Chappelle’s Netflix Show Just Isn’t Funny

We saw a record number of violent deaths suffered by trans and gender-nonconforming people in 2020. And there is a spate of truly appalling bills in states across the country aimed at the trans community. (You can listen to my “Sway” episode with the A.C.L.U. lawyer Chase Strangio about that here, as well as my more wide-ranging interview with the Netflix head of global television, Bela Bajaria.)

This broader situation was pointed out by some on the Netflix staff, who are a little more nuanced about these issues than Sarandos gives them credit for. And they are quite aware that comedy can be controversial and even offensive.

“I work at @netflix. Yesterday we launched another Chappelle special where he attacks the trans community, and the very validity of transness — all while trying to pit us against other marginalized groups. You’re going to hear a lot of talk about ‘offense.’ We are not offended,” wrote a trans Netflix engineer, Terra Field, in a long thread on Twitter. “This all gets brushed off as offense though — because if we’re just ‘too sensitive’ then it is easy to ignore us. I’m surprised I haven’t had anyone call me (ironically) ‘hysterical’ yet today.”

This is a sophisticated point: The tiresome warriors of the online anti-cancel culture movement tend to claim that the objects of their scorn are too easily offended. But it’s not quite that simple.

Let me be clear, though: I have always thought that comics deserve a very wide berth, even when offensive and gross. This is the way many comics approach their job, to be the shock troops of society. Fine, whatever, I can turn off a show if I am annoyed.

But after watching the Chappelle show with my son this week, I came away with two conclusions.

First, while Chappelle is a truly gifted comic, he really is having trouble letting go of his pique at being labeled transphobic, something that has dogged him since early in his career.

Fine, he’s irritated, especially since the ever-churning internet has allowed the transphobic label to live on and on and on. Is it fair? Maybe not completely, to some. But he spends what feels like an awful lot of time lashing out at the trans community. Given that is a group of people who have suffered, and continue to suffer, more than other marginalized groups, Chappelle comes across as defensive and mean, even as he is talking about the need for empathy.

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