Voices: What’s wrong with Dave Chappelle’s trans jokes? Mainly, they’re unfunny

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Dave Chappelle’s show at Minneapolis venue First Avenue was canceled following an online outcry  (AP)
Dave Chappelle’s show at Minneapolis venue First Avenue was canceled following an online outcry (AP)

Though Dave Chappelle has repeatedly reveled in the outrage surrounding some of his more controversial jokes, in the months since his Netflix original, The Closer, debuted there has been no evidence that any of it harmed his career at all. Now that the Minneapolis venue First Avenue has canceled a scheduled appearance just hours before it was slated to begin, though, the seemingly endless debate on where, exactly, the boundaries for comedy should lie has been renewed.

Chappelle has remained unapologetic in the face of criticisms that his jokes at the expense of transgender people were harmful and mean-spirited – they’re just jokes, after all! Indeed, these jokes seem to be the entire point of the show, which he begins by addressing the LGBTQ community directly before making a joke about the backlash rapper DaBaby received after his homophobic remarks at a concert last July. Chappelle states, tepidly, that this was “a very egregious mistake” before pointing out that DaBaby shot and killed a fan in a Walmart in 2018 without facing any public backlash.

“Do you see where I am going with this?” Chappelle asks. “In our country, you can shoot and kill a n***a but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings…You think I hate gay people, and what you’re really seeing is that I am jealous of gay people…We Blacks, we look at the gay community and we say: Goddamn it, look how well that movement is going. Look at how well you are doing, and we have been trapped in this predicament for hundreds of years. How the hell are you making that kind of progress?”

Besides the fact that pretty much no one had even heard of DaBaby when the incident in question happened, and the rapper was never charged with any crime, these statements seemed particularly tone-deaf in 2021, when a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills were passed in the United States. And they don’t seem any funnier now, when more than 300 similar bills have already been filed this year, the overwhelming majority of which target transgender youth.

Chappelle – and Netflix – have doubled down, however, in the same way my kids often attempt to do: Calm down, it’s just a joke! Where’s your sense of humor?

Was it really just a joke, though, when Bill Cosby said, “It’s the female’s job to protect herself. It’s like a goalie…you have to keep people from scoring on you”? Or when Lenny Bruce called lesbians and gay men child molesters? Both routines got laughs, for sure, but who was laughing and who was being left out? In both instances the comedians were getting laughs by perpetuating harmful tropes. However, are they really any different than the dark jokes told by police officers or medical professionals to cope with their work? How about the “inappropriate” humor anyone who’s ever worked a stressful restaurant job has likely participated in?

In these instances, the laughs serve as stress relief, boosting team morale for those working some of the hardest jobs out there. But it’s also true that anytime a group strengthens its boundaries, the message to those left out becomes more clear. “Karens” are clearly unwelcome in the jokes kitchen staff members make at their expense and Bill Cosby’s jokes clearly signal who holds the power in male/female relationships. Lenny Bruce reminds the gay and lesbian community that they’re not really trusted by “normal” people. And Dave Chappelle spends the vast majority of his act letting everyone know that he thinks transgender people are nothing more than a big joke.

And perhaps that’s Chappelle’s biggest sin – he’s simply ranting the same old opinions that any trans person who’s been alive more than a decade is very well aware exists. The material is stale. Comedy is, by its very nature, subversive. It is often socially inappropriate. Its beauty and power lie in its ability to strengthen community, allowing us to laugh in the face of our fears, foibles, and darkest moments.

But just as these change with the times, so must comedy continually question itself in order to stay relevant, illuminating, and, well, funny. That’s what Chappelle has missed out on the most. The transgender jokes are offensive, yes — but they’re also old and overdone. When people who find them funny ask trans people: “Where’s your sense of humor?”, I’m inclined to look at them askance as they laugh at these relics of the past and ask, “Where’s yours?”

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