While accepting the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the legendary Dave Chappelle recently made a firm defence of freedom of speech and the right to offend against what is often called cancel culture.
“I don’t get mad at them, don’t hate on them,” he said, while discussing comedians he knows to be racist. “Man, it’s not that serious. The First Amendment is first for a reason. The Second Amendment is just in case the first one doesn’t work out.” When chatting to the press before the ceremony, Chappelle also mocked the frequent demands for comedians to apologise for causing offence: “I am sorry if I hurt anybody, etc. etc. etc., yada yada yada, everything I am supposed to say …”
For quite some time, especially since the release of his most recent Netflix special, aptly named “Sticks and Stones,” Chappelle has been receiving a lot of backlash for including a series of controversial jokes about transgender people in his stand up routines, calling the LGBT community the “alphabet people,” mocking Michael Jackson’s accusers and the #MeToo phenomenon and defending Louis C. K. and Kevin Hart, who have been cancelled for their own respective transgressions.
His critics argue that his jokes reinforce prejudiced and discriminatory attitudes towards marginalised groups. VICE has rather unsurprisingly accused him of doubling down on his misogyny and transphobia. Some former admirers feel disappointed, even betrayed, because “a comic once considered radical for his super-smart critiques of race in America,” has been “toeing a conservative line on a new generation’s struggle for social justice,” to quote one Guardian critic.
In other words, Chappelle is now punching down, not punching up. He’s sold out. He’s stuck in his old ways, hasn’t responded to the winds of change and therefore now finds himself on the side of the oppressor, not the oppressed, the victimisers not the victims. In fact, he is participating in the victimising, with his jokes about marginalised groups like transgender people. This perception is bolstered by the fact that Chappelle has garnered a few fans on the right, who view him as a potential ally in their struggle against wokeness, political correctness and social justice warriors. Ben Shapiro has called his Netflix special “riveting” and “hilarious.” Dana Loesch has praised Chappelle for “sticking it to cancel culture.” The Federalist published a generous review of his Netflix special, praising him for being “subversively pro-life,” which isn’t exactly going to improve his reputation among feminists.
Anyone familiar with Chappelle’s work will know that he has always been provocative and made controversial jokes, which may offend some people. Take a look at his Chappelle Show skit on R-Kelly, and the Michael Jackson jokes that he has been making since the early 2000s, long before the Finding Neverland documentary came out. This has always been what he is about. So, if Chappelle hasn’t changed, has the audience changed? No, it isn’t quite as simple as that. For instance, when his “Sticks and Stones” special was reviewed by a select group of critics on Rotten Tomatoes it was given a 0% rating, yet, when it was opened up to the general public, it got a 99% rating. This is not exactly a representative scientific sample, but it aptly demonstrates the polarisation that plagues the comedy wars.
The controversy over Chappelle is another episode in the battle within comedy, part of the wider culture war, which has been raging for the past few years over what the limits of comedy are and what subjects comedians should joke about. Many comedians feel that woke culture (however one defines this) is killing comedy by making it dull and uninteresting. Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock have stopped performing at American colleges because of political correctness. Todd Phillips, director of The Hangover trilogy and The Joker, has proclaimed that he’s no longer involved in comedy because of woke culture.
I agree that there is an increasingly annoying brand of cultural progressivism to be found among a subset of professional critics, pseudo-intellectuals and news sites like Buzzfeed, VICE and the Guardian. This cultural progressivism is self-righteous and authoritarian, views society and culture through a very narrow ideological prism and considers anything that deviates from its prescriptions haram and beyond the pale. Contrary to how they portray themselves, many of those making these noises aren’t brave radicals, accelerating the cause of liberation, but people jostling for a place within the cultural establishment, people who think you can transform society through the cultural sphere, by promoting new norms to which all must adhere almost religiously. However, much of the opposition to this trend also leaves a lot to be desired.
I find myself in the weird situation of being against both dominant sides of the comedy wars. On the one side, you have the likes of Samantha Bee and Hannah Gadsby, with their woke anti-comedy, which is often very forced and contrived—obsessed with pushing the right political and ideological message. Play it safe instead of trying to engage with people—whether through humour or other means—and you will always end up sounding tediously unfunny, preachy and condescending.
However, the antithesis of the woke brigade isn’t much better.
The anti-woke faction, drawn mainly from the alt-right, portray themselves as counter-cultural insurgents, who are reclaiming comedy from wokeness, yet their approach of giving PC the middle finger is very infantile. They think it makes them subversive and edgy to use words like nigger and faggot and make stupid jokes about immigrants and trans people, whom they see as the sacred cows of the liberal establishment. Their jokes are grating, unfunny and stale. I’m not outraged or offended by them. It takes a lot more than that to get me riled up. I just find their stuff boring.
I am of the George Carlin school of thought: you should be able to make a joke about absolutely anything. No subject should be taboo or have a metaphorical barbed wire fence around it—not race, rape, transgenderism, Islam, 9/11 or the Holocaust. No topic at all. It all depends on how the joke is constructed, how the hyperbole works and, more importantly, whether or not it is funny. If it is funny, does it have any depth to it? Whatever your personal taste with regard to Chappelle’s style of comedy, what distinguishes him from the shock jock anti-PC crew is that he has depth—as well being genuinely funny, for example when he is pointing out liberal hypocrisy and its weird contempt for its own positions. While not every single joke in his “Sticks and Stones” special landed and his old transgender joke has reached its expiration date, the show was nevertheless funny in many parts and broadly engaging—which is a lot more than can be said for most comedy in our precarious times.