comedy review

Dave Chappelle’s Endless Feedback Loop

Dave Chappelle in The Closer. Photo: Mathieu Bitton

Vulture’s review of The Closer originally ran earlier this month. We’re republishing it in light of ongoing turmoil at Netflix following the special’s release.

The first time I saw Dave Chappelle on television, I thought, This guy is funny, but he’s getting canceled. I’d seen Half Baked, Blue Streak, and 200 Cigarettes, and I came to Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show expecting more caustic stoner wit. The Clayton Bigsby sketch that closes the series premiere — where the “Black white supremacist” attends Ku Klux Klan meetings and outlines his ghoulish worldview while hilariously unaware that his own skin color situates him on the list of minorities he says he can’t stand — was the kind of sketch that drew complaints in that time, when conservative groups took aim at the musicians and edgy humorists that didn’t fit their wholesome family-values agendas, shock jocks faced massive fines for using indecent language on terrestrial radio, and song lyrics were blamed for listeners’ behavior. (If you need a reminder of what it was like trying to push people’s buttons in the early aughts, run back those Eminem songs where he grouses about censorship and protests. Back then, you often paid out of pocket for crossing the line.) I thought loud public backlash would run Chappelle’s Show off the air. I was wrong. The rest is legend: Dave left his own show for the comfort of rural Ohio at the peak of its success, and we didn’t hear much from him over the next decade. Then, he signed a Netflix deal (rumored to be worth tens of millions) for a series of stand-up specials we’ve been arguing about intermittently over the last five years, where, repeatedly, we ponder the question of whether Dave Chappelle just got himself canceled.

Chappelle is a master of pressure-point work, of transgressing toward profundity. He isolates absurdities we take for granted. He shakes us out of the comforts of our conditioning. He asks why we take what we’ve been taught about the world at face value, and why we don’t just come up with a framework that fits us better. Sketch comedy was the perfect setting for Chappelle’s ruminations about race and class. Inside the confines of a sketch, Dave was able to reveal our ugliest tendencies, wielding the god-king power of a comedy writer seemingly lacking in fear or reservations while maintaining a safe distance from the actions of his characters. Beneath a flurry of punch lines and quotables, his sketches were dioramas of American disorder. The show ended in part, as Chappelle would explain last year on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman, because the creator started to worry that his intentions were being misconstrued, and his comedy was getting to people who lacked the proper context for it.

It’s fascinating, then, that the Netflix specials have devoted so much time pointing out that Chappelle no longer cares if you understand or appreciate his intentions. The latest, The Closer, attempts to resolve conversations that began with 2017’s The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas — the one-two punch of comeback specials where the legend caught himself up on current events but drew ire for flip remarks about sexual assault and the LGBTQ community — and after this, the plan is supposedly to take time off. At the end of Spin, as Dave guided his audience to a feisty kicker, you could see a man in the front row physically bracing himself for the punch line, a prickly one about balancing Bill Cosby’s record of altruism with the dozens of allegations of abuse. This hang time between the thoughtful setup and the questionable payoff typifies the experience of watching Dave post-hiatus. He almost wants you to overreact. You can feel him priming for a strike. You hope it lands smoothly. Occasionally, it does.

The Closer is very funny early on, and it’s refreshing to hear Chappelle own the divisiveness of jokes that rubbed people the wrong way, even if it’s often a ruse to set you up for a harsher dig. (Dave works crowds like a boxer. He keeps you off-balance.) Replying “One ‘they’ or many ‘theys’?” to a fan who says, “They’re after you!” is the rare pronoun gag delivered by a veteran comic without a smoldering bitterness. When he asks what he’s saying “that would make these bitches think I hate women,” it suggests a self-aware and self-deprecating heel act is happening here, a method to the comic’s combativeness, though he’s at his best not while debating points of offense but when he’s simply entertaining his devilish imagination. A lazy riff calling Mike Pence gay catches fire on a savage payoff: “Please, Jesus, make these buttholes ugly to me.” (When you recall the story in 2017’s Equanimity that’s written punch-line first, you’ll wonder whether this was another one of those.) The impression of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. directing glory-hole traffic is a riot. “Strippies” sounds like an elevator pitch for a hilarious sketch. How much you enjoy The Closer will depend on whether you’re able or willing to believe the comic and the human are separate entities and to buy that the human loves us all, and the comic is only performing spitefulness for his audience. If you feel like people complain about comedy too much, you’ll love this special for addressing most of the criticism leveled at Chappelle’s recent work, however speciously. If you only wanted to get through one of these without a long, crabby detour on gay people and gender identity, Closer’s designed to work your nerves.

The Closer wants you to know that Chappelle does not hate the women and queer folks and other minorities he has poked fun at in six stand-up specials. It also wants you to know that he hates having to say this. What it seems the comic wants is license to be an equal-opportunity offender, to have it known that there’s no malice in his jabs. He wants the old thing back — the freedom to be crass without having it reflect negatively on his character. But he’s come back to a world where faith in the goodness of famous people is understandably diminished in the wake of a thousand scandals of every type, and the audience has avenues to take their displeasure with a gaffe or off-color remark directly to the source. The party line among comics of this era has been that everyone takes themselves too seriously now, and it’s their job to shake us out of it. The Chappelle Netflix specials seem almost tailor-made to this task; the crude jabs about trans folks in the early gigs are revisited here as the comic comes into contact with people who want him to hear how these jokes make them feel. He doesn’t want to make people feel bad but doesn’t accept any grief for it when it happens. If you react poorly, you are proving him right that you can’t take a joke. This is, to a wide swath of types of guy, a brilliant trap. Your ability to stomach these specials hinged on whether or not these points struck you as unshakable tenets of comedy or outdated excuses masking a refusal to update a worldview. (Two things can be true.) Intermittently, the collection is genius. There are too many beats, though, where the comic obsesses over negative feedback, all the while insisting that the opinions of his detractors are functionally immaterial to him because social media is “not a real place.”

