It had already been a great night of comedy when the show’s host announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Dave Chappelle!” The entire audience gasped. For a small comedy show hosted weekly in a tiny gallery space, we were about to witness a comic legend up close and personal.
Chappelle, wearing a suit, strolled out onto the stage smoking a cigarette like the homecoming king. The crowd gave him a standing ovation. For many, our image of the man hadn’t changed since he quit Chappelle’s Show nearly ten years ago. Was this really him? The moment he cracked a smile and spoke, it was undeniable.
The next hour a blur, Chappelle riffed on various news topics of the day (Ferguson, Ray Rice, ISIS) and interacted with the crowd, including an incredible bit on feet-fucking. However, things took an uncomfortable turn when he went into an extended transphobic joke about meeting a trans person at a party and denying their desire to be treated humanly. Things continued to spiral downward when he began ranting against “the Gays” and his perceived notion that Gay pride parades come out of some form of entitlement. I suddenly felt shocked and confused. Chappelle has always been a progressive and intelligent voice in the comedy community, but it seems like he had ventured into “Grandpa’s Story Time” with these antiquated views.
Of course Dave Chappelle is human. I’m not arguing the opposite nor am I trying to hold him up on a pedestal. I will say that I wasn’t the only one taken aback and I appreciate not being alone in not