The headlines and outrage-fueled tweets tell the story: Dave Chappelle joked about Louis C.K.’s accusers and the #MeToo movement in a tone-deaf display that weighed down his Bird Revelation Netflix special, one of two new specials released this past New Year’s Eve, after his latest transphobic jokes tainted his Equanimity special, released the same day. It’s enough to make you want to pass on these specials and maybe ponder whether it might be time to let go of Chappelle and the hope that he might have something important to say when he isn’t coming off like a sexist or a homophobe. That’s where I was when I first saw those headlines. But curiosity eventually won out and I watched both specials. And I’m sort of glad it did, even if I’m still befuddled and running out of patience with Chappelle.
There’s no missing context that might reframe Chappelle’s remarks. He didn’t tangle his thoughts on-the-fly. It’s not a kind of high-level satire that we’re missing or “just a joke.” The finished special sat with Chappelle for more than a month, went through an edit, and came out the other side with this shitty take intact and blanketed all over the thing.
Chappelle said what he wanted to and was comfortable presenting material that, plainly, feels as though it ignores the complex power dynamic at play between someone of C.K.’s stature and comedians just starting out. Material that pays no attention to how depleting it might be to assume that there is an infrastructure protecting someone like C.K. from repercussions. Another loud voice subtly and not-so-subtly diminishing the mountain of garbage women have to climb on the regular. Chappelle did this despite saying that he shouldn’t in the special. Which is odd, because, one assumes, Chappelle understands social media and the response to cultural insensitivities well enough to know that he should have listened to his own instincts (and the advice he offered in Equiminity) because this kind of cantankerous display will only make it harder for everything else in the special to land.
Maybe Chappelle weighed the prospective damage — the outrage on social media, among critics, and a segment of his fan base who were baffled by the bullying and the reductive approach — and simply shrugged and took the hit. It’s not hard to identify our collective outrage patterns or unheard of for someone to exploit them and our microscopic attention spans. Ask Donald Trump. And it’s not like Chappelle hasn’t performed controversy calculus before.
There’s that theory, and there’s also the theory that Chappelle felt like he had to charge sexual misconduct accusers with having a “brittle spirit” to minimize what they had experienced so that it might maximize his own ugly experiences in the Hollywood system. Elsewhere in the special, he clumsily tries to conflate with the #MeToo movement while also being incredibly vague about those experiences and his exodus from Hollywood when he walked away from Chappelle’s Show in 2005.
“Why?” is a captivating question when someone runs headlong into seemingly avoidable controversy. Chappelle’s words can be almost as fascinating and ripe for interpretation when he’s being counterintuitive (and maybe even a little self-destructive) as when he’s operating at the height of his powers, provoking deep thought on issues of race and American culture. Almost. And in The Bird Revelation, Chappelle gets there too, making this entire situation into a complex mess when it comes to trying to process it and determine whether there’s a net gain to giving a crap about what Dave Chappelle has to say anymore.
How many people are going to miss Chappelle’s weighty remarks on Colin Kaepernick and whistleblowers including how “every fucking person who takes a stand for someone else always gets beat down and we watch over and over again”? Or Chappelle’s calling for people to stand up and help fund these often sacrificial acts so more people will take that same path, even tying it to the whistleblowers in the #MeToo movement (like the ones he mocked) and the needed tear-down of the culture that protected Harvey Weinstein?
After everything Chappelle says about C.K.’s accusers, his pivot to remarks about how he wants women to win this fight and how it’s good that bad guys are scared feels disingenuous or, at least, confusing. Do those more supportive words still have worth? How about the ones where Chappelle talks about fear not making for a lasting peace before recalling apartheid and the need for “truth and reconciliation” and “a lot of imperfect allies”? It feels like an impossible question to answer definitively and one that’s highly subjective. But how we choose to filter the information and opinions that we hear and who we choose to put into a penalty box and how quickly we do so matters. It’s not that doing it is wrong or right. But we should consider the cost from time to time and what we’re missing out on when we make those choices.
And we’re not the only ones who should use some consideration when recognizing the reality of those choices and this moment. From his own words in The Bird Revelation, it’s obvious that Chappelle will bristle at the idea that people will ignore the whole of his special and his words because of these headlines and his controversial remarks about C.K.’s accusers. He believes comedians “have a responsibility to speak recklessly” so that future generations know what that sounds like while also experiencing the joys of being wrong. It’s a romantic view that has a lot of merit; debates shouldn’t be won because only one side is allowed to speak, after all. But reckless speech isn’t the same thing as punching down for laughs. And that’s what Chappelle often does to the detriment of these evolving conversations and his own reach as a cultural commentator.
Chappelle closes the above thought about speaking recklessly with a remark that seems to be born from the idea that he can preemptively answer his critics, saying he didn’t come there “to be right,” but that he came to “fuck around.” It’s understandable why he’d take that as his sword and shield. Those words, like the call for reckless speech, are an attempt at securing immunity from paying a cost for his continued penchant for committing culturally insensitive transgressions in the midst of the good and bold work he does when speaking on race issues.
But it’s bullshit. Whether Chappelle likes it or not, we’re looking for him to be right when he fucks around. And we’re looking for him to be better than he’s been. It’s that hope and his track record of being right that allows for him to stay relevant. But with every sexist, homophobic, or transphobic joke, that track record fades, as does the need to fight back the urge to dismiss him and throw the good out with the bad.