Usually a joke is just a joke. Let's not over-think it, folks. Standup comedians are supposed to push the boundaries of what's socially acceptable.
And, naturally, be funny doing so.
Dave Chappelle's new Netflix show, "The Closer," succeeds on both counts in my obviously personal opinion.
Others disagree. That's fine. If they feel that Chappelle was unduly nasty toward the LGBTQ community, with his special focus on transgender people, they're entitled to their own obviously personal opinion.
Me, I don't expect comedians to be paragons of virtue. I want them to make me laugh, cause me to look at life in an off-beat fashion, lead me to see familiar things through the lens of a comedic mind.
Tonight I finished watching The Closer. I enjoyed all 72 minutes of it. Having heard about the controversy over Chappelle's treatment of gays and transgender individuals, I was prepared to not like the show.
Instead, I didn't hear any jokes that made me think, Chappelle went too far.
I must have a lot of company, since The Closer has a 96% positive audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Of course, I suspect many, if not most, of those who decry Chappelle's insufficient wokeness haven't seen The Closer.
They just know it's bad, because others who lack a sense of humor and want everybody to conform to their rigid view of What Can Be Spoken In Public told them to be outraged by what Chappelle says.
He ends with a moving story of a transgender woman who comes to his smaller shows in the Bay Area and laughs uproariously at his LGBTQ jokes. Having learned that she has attempted standup comedy, he invites her to open for him in a larger venue.
She bombs for 45 minutes. But she finds a seat in the front row and watches Chappelle's routine, rather than slinking into a dark corner as most comedians would.
Chappelle's telling of this story was both funny and moving.
He says that she'd been drinking quite a bit. Throughout his routine the woman and he engaged in banter about transgender issues. She turned out to be really funny. Just not during her 45 minutes on stage.
The audience was laughing. Chappelle says it was a great experience for him to have the back and forth with his transgender friend during his routine.
When Chappelle started getting criticized on Twitter by LGBTQ activists, the transgender woman stood up for him. That caused the activists to go off on her.
Six days later she killed herself.
Her supposed tribe, the LGBTQ community, had turned on her because she wasn't sufficiently fanatical in her devotion to their ideological purity. Instead, Chappelle said that she was a member of his tribe, the tribe of standup comedians who honor unfettered speech rather than political correctness.
Chappelle says that the transgender woman told him that she didn't want to be understood by him. She wanted him to respect her struggle as a human being:“I don’t need you to understand me, I just need you to believe… I’m having a human experience.” Beautiful.
Everybody struggles in one way or another. Everybody faces challenges.
Blacks. Whites. Everybody. Men. Women. Everybody. Straight people. LGBTQ people. Everybody. Religious people. Atheists. Everybody. Democrats. Republicans. Everybody. Old. Young. Everybody.
I loved watching the faces of Chappelle's audience smile and laugh during his show. Sure, there were a few serious-looking faces. But clearly his diverse audience was enjoying Chappelle's skillful comedy.
We've got to be able to laugh at each other and with each other. No exceptions.
Blacks can make fun of whites. Whites can make fun of blacks. Straight people can make fun of LGBTQ people. LGBTQ people can make fun of straight people. Men can make fun of women. Women can make fun of men.
Nothing and no one should be off limits when it comes to comedy. If you're easily offended, don't watch edgy standup comedy.
And don't expect that those of us who enjoy a good laugh are going to take your outrage at a comedian who pushes the limits as anything other than an absurdity that deserves ridicule.
Comedians are equal opportunity slaughterers of sacred cows.
And I say this as a vegetarian. If you're a Hindu who doesn't like references to sacred cows, lighten up. If not in this life, hopefully you'll be reincarnated as a standup comedian.
Might as well end by plugging my 2017 idea for a Salem "Mingling of the Tribes" roast/fundraiser that has so far garnered precisely zero enthusiasm from anyone but me. Oh, well. These blog posts bombed, and likely so would my own standup routine were I ever to attempt one.
