A Dave Chappelle Walks Into a Bar and...
They say that laughter is the best medicine but we guess that really depends on what you're sick with.
Peter Sotos was something else. He mined a very specific bit of distinctly American horror back in the 1980s and while cats like Jesse Helms were chasing Karen Finley for getting government monies, it was in these environs that Sotos was arrested.
You see in 1984 while most of the post-punk tribe were publishing some variant of fanzines, Sotos was publishing Pure, a magazine, at least by our reading, that focused almost exclusively on both the fictional rape and murder of children and, in rare occasions, adult women.
Later a Scottish suspect in multiple and actual child abductions and murders was found in possession of Pure, and this kicked off a daisy chain of events that culminated with Sotos’ arrest in Illinois. Though pleading guilty to the possession of child pornography, Sotos became a cause célèbre, and ultimately his work was collected in a volume called Total Abuse, a review copy of which I had on my coffee table.
I found the writing to be deftly clinical and unexpected in its impact sans the use of the kind of rough language that you’d expect to accompany such rough trade. It was painstakingly contructed, detailed, and horrific because of it. A surgeon friend of mine happened to stop by once and fingering through Total Abuse, he grunted.
“You know,” he held the book in the air. “I can understand writing a story like that. A story or two…” and then he feathered the pages so they flipped from side to side. “…But this MUCH?” He regarded the volume and shrugged.
Chappelle…turned down the immersive comedy sitcom about the Fourth Reich that was proposed by a comedian who pitched him in full Nazi regalia.
When the Interwebs started burbling over with well-placed marketing and “timely” outrage connected to Dave Chappelle’s The Closer, I didn’t even choose to ignore it. Choosing to ignore something implies a certain amount of effort. When Elvis Costello busted off after I had bought his first two records with an ill-timed take about Ray Charles being an “ignorant nigger,” I didn’t boycott him. His music just interested me much less. Which took no effort at all.
But this MUCH…that is, the culture war afoot in, on and around Chappelle and the topic of Chappelle’s last tranche of specials, all four of them? My days of being a plaything of the rich were well behind me I’d like to think. I just wasn’t going to get involved. It started to dovetail though. Into? Into random conversations about gender, trans lives and lifelong Republicans declaring Chappelle a genius. Not Chappelle of 20 years ago. But Chappelle of today.
Chappelle, a comedian I discovered and fell in love with over a bit about him in a traffic dispute getting his ass kicked by a dwarf, was now comfortably being declared the Greatest of All Time, or GOAT, by maybe the same klatsch that caused him, in full-flown existential pique, to walk off the sketch comedy show that, unarguably, made him famous in the first place.
The, at this point, semi-predictable shots at the cancel culture straw man didn’t interest or concern me. None of those people, or rather, ALL of those people doing the lion share of complaining are well acquitted enough that this can’t be, at least financially, one of their concerns.
Me? Yeah, maybe. But them? No, definitely.
Joe Rogan is safe. Dave Chappelle is safe. Bill Burr is safe.
And aside from the politics of it where Chappelle seems to ignore that LGBTQ people of color have and continue to be a very real thing, I was going to refuse to get drawn into the policy weeds of it. But to focus on why he’s “worth” focusing on in the first place, the comedy? Well, that’s very much the ticket. You see laughter is involuntary and if you’re urging yourself to laugh on the basis of policy sentiment, the laughter and its cause are suspect.
Which is to say, I laughed twice during the The Closer. And I laugh easily.
Cast in the same cloth as strains of philosophical thought that seek to “own the libs”, The Closer, and I’ve listened to ALL of Chappelle’s very lucrative Netflix specials, works in the vein of an apologia. While being disguised as everything but that.
The nutshell: years ago he popped off, and comedy is the science of popping off, about transgender issues and got some heat for it. He has since then, over special after special, cast and re-framed a line that both begins and ends with some version of “look what I meant to say was….”
Almost unnoticed about the language used in The Closer is that he, in fact, has changed his pronouns. The race bit? Pure MacGuffin, as he’s well aware of Black gays and their travails. So the reality seems to be that the trope regarding the sensitive souls of comedy is more true than not.
[I]n full-on hardcore style he was being given the only kind of critique he’d be likely to remember: a jab, a right cross, a knee on the way down and a stomp to drive the point home…
Chappelle is, after all, a man who turned down the immersive comedy sitcom about the Fourth Reich that was proposed by a comedian who pitched him in full Nazi regalia. Chappelle went to a famous arts and culture high school. Think of Fame. Chappelle, as he claims in The Closer, thinks about the critiques and they frame a dialogue in his head that’s very much about his place in space.
Which reminds me of what Dr. Gene Scott, the famed smart as a fox TV preacher from the ‘80s once said about spiritual devoutness and that was, and I’m paraphrasing here: pieces of shit never wonder if they’re right with G-d. This is purely the purview of the devout.
But does that excuse him of being less funny on each successive special? Two laughs for an hour of The Closer is about the same rate of return as you’d get for George Lopez, by my lights, and no one sane is calling Lopez The GOAT.
“I’ll get the motherfucking Purple Gang on you, maaaannnnn…”
I was standing out in front of The Mab in San Francisco. Some drunken rocker had rolled over from The Stone across the street to razz the “punkers”. The Purple Gang blast was funny and I laughed. Once. Once is all you need to peg you as “audience” for a drunk though.
A bit of rebop later that was not as nearly funny, so this erstwhile comedian romped back over to something that worked and hit again with a little history about Chicago’s Purple Gang and how he was part of it and if I didn’t get my shit straight he’d call them on me.
I laughed. Again. Just a little less.
Undeterred in the way that drunks often are, heedless of impending danger, he hit it a third time. To a chuckle. A slow chuckle. By the fourth time I had had enough and told him to take it on the arches.
“Nobody talks to the Purple Gang like…”
While I’d like to recount what he said here the reality of it was that he didn’t say much after time #4 at all because in full-on hardcore style he was being given the only kind of critique he’d be likely to remember: a jab, a right cross, a knee on the way down and a stomp to drive the point home.
So Chappelle should save his apologies. Black Trans folks are still being murdered for being Black Trans folks, and warmed over “musings” about non-Black Trans folks is attempting to explain something to an audience that’s either stopped listening, or is playing to one whose confirmation biases are being comfortably confirmed.
It’s a no win game. But is anyone with hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank ever really playing? Or is that all they are doing?
In any case Chappelle declares that this is his last special for awhile and it’s his last time talking about trans issues. A welcome development for all concerned. The dying, the dead, and the folks who just showed up for a few laughs.
And by a “few” let’s bank on more than two. Everybody else is.