Dave Chappelle, it seems, isn’t the same performer he was when he first began working for Netflix.
Chappelle’s first few specials were thoughtful, funny musings on the state of the world, a fireside chat with a masterful storyteller who can speak to a vast audience as though he were confiding in a close friend.
Chappelle in The Closer is almost unrecognizable; the special is almost entirely centered around the controversy sparked by Chappelle’s habit of mocking the trans community, in a way that the community largely objects to.
Regardless of how you feel about “punching down,” the right to offend, or political correctness, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this controversy (which really isn’t all that interesting or unusual) has been chipping away at Chappelle’s mind, stealthily taking up more and more space in his act until it dominated his entire set.
There’s so much more to Chappelle’s comedy than this tired controversy, but he seems intent on defining himself by it; despite how much Chappelle repeats that Twitter is not real life, he sure talks about it a lot.
The Closer starts off promisingly enough, although notably less sharp than his previous specials. Soon, it becomes increasingly, bizarrely defensive, as Chappelle tells a series of anecdotes, of his interactions with queer and trans people in which he frames himself as the only reasonable man in the room.
Eventually, the special takes a dark turn after he tells the story of a trans woman, Daphne Dorman, a comedian who he had a role in mentoring, who took her own life shortly after they shared the stage together, having been attacked online by the LGBTQ community for participating in Chappelle’s act.
It’s a sad story that feels unsettlingly out of place in the special; Chappelle repeatedly praises Dorman’s ability to take a joke, mentions that she was a big fan of his who was quick to come to his defense, and strongly implies that her suicide was motivated by the backlash she received online.
It should be noted that Dorman’s family has stated that they support Chappelle, and view him as an LGBTQ ally.
Chappelle famously quit Chappelle’s Show out of principle, fearing that his edgy racial humor could be contributing to racism, rather than challenging it. In the case with Dorman, he doesn’t seem to see a parallel, or acknowledge his own role in contributing to transphobia.
Towards the end, The Closer takes on a strange, almost ritualistic quality, as Chappelle tells his story of the tragedy, cheered on by an audience of simpering fans. But there’s nothing bold, provocative or insightful about any of it; it’s an hour of Chappelle insisting that he is right, and his critics are wrong.
It’s obvious that Chappelle hasn’t taken a moment to learn about the subject that seems to fascinate him so; for example, before describing himself as being on “team TERF,” he describes JK Rowling as being cancelled for stating that “gender is real.”
First of all, it’s hard to describe the mockery and criticism of Rowling as “being cancelled,” considering that the wildly successful author has just finished writing the third in a 5-feature series of blockbusters for Warner Bros., while her work is prominently displayed in every bookstore in the country.
Secondly, Chappelle’s insistence that “gender is real” doesn’t make any sense, because gender is considered a social construct that humanity can define, and redefine, as we like. Defining something as a social construct is very different from dismissing it as “fake.”
For example, money is undeniably a social construct, and yet, it has very real effects on our lives (more so than gender, that’s for sure).
Perhaps Chappelle is referring to biological sex? In either case, he doesn’t seem to care about the distinction, which is a shame, because he could surely tell a good joke about it.
One has to wonder – what happens to beloved public figures like Rowling and Chappelle? Does the endless praise from obsessive fans and sycophants cause their ego to swell, tumor-like, until it destroys their ability to self-reflect?
The saddest thing about Chappelle’s shift is his sudden lack of self-awareness; the man now seems out-of-touch, another dull comedian obsessed with cancel culture, more concerned with being viewed as correct than cracking a clever joke.
I think this is best illustrated by his final line, in which, after a full hour of joking about the LGBTQ community, he solemnly states that he is done telling jokes about the subject; tellingly, this is not intended to be funny, but might just be the most amusing moment in the special.