It’s confusing posturing. Why keep digging? He enjoys it, right? The Closer explains that, really, Chappelle wants the best for everyone. “I am not indifferent to the suffering of someone else,” he says. He just feels everyone is handling themselves foolishly. His jokes about the Me Too movement in 2019’s Sticks and Stones, we’re told in the new special, were about feeling that the campaign centers wealthy women and ineffectual protest gestures. His jabs at gay men were only meant for the ones who co-opt the language of Black outrage then retreat into whiteness when threatened. (Don Lemon would like a word.) He objects to the charge of transphobia; he’s merely “invested in the gender construct, personally.” What’s frustrating on the surface about The Closer is the sense that Dave wouldn’t have to say any of this if he expressed an ounce of chill in the five specials before it, the sense that there’s an alternate timeline where the GOAT didn’t spend any of the past five years fishing for outrage and can use this hour in 2021, one of the strangest years of our lives, trying to figure out what the hell is going on out there. Instead, we are preoccupied with cleaning up old messes — and creating new ones. It’s hard for people to trust that you respect the queer community when you announce that you’re “team TERF,” make a point to mix up the letters in “LGBTQ,” and pepper your work with the slurs your peers have largely hung up when the reason you offer for easing off of those kinds of jokes in the future is that you don’t want to go out like J.K. Rowling, DaBaby, or Kevin Hart. In Chappelle’s eyes, these are examples of the mountain-moving power of LGBTQ rage. This framing ignores how each one’s stubbornness in the face of backlash for the awful thing they said only led to more awfulness, how these are stories about refusing to budge when asked for a meager concession by fans who want to support, how each one still sits on the same mountain of cash.

Near the end of The Closer, Chappelle recounts the story of Daphne Dorman, the trans comic he shouted out in Sticks and Stones who died by suicide months after the special. They were having a breakthrough, learning to appreciate each other’s differences, asking the questions most people are too coy or savvy to mention in mixed company. It was easy, Dave remembers, because she wasn’t judging him or forcing him to adopt her pick of pronouns. She went against her “tribe” by defending his humor when he came under fire from the trans community for jokes in the special. “I don’t know what the trans community did for her,” he says, “but I don’t care because I feel like she wasn’t their tribe. She was mine. She was a comedian in her soul.” You think he’s coming to some kind of cloudy epiphany, and then you get to the mic drop where he asks the gay community to “stop punching down on my people.” A slideshow of photos of Dave with his famous friends that plays over the closing credits lingers an extra beat on a shot of him and DaBaby, reinforcing his idea that “Empathy is bisexual: It goes both ways.” (The slideshow implies that entertainers are his “tribe” in question. It’s too on the nose that in this analogy a person only joins one group at a time. These intersections are blind spots for Dave. He speaks about Black and queer struggles as if they are strictly in competition, not always entangled. He has the textbook edgelord ally’s arrogance. He swears he knows how to fix things for you, but he’s just asking for you to take up less space, to usher in progress by giving other people time to come around to you. At the same time, he brings up Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, where the escaped slave and activist visited a 19th-century women’s convention and laid out in sobering detail why the plight of Black women in America is a point of concern for all American women. This is also on the nose. Chappelle doesn’t enjoy this boldness when it’s pointed in his direction.)

A more poignant moment is the barely audible whoop in the crowd when the subject of the North Carolina anti-trans bathroom bill comes up, and the comic has to stop and explain to this attendee that it is not, in fact, a good bill. You talk enough shit, and you’ll draw flies. In a year where Senator Ted Cruz has tweeted about Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s hypothetically swollen testicles, you can almost count on attracting a fishy crowd when you get too edgy. Chappelle knows this intimately, as someone who walked away from $50 million in part because it freaked him out that his show could get a white person to laugh freely at racial stereotypes. Where is that guy? In The Closer, Dave’s too busy defending millionaires, especially himself, to get that it’s quirky to say the LGBTQ community breaks careers during his sixth time devoting a prickly portion of a new special to poking at every corner of the umbrella. If the velvet mafia exists, why do bathroom bills persist? (DaBaby has been on the Billboard Hot 100 chart twice since this cancellation arc started.) It’s a baffling move closing this special out by implying that people like Kevin Hart hold less power than the internet posters who check them every now and then. Foggy thought processes threaten to drown out The Closer’s best jokes, and not in the thrilling way the “8:46” bit sucked all the air out of the room by refusing outright laughs. This time, he’s going for the predictable jabs and rehashing takes that were old hat five years ago. His head is up his ass. He needs new ideas. I hope he enjoys the break. I hate feeling like I will, too.

Dave Chappelle’s Endless Feedback Loop