UPDATE: The morning after I wrote this, I came across a couple of stories about Chappelle and humor. The Economist has a good piece, "Dave Chappelle for gender realism." Excerpt:
Mr Chappelle is of course foul-mouthed and shocking. He delivers an anti-Semitic one-liner in his show, chuckles as his audience gasps, then repeats it slowly, three times. Transgressing public mores, to deliver laughs, or social insight, or just to make people squirm and wonder why, has been the dominant tradition in stand-up ever since Pryor put a match to institutional racism, too. This reflects a singularly American set of conditions: high levels of social tension, a dominant place in popular culture for the most persecuted group and strongly protected free speech. Mr Chappelle, who, like Pryor and Mr Murphy is African-American and a master of many forms of comedy, calls stand-up his favourite form and an “American phenomenon”.
Because of its connection with social justice, most standup comedians, especially black ones, are of the left. But, again, the phenomenon must be edgy to be funny. So no whites are excluded from Pryor’s or Mr Chappelle’s racially loaded critiques, including the sympathetic left-wingers laughing wanly in their audiences. And that dramatic tension, between performer and fans, has increased in recent years as the activist left has increasingly presumed to police speech. A declaration in 2014 by Chris Rock, another top black comedian, that he could no longer perform for college crowds because they had become “way too conservative…[in] their willingness not to offend anybody,” was a signal cultural moment. For Mr Chappelle, who was in the process of relaunching his career around that time, it was also inspiring.
He does not seem transphobic, in fact. If his comedy has a moral theme it is that everyone is flawed and everyone should be accepted. Its force lies in showing how quickly that truth is lost when group politics takes hold. Mr Chappelle has spent much of his career railing against racial injustice. Pointing out the equally manifest reality that women lose out when sex is redefined as a state of mind is consistent with that record.
Even when justice is served—as in the advance of gay rights—his subversive mind ponders why such progress is not general. “Why is it easier for Bruce Jenner to change his gender than it is for Cassius Clay to change his name?” he asks. “Empathy is not gay. Empathy is not black. Empathy is bisexual. It must go both ways.”
And an interview of David Sedaris in the New York Times Magazine, "David Sedaris Knows What We'll Laugh at When No One is Judging," is pertinent to the controversy over Chappelle. Humor isn't something we can choose. We find something funny, or we don't. But as Sedaris says, societal restrictions can cause us to stifle our mirth for fear of seeming politically incorrect. Excerpt:
Do you think much about what you can and can’t get away with? People say, “I can’t believe what you say onstage,” because you can’t say anything anymore. I mean, I love an old-fashioned vulgar joke. There is a joke that I’ve been reading onstage: A woman wakes up on her 40th birthday, and she goes to the drugstore and says: “Today’s my birthday. Can you guess how old I am?” The druggist says, “36?” She says, “I’m 40.” Next she goes to the butcher shop and goes: “Today’s my birthday. Can you guess how old I am?” The butcher says, “32.” She goes, “No, I’m 40.” She goes up and down Main Street. Nobody comes close to guessing her age. She gets in her car and goes to the gas station. Says to the guy, “Can you guess how old I am?” He says, “I can guess your age and your birthday. But first you have to let me fondle your breasts for a while.” She says, “OK.” Then after about five minutes, he says, “You are 40 years old, and your birthday’s today.” “How did you do that?” He goes, “I was in line behind you at the butcher shop.” The audience gives the biggest laugh from that line. But first the audience makes a noise when the gas station attendant says, “You have to allow me to fondle your breasts for a while,” and she says, “OK.” Whereas 20 years ago, her agreeing to it would have just been accepted as part of the joke.
Are you finding that the gap between what people will laugh at and what they would admit to finding funny is getting more pronounced? You know what was interesting? I did a bookstore event the other day, and I read the funniest bits from the diary.
I got nothing. Nothing. Then people said afterward, “My face hurt from laughing.” I said: “You weren’t laughing. I was here, you know.” But you turn the lights off? In a theater, the lights are all the way down, and people will laugh.
Because people behave differently when they’re not worried about any social consequences or judgments? Yeah. Especially if you’re in America and race comes up in any way, the audience freaks out. So Andrea, the woman who assaulted me, was Black. When I shape that into an essay, I think it’s important. I was let into the foyer of a building I don’t live in; that had everything to do with me being white. If you have a character who’s Black and is not a virtuous character, the audience freaks out, because they think: If I laugh, does that make me a racist? If I don’t like this person, does that make me a racist? It’s something I’ve noticed for years. The audience freaks out, and it’s by and large a white audience freaking out, and it gets worse with every passing day.