There was a brief moment where I thought Netflix was going to buckle and remove Dave Chappelle’s The Closer from Netflix. I was hoping they would not. But you never know how these things might fall in 2021. In general, publishers and movie studios and employers are happy to throw people under the bus when there is enough outrage online to save themselves from getting too close to the flame. You have to be really old like me to remember a time when young people stood up for freedom of expression. I grew up that way. I grew up fighting for the rights of musicians, comedians, directors, writers and even scientists to explore ideas even if they ruffled a few feathers.
I grew up this way because the movies I loved, the books I loved, the art I loved, the comedy I loved always hovered at that line between acceptable and forbidden. Coming out of the free love era of the 1970s and into the Top Gun era of the 1980s meant that conservativism blanketed everything. Back then, people on the right saw themselves as “good” because they tended to be religious. The left were the heathens, who weren’t necessarily religious. But in 2021 the whole thing has flipped. Now the Left sees itself as “good” and has fashioned a religion of a kind, and the Right are the heathens. The problem is, the Left still controls almost everything, but especially art and movies and literature, and yes, comedy.
I remember a very offensive comedian named Sam Kinison. He would be long since cancelled by now, probably for a wide variety of things but none so much as his jokes. They were as bad as you can get, as offensive as you can get. But because we were living under the thumb of conservatism, it wasn’t the homophobic jokes that were scandalous, but the religious ones. The object of comedy is to startle us into laughter and once we laugh we release our fear.
Before I watched Dave Chappelle’s highly offensive but hilarious last chapter, The Closer, I was sure comedy, along with everything else, was almost dead. Sure, every so often Mike White will take a deep breath and scribble down some hard truths that are met with blinking confusion half the time. Mike White writes in that long dead genre of SATIRE. Remember that? Satire now is defined as jokes that mock the lower classes who support Trump and the occasional toe-dip into making fun of the ruling class but it better be safe and non-threatening or ELSE YOU WILL LOSE YOUR JOB!
People like Stephen Colbert and John Oliver and Jimmy Kimmel – they want to be seen as “good,” like everyone else on the Left. Goodness rules over everything. The best way to write any sort of complexity into a movie or TV show is to write BAD characters who can then be free to make the offensive jokes or reveal actual truths. Take, the conservatives on Succession. They’re already BAD so it doesn’t matter. They can say what they want. Ditto Tony Soprano and Don Draper. There is no requirement to be “good” so there is no requirement to follow the rules.
But Netflix, like all major institutions in this country, is supposed to be “good,” or that is how it has defined itself, more or less. Movie studios, and AMPAS and the Television Academy and you name it – all have to be broadcast their “goodness” at every turn for a while now, but especially after 2020. Most people you know who cover film online and are on film twitter also have to be GOOD 24/7. Or else they’re BAD and if they’re BAD they gotta go. They have to be deplatformed or screamed at or cancelled. They make people feel UNSAFE. You get the idea.
What defines bad is “wrongthink.” Saying or thinking the “wrong” thing about something. The bad take. Getting too close to the Trump line is worse than probably anything else and even those who oppose cancel culture, like Dave Chappelle, don’t go there. Once you cross the Trump line you simply can’t participate in respectable society anymore. You have a big audience but a select one. By the way, this is why they call themselves the “Deplorables,” after Hillary’s (misconstrued, I think) comment about them. But I digress.
Anyway, so here is Dave Chappelle saying the most offensive things you’ve probably ever heard in a long while. He is diving right into “verboten” territory for 2021 and has now been called a bigot and accused of using his comedy to disguise his hatred. Yes, if you want to define Dave Chappelle’s “worth” by whether he’s “good” or not, and whether that “goodness” is measured by the jokes he tells? Then sure, draw that conclusion. But I would argue that you do not understand the fundamental truths about comedy and its role in our lives if that is what you take away from this. The long and short of it is this: WE NEED TO LAUGH.
