Comedian Dave Chappelle has been feeling the heat since the release of his Netflix comedy special The Closer. In his shiny leathery grey suit and white sneakers, he sprays jokes that tests one's threshold for acceptable humour — on child sexual abuse, on gay men's oversensitivity to DaBaby's remarks on AIDS, on white gay men's racism, on lesbians' masculinity, on feminists being "frumpy dyke[s]". The list goes on. But Chappelle is no stranger to public outrage.
The remarks that rankled, however, causing a big public reckoning, were his deepening jokes on the trans community, which many argue are at the expense of the trans community.
Over six Netflix specials, Chappelle has honed his reputation as an irreverent comedian, toeing no line except that one he draws himself, which he then promptly erases with his acerbic punch lines. He has also collected a reputation of being transphobic, leading to people confronting him in public. In The Closer he takes this up a notch. The entire special feels reactive, like an FAQ to his genre of comedy — all the jokes are about people who have reacted in anger to his previous jokes.
Chappelle tells a joke about an old woman in a bar who is speaking to him about her daughter, an actress in LA. Chappelle, being kind, indulges the conversation and when the woman asks if Chappelle wants to see a picture, he reluctantly agrees. Looking at the photo, he says, "Oh… she's very beautiful." But when the woman puts the picture away, "she looks mean all of a sudden… and then she goes 'She's transgender'"
Chappelle, who by now realizes that this was a setup says, "I really resented that trap, because that trap doesn't let me be honest. If I was honest I wouldn't have fallen for it, I would have looked at the picture like, "Uhh look at that big chiselled jawline, that big thick Joe Rogan neck. Is that a dude? Is your daughter a man?"
If he says this in one breath, with the other he notes how much he is against Carolina's notorious anti-trans bathroom law, albeit with a comedic logic that cannot afford to be sincere for a moment.
Later, he notes about JK Rowling, "[Trans people] started calling her TERF. I didn't even know what the fuck that was. But I know that trans people make up words to win arguments," before he goes on to say, "[TERFs] look at transgender women the way we Blacks look at Black face. It offends them like, 'Uhh this bitch is doing an impression of me'." A TERF, a Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist is feminist who excludes transgender women from their advocacy of women's rights, because they do not consider trans women as women. By likening TERF ideology to Blackface, Chappelle marks an identity as a performance.
Chappelle proclaims, "I'm team TERF. I agree gender is a fact." But he also notes, "I am not saying that to say trans women are not women. I am just saying that those pussies that they got … you know what I mean? … It tastes like pussy, but it is quite what it is, is it? That's not blood. It's beet juice!"
He speaks of a deep friendship with Daphne Dornan, a trans comedian whom he had also referenced in his previous special Sticks And Stones, and how the trans community, criticizing her for associating with him, "dragged that bitch all over Twitter". She had died by suicide soon after, and Chappelle decided to open a trust fund in the name of the daughter who survived her. "When she turns 21… I'll tell that young lady I knew your father. And he was a wonderful woman."
The blowback was swift and swollen. The National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) made a statement calling the special "deeply disappointing". "With 2021 on track to be the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the United States — the majority of whom are Black transgender people — Netflix should know better," David Johns, executive director of the NBJC, said to CNN.
In an internal email on October 8, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos defended Chappelle's comedy special. "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," he said.
A Netflix employee, disappointed with the platform, leaked data on The Closer to Bloomberg. According to Bloomberg, Netflix spent $24.1 million on The Closer, compared with $23.6 million for his 2019 show, and just $3.9 million for Bo Burnham's Emmy-winning special Inside. Squid Game, the biggest series debut in Netflix history, cost the company $21.4 million, the report said. The disparity has further fueled the anger. The employee was fired.
Twitter account @Most, which promotes the company's queer content, made its disappointment known.
Terra Field, a trans Senior Software Engineer at Netflix, in a viral tweet, made the point, "Promoting TERF ideology (which is what we did by giving it a platform yesterday) directly harms trans people, it is not some neutral act. This is not an argument with two sides. It is an argument with trans people who want to be alive and people who don't want us to be."
Netflix suspended Terra Field, while noting that she was not suspended for the viral tweets, but for attending a director-level business meeting without an invitation. Post the public outcry, Netflix lifted the suspension.
The platform is currently facing employee resignations, a public backlash, and now, a planned walkout of the company's trans employee resource group on October 20th. For now, Netflix is standing behind The Closer.
In response, Dear White People co-showrunner Jaclyn Moor, who is trans, decided to stop collaborating with the company, saying, "It is much easier to commit violence against someone that you think is immoral or a liar or … someone not worthy of your respect."
Hannah Gadsby, the comedian of Netflix's Nanette, on Instagram condemned Netflix's "amoral algorithm cult". In response to Sarandos referencing Gadsby alongside Chappelle as an example of increased diversity on the streaming service, Gadbsy noted, "Just a quick note to let you know that I would prefer if you didn't drag my name into your mess."