or not he means any harm or ill-will toward women, because intentions don’t matter as much as words and actions do when you’re a public figure. Chappelle may have convinced himself that his jokes are harmless, or even justified, but he hasn’t convinced me.
- Brian Logan, “Dave Chappelle’s ‘reckless’ #MeToo and trans jokes have real after-effects,” The Guardian, January 4, 2018.
- “Dave Chappelle: The Bird Revelation,” Dave Chappelle: Equanimity & The Bird Revelation, directed by Stan Lathan, written by Dave Chappelle, December 31, 2017, Netflix.
- “Dave Chappelle: Equanimity,” Dave Chappelle: Equanimity & The Bird Revelation, directed by Stan Lathan, written by Dave Chappelle, December 31, 2017, on Netflix