Comedy is like surgery; there will be blood and pain.
But the best practitioners use their sharp instruments to mitigate and stave off human suffering. They make precise and necessary, if sometimes drastic, cuts as they attempt to make those upon whom they operate (be it a body or a society) better.
Both surgeons and comedians remind us that we are animals, subject to the indignities of organic existence, and that all our pretensions to self- esteem and decorum are touchingly silly notions.
I probably would not have watched Dave Chappelle's latest Netflix special had I not heard about the controversy surrounding it. "The Closer," which debuted on Netflix last week, includes several minutes of jokes about trans people. A lot of people, including some friends, were very upset about it. Some are calling it transphobic.
Netflix employees are among those upset; a couple of dissenters were suspended after trying to crash a virtual meeting of the company's directors and vice presidents to which they hadn't been invited. Those employees have been re-instated, and Netflix says it has no problem with its employees making critical remarks about the network's content on social media.
But Netflix also says it has no plans to take Chappelle's special off the air. And you can understand why--when we punched it up last week there was a little badge in the corner of the title screen that indicated it was Netflix's third most-watched program that day.
A message to Netflix employees from co-CEO Ted Sarandos, obtained by The Verge and Variety, defended the special.
"Several of you have also asked where we draw the line on hate," Sarandos wrote. "We don't allow titles on Netflix that are designed to incite hate or violence, and we don't believe 'The Closer' crosses that line. I recognize, however, that distinguishing between commentary and harm is hard, especially with stand-up comedy which exists to push boundaries ... Some people find the art of stand-up to be mean-spirited, but our members enjoy it, and it's an important part of our content offering."
In principle, I agree with Sarandos; I am unwilling to tell artists how to do their jobs. The best system is one in which creative people are free to pursue their most ambitious, reckless and extreme ideas; publishers and platforms are free to decide what sort of messages they will support, and consumers are free to consume what they want.
This system obviously isn't perfect, for quality of effort is hardly a guarantee of success. Popularity accrues to the mediocre and reassuring, for a lot of people don't care to be challenged by their entertainment.
And money corrupts--it has seduced into hackhood many capable and talented people. But a market- driven model may be the best we can do, given the subjective nature of artistic endeavor.
Some artists do seem incorruptible. Chappelle was arguably one of them back in 2005, when he walked away from Comedy Central's successful "Chappelle's Show," a sketch series that reached legendary highs, rather than accept a $50 million payday.
In addition to being exhausted by the workload, Chappelle was worried that the show was being received in a spirit other than the one in which it was offered; he worried that it was reinforcing the racial stereotypes it attempted to satirize. He thought some people were laughing at it for the wrong reasons.
So he did the right thing.
But let's acknowledge, as Chappelle has, that he also made the calculation that after you've reached a certain level of success, an extra $50 million probably won't change your life for the better. As the Notorious B.I.G. put it, "mo money, mo problems."
For eight years Chappelle laid low, making infrequent appearances here and there. He was on "The Actors Studio." He was interviewed by Anderson Cooper. He performed a six-hour, 12-minute routine at Los Angeles comedy club Laugh Factory.
After eight years in which he made infrequent appearances, Chappelle re-emerged to do stand-up comedy in 2013. His Netflix specials started in 2016; he's reportedly paid $20 million for each one. Since then, he's been embraced as a comedy legend.
The Kennedy Center gave him The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He's a mainstream performer, hardly an underdog. Which may be why he feels he has to try so hard to maintain his aggressive edge.
"The Closer" is edgy, but very little of it is genuinely funny. Some of it struck me as ambitious but hardly revelatory. Like most good comics, Chappelle is a serious thinker, but his work here seems inchoate. A lot of it sounds like an unseemly special pleading for understanding, a self-ironic acknowledgment of transphobia designed to inoculate him from criticism.
Chappelle never forgoes an opportunity to let us know how courageous he's being in continuing to drill down into his problems with women and the LGBTIQA+ community.
(One funny moment from "The Closer": In response to his transphobia, Chappelle says a friend told him, "Careful, Dave, they after you." Chappelle's response: "One they, or many theys?")
I didn't find the humor offensive so much as obvious and reductive. Chappelle oscillated between preening arrogance and defensiveness. Some of the jokes seemed reflexive and crude. Even in the best moments, it was easy to see how he was working toward a powerful--but not at all that funny--denouement in a story about his trans friend Daphne Dorman.
Chappelle certainly understands that words can cause real-world harm. It was a relief when he announced at the end of the special that he would tell no more jokes about gay and trans people "until we're sure we're both laughing together."
I understand why some people don't like "The Closer." I didn't like it much either.
But what we should do about not liking it? Maybe I won't watch Chappelle's next special.
And a bunch of us deciding not to watch the next special is not "canceling" Dave Chappelle. (Nobody can "cancel" anyone anyway.) It's us exercising our prerogatives as consumers. If enough of us decide not to watch Chappelle's next special, maybe Netflix will decide not to put the one after that one on.
Chappelle will probably find another platform--and that's fine, he's capable of extraordinary work--and continue to have fans and to make a living.
And to be criticized.
Comedy is supposed to hurt, but it's not supposed to damage. A surgeon with a machete is just a butcher.