Connecticut Post (Sunday)

Does Dave Chapelle matter?

- COLIN MCENROE Colin McEnroe’s column appears every Sunday, his newsletter comes out every Thursday and you can hear his radio show every weekday on WNPR 90.5. Email him at Sign up for his free newsletter at­oe.

We need Dave Chapelle and will continue to need Dave Chapelle as we move forward.

Just not this Dave Chapelle.

The Battle of Dave Chapelle has consumed the entire month of October, starting with the release of “The Closer,” Chapelle’s sixth Netflix special and, according to him, the last one he’ll do for a while

The Battle of Dave Chapelle is also a lot more complicate­d than either side wants it to be.

The latest skirmish came this week when Chapelle made his first postreleas­e statement, after an uprising and walkout among Netflix employees who were troubled by the trans-phobic and homophobic stuff that’s in the special.

To no one’s surprise, Chapelle did not apologize.

He offered to meet with unhappy Netflix staffers as long as they watch his special front to back, let him pick the venue and admit that Hannah Gadsby is not funny.

The Gadsby crack is like Manuel Noriega, surrounded by U.S. forces, announcing his forcible annexation of the Galapagos islands. Chapelle essentiall­y opened a new front in the war by taunting Gadsby, a lesbian comedian whose 2018 Netflix special “Nanette” tore into the substructu­re of comedy and attempted to expose it as, in her case, a way of compartmen­talizing a lifetime of abuse and marginaliz­ation.

In “Nanette,” Gadsby says she is quitting stand-up comedy. Gadsby’s attack on the self-underminin­g nature of comedy ignited a series of salon conversati­ons and multiple viewings of her work by the cognoscent­i, who wondered if comedy would ever be the same.

Comedy declined the invitation to change itself. Gadsby released another special that hewed much closer to traditiona­l stand-up. Life went on. Chapelle is far from the only comedian who says she’s not very funny. Gadsby’s retort, I think, is that she’s all done worrying about whether people — especially male cis-gendered comedians — think she’s funny.

Each of them would reject this claim, but Gadsby and Chapelle share a similar need to convert comedy into a space where their need to settle scores becomes more important than, well, comedy itself.

I’ve come to admire Chapelle’s intellect and his daring, but “The Closer” lost me, starting with Chapelle’s gleeful, anatomical descriptio­n of repeatedly punching a lesbian who picked a fight with him. The audience laughs at this, even though there isn’t a joke in sight for miles in any direction.

The special seems mired in Chapelle’s own grievances and considerab­ly less interested in the goings-on of the rest of the world. More than ever before, Chapelle is all about Chapelle. He’s more concerned with his recent past than with the present or future. And he’s obsessed by the question of whether his previous needling of trans-persons is as indefensib­le as they make it out to be.

As a result, “The Closer” is often as tedious as Chapelle thinks “Nanette” is. At the end, Chapelle plunges into a craven attempt to inoculate himself by describing his friendship with a nowdecease­d trans-woman aspiring comedian. He mentions having set up a trust fund for her son.

Imagine what Chapelle would have done if Rush Limbaugh, after decades of race-baiting, tried to take himself off the hook with a similar gesture. Chapelle would have known just how to prick that balloon for the loudest explosion.

Chapelle’s attempt to trade on that one relationsh­ip is eerily reminiscen­t of the late Don Imus who, when decades of racist and sexist bullying caught up with him, kept gesturing toward the ranch he set up for kids with cancer, as it that were some kind of immutable pardon.

OK, here’s where it gets complicate­d. Chapelle’s central argument is that he has no real problem with LGBT people but that they’re a great example of a subculture whose predominan­t whiteness means they get heard sooner and get results quicker. He says it was easier for Bruce Jenner to change his identity than for Cassius Clay to change his name. He jokes that if slaves had leaned into body oil and booty shorts, freedom might have come 100 years sooner. He observes that rapper DaBaby got in more trouble for a couple of anti-gay taunts during a concert than he did for killing a 19-year-old Black man in a Walmart.

And you could say that the Battle of Dave Chapelle kind of proves his point. LGBT objectors to his material have made a lot of progress in at least nationaliz­ing a debate about him. It’s easier to have argument about Chapelle than about, for example, the 10-year life expectancy disparity between Black and white residents of our nation’s capital or the fact that the median net worth of U.S. white households is 10 times the size of the median net worth of Black households.

Meanwhile, hate crimes motivated by trans-phobic bias have jumped by 20 percent for two years running. You can maybe see why people from that community say they don’t need a hugely popular comedian trash-talking them.

All of the above reflects the complex role of comedy in a roiling society. Writing earlier this year in The Point, essayist Greg Jackson laid out the way comedy has performed the task of “making audiences productive­ly uncomforta­ble, pressing on sensitivit­ies and insecuriti­es as a way of releasing what was pent-up or unresolved. It is generally better to laugh at our inherent frailty and darkness, better to sublimate it in art, than to repress or pretend it away.”

If you shut down this process, you open up its machinery to demagogues like Donald Trump. Trump, like Chapelle, specialize­s in saying stuff you’re not supposed to say. You’re not supposed to say John McCain was not a real hero or that very nice people marched alongside the parade machers chanting “Jews will not replace us” or that bleach could be a good home remedy for COVID or that Second Amendment fans might have their own very good solution to the presidency of Hillary Clinton. Very often, when called on the carpet about this kind of thing, Trump’s defense has been that he was joking.

Comedian Eddie Izzard blew up the “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” slogan with this: “... but I think the gun helps, you know? I think it helps. I just think just standing there going, Bang!, that’s not going to kill too many people, is it?”

And Chapelle said the only solution to America’s over-permissive gun laws is: “Every able-bodied African-American must register for a legal firearm. That’s the only way they’ll change the law.”

This is what comedians do so well. They run their thumbs down the knife’s edge of national incongruit­ies.

And it’s why, even though I was sickened by a lot of what Chapelle had to say in 2021, I’m pretty sure we’re going to need him in the years to come.

 ?? Sean Rayford / TNS ?? Comedian Dave Chappelle has faced backlash over his anti-LGBTQ remarks in a new special.
Sean Rayford / TNS Comedian Dave Chappelle has faced backlash over his anti-LGBTQ remarks in a new special.
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