I finally watched Dave Chappelle‘s The Closer on Netflix. It’s given me a lot of food for thought. If you’re reading this thinking this is a late-coming criticism of the comedian or any of his specials, you’re going to be in the wrong place. I think he earned every penny Netflix gave him with that one work. But I don’t think he earned it for comedy; I do think he earned it for social commentary.
The Closer, above all else, is a masterpiece of criticism of U.S. society. I get that people might be surprised at this. There has been mountains of criticism of it in many corners of the Internet (and elsewhere). How could a special that includes remarks which are transphobic, homophobic, sexist, racist, elitist, anti-Semitic, and more possibly be valid social criticism?
I understand that irony is lost on the Internet for many reasons. From trolls abusing it, to nazis hiding behind it, to common ignorance unable to grasp some of it, irony has lost much of its overt effectiveness in social discourse. Personally, I have a hard time justifying its use in most forums and places, especially online. One person’s ironic statement has a very real chance of becoming another person’s excuse to do unconscionable things. It takes tremendous amounts of effort and skill to overcome these shortcomings.
I think The Closer manages to do this. The special has all of the trappings of a comedy special. Everything is there telling an audience they are there to laugh. Chappelle has his open stage with speakers he can lean on. He has his comedian’s microphone in hand. The crowd has enough lighting to see they are real people, but not enough to make out who they are. As if on cue, Chappelle has them laughing just like in most other comedy specials across other comedy subgenres. With these contextual cues, people are supposed to think everything is intended as humorous, and everyone can let their guards down to laugh. On such a surface level, it’s easy to dismiss everything said during it.
Irony, though, demands another look at what went on. I was taken aback by Chappelle’s opening remarks about a rapper with the stage name DaBaby. He was socially canceled on Twitter for making homophobic remarks. But those remarks weren’t the worst thing he’s done in his life. DaBaby has actually killed someone, successfully arguing it was done in self-defense. These remarks imply an important question: what does it say about society’s values if they protect a subset’s interests over another subset’s lives?
Going forward under the guise of risque humor, Chappelle lists a litany of topics where this has been the case. He hits all of the major topics in American culture, from anti-Semitism to racism. In each case he warns his audience that he’s going to hit subjects they won’t want to laugh at. His audience still laughs, though sometimes a bit nervously.
Throughout the set, he keeps bringing up DaBaby. If this was read as literary, it would be identified as the maintenance of a theme. Every taboo subject at one point in the past or currently allowed for one group to arbitrarily value its interests over the lives of others. Modern society wants to say it is past much of the bad things our forebears have done.
But the audience kept laughing. Until the end.
At the end of the special, Chappelle addresses one of his chief controversies: transphobia. The story he tells is dramatic, poignant, and tragic. He talks about a friend of his, Daphne Dorman, a white trans woman who had earned his respect and loyalty. Although he tries to make funny points about parts, eventually he has to give up the point.
This woman, he feels, was hounded to death by people on Twitter.
Moreover, the people doing the hounding were people allegedly serving the interests of the trans community.
I do not know if Ms. Dorman committed suicide because of what happened on social media, but Chappelle could make his point elsewhere if he wanted to. Ms. Dorman wouldn’t be the first person to have suffered at the hands of an unfair Twitter mob. She probably won’t be the last.
Regardless, I left watching the special remembering something Chappelle said before he gave up $50 million dollars and a successful comedy show:
“You know why my show is good? Because the network officials say you’re not smart enough to get what I’m doing, and every day I fight for you. I tell them how smart you are. Turns out, I was wrong. You people are stupid.”Source: Wikipedia
Did Chappelle’s friend, Daphne Dorman deserve better than she got in life? Probably. But right now American society isn’t great at delivering that. We’re stuck with a society that does what it does because nobody knows better. The people that might have helped unsettle Ms. Dorman and encourage her to jump off a building weren’t doing what they did because they hated her. They did it because society has cued them to believe it’s okay to speak without considering an audience.
I don’t know if Chappelle’s point was to show how people who mean well can get it horribly wrong. I don’t know if he was trying to advocate for a different kind of social justice. It could very well be that I’m reading too much into it. But I hope that maybe he was wanting people to ask themselves why they do what they do, despite what others around them might give them permission for.