Laughter comes from uncomfortable truths that people think but can’t say. Netflix also is airing Seinfeld now and that show is all about things people think but don’t say. It’s also just plain funny and no, it would never be made today. Watch it and you will see all through it the things people “can’t” say now. That is why Jerry Seinfeld says he doesn’t really want to do standup anymore. To survive in standup you either have to pander to the woke (bad comedy) or else cross over to the “I don’t give a f*ck” arena of saying whatever you want: or Rogan, Ricky Gervais and yes, Dave Chappelle.
What’s shocking is not that Dave Chappelle did a show and it was funny. It’s shocking that Netflix aired it and has not taken it down. In 2021, corporations jump when Twitter says how high? The brilliant and insightful Andrew Sullivan was dumped from New York Magazines by the idiots over there who believed that was the right call. Now Sullivan’s income is three times the size it was over there but their corporation is protected because it can still be considered “good.” Not “bad,” like Andrew Sullivan.
Laughter was invented to release tension, fear and anxiety. When a community is under the thumb of, say, an oppressive dictator the first thing that goes are jokes. You couldn’t joke about Stalin or Hitler, for instance. I imagine King Henry VIII was not fond of jokes at his expense. While the powerful do not like being laughed at, the righteous do not either. But laughter is there for a reason. Our human brains are big and complex, full of content that must be processed one way or another. One of those ways is to sleep perchance to dream. Dreaming helps us process the things we most fear. If you happen to wake up during that process you can even sometimes see the things you are most afraid of in your worst nightmares.
But laughter – that helps us stay sane. This is especially true if it is laughter about things that scare us, or hurt us, or disgust us. The truth is that what probably angered people the most about Dave Chappelle is that he defended JK Rowling. Even Stephen King had to back down on Twitter from defending his old friend. Rowling made the joke about being a modern day witch as Twitter dehumanized her and attempted to destroy her as best they could (kind of hard to do to one of the richest women in the world, but okay) just for having an opinion that was different from theirs. The latest punishment of Rowling was that organizers of a book festival in New Zealand canceled the celebration of Harry Potter – they were trying to be inclusive by excluding her.
Rather than the PR about today’s fundamentalist religion that has sprung up on the left being about “inclusivity,” it is actually about “exclusivity,” as all religions must be. This is what religious movements do: they purge the undesirables from their ranks. They disallow dissent. They force compliance of thought. They censor. Jokes, art, music, science – it all has to comport with the ideology to be let in.
But remember, we don’t judge people by what they do anymore. We judge them by what they think. Are they are a good witch or a bad witch? Rowling might very well be a TERF, which is to say she believes in feminism where women are given respect separate, potentially, from trans women. It is such a touchy subject no one wants to go there. To be accused of being transphobic is tantamount to being accused of being a racist. It’s about the worst thing you can possibly be accused of now. Rowling was specifically objecting to the phrase “menstruating people,” which would go along with “birthing people” or “chest feeders” or all of the ways the medical community is trying to be inclusive with its language.
You don’t have to agree with Rowling, or with Chappelle, to respect their right to have an opinion that is different from yours. And that is the whole point of Chappelle’s last episode at Netflix. He’s just saying – you think what you want to think and allow me to think what I want to think.
Chappelle also talks about his friend Kevin Hart and how he had wanted to host the Oscars his entire life. But the Twitter mob went after him, deciding that his tweets and his jokes made him “bad” because of what he thought at the time. The only way you can justify punishing people for things they did long ago, that they have apologized for, is if you believe people are “good” and people are “bad,” and if they are “bad” there can be no redemption.
Now the Oscars has no host because Twitter is too sensitive and the Academy is too afraid of Twitter. What a mess. The only way out, friends, is to let Twitter rage. Take a breath. Wait a couple of days and they will be on to the next outrage. Sooner or later, the hype dies down and perspective is restored.
Chappelle closes his show by talking about his transgender friend. It’s incredibly touching. And for him — honest about his experience. And hers. I’m not going to defend him or his act. I will defend his right to do his act. Because comedy, like information, like truth wants to be free.