If you’re a comedy nerd, you probably know that last week Dave Chappelle released two new standup specials simultaneously on Netflix, for the first time since 2004’s For What It’s Worth. The first special, The Age of Spin — taped in Los Angeles in 2016 — is an unsurprisingly complex hour of television, considering Chappelle’s reputation as a button-pusher, and a reminder of just how good he is when he’s up on a stage by himself with a microphone. But for lengthy stretches of the special, which I watched in a room full of men, I seemed to be the only person who wasn’t laughing.
Reviewing the show in the New York Times, Jason Zinoman wrote that Chappelle’s “daring, his insistence on challenging his audience, his eagerness to go there, is what makes the arrival of these specials such an invigorating — and possibly polarizing — event.” I’d argue that’s also what makes The Age of Spin’s reliance on easy laughs at the expense of women and LGBTQ people — jokes that I found offensive, to paraphrase Seinfeld, less as a woman than as a comedy fan — so disappointing.
Chappelle’s appeal rests in large part on his ability to simultaneously provoke and delight his audience. The Age of Spin begins with an ostensibly self-deprecating bit about a widely reported gig in which he showed up inebriated and was booed off the stage. (Well, not quite, he points out: “I was booed. I did not leave.”) By the end of the bit, though, he turns the joke back on the audience when he describes his reaction to the request that he issue refunds to pissed off fans: “You will never get your money back.”
Somehow Chappelle can admit to the most shameful things — like skipping a benefit for clean water in Flint, Michigan to go to the Oscars with Chris Rock against the backdrop of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign — and emerge unscathed. His delivery and general likeability help; he has a way of making an outrageous claim, then stepping back and letting the microphone fall away from his face with a chuckle, as if he can’t quite believe what he just said, either. It’s an annoyingly endearing tic, wiping away any trace of ill will as swiftly as an eraser on a chalkboard.
He’s so at ease up there, so expert in his pacing, that it’s all the more jarring when he delves into his Bill Cosby rape material, which bookends the hour. Chappelle is sly and articulate in what Zinoman calls his “argument for complexity in our assessment of Mr. Cosby.” But this characterization sidesteps the actual jokes at the heart of his argument (to be fair, probably to avoid giving them away), jokes that I can imagine were a lot harder for some women to swallow than for men. (Spoilers ahead.)
Chappelle describes a scenario in which a superhero can only activate his powers by touching a woman’s vagina — and then raping her. He invites the audience to participate in a thought experiment: What if this guy was running around town raping women, but only as a prerequisite to saving even more people? “He rapes, but he saves!”
At the end of the special, Chappelle returns to Cosby, whom he calls “the Steph Curry of rapes.” He runs through a list of reasons why it’s hard for him to completely dismiss his former hero, a man who donated money to worthy causes, helped black kids go to college, and worked hard to ensure the portrayal of African Americans on TV was fair and free of stereotypes. “He rapes,” Chappelle cracks, “but he saves!”
Sure, it’s a clever circle-back to the superhero bit. But I feel like we’ve reached a point where if a man is going to joke about a serial rapist, those had better be some really fucking funny jokes. Ditto Chappelle’s stale material on the “Q” in “LGBTQ” (“It’s for gay dudes that don’t know they’re gay”) and the trans rights movement — he jokes that trans people are so visible now they’re more protected than black people, which I suspect is news to many in the trans community, particularly transgender women of color, who make up the majority of hate-crime homicide victims and are six times more likely to experience police violence than white cisgender people.
Of course, these kinds of statistics are a major buzzkill, and I generally fall on the side of allowing comedians and artists to take risks even if that means risking offending your audience. But I’m always struck by how much easier it seems to be for men to both make jokes about certain taboo subjects and to laugh at them — and how tempting it is for women and other marginalized groups to laugh along even at our own expense, lest we not be dismissed as the tight-ass sitting with her arms crossed and her lips pursed. (Which is inevitably used as proof that the joke can’t have been that bad, because look, even the women are laughing!)
The truth is, a lot of the material in The Age of Spin didn’t make me laugh so much as grimace. That’s not to say Chappelle shouldn’t have touched the material in the first place, but that if you’re going to go near subjects like rape and trans rights — and if you’re taking home a reported $60 million to do so — don’t go for the easy laughs that are clearly aimed at straight men who will giggle at the word “vagina” no matter what surrounds it.
Maybe I’d have laughed more at the “He rapes but he saves” line if I hadn’t been thinking, Cosby rapes way more than he saves! I agree that we should hold Cosby’s accomplishments apart from his crimes, just as I can have a problem with some of Chappelle’s material and still think he’s one of the best standups on the planet. The irony is, women and LGBTQ people know all about the kind of mind-twisting justifications required to enjoy the work of criminal men.
I get the feeling that Chappelle just didn’t take this line of thinking into account when he came up with his Cosby bit; he doesn’t grapple with Cosby on behalf of his alleged victims, but on behalf of himself, and that’s fine. But sitting in that dark room listening to the men around me laugh wholeheartedly at jokes that gave me pause just reminded me, once again, the extent to which straight men are the assumed lowest-common-denominator audience of any mainstream act.
Chappelle’s post-Comedy Central disappearing act imbued him with the status of a legend, and his comeback has so far affirmed his standing. But that kind of hero status is a privilege, no matter how hard-won, and it comes with a responsibility: Make it funny, or leave it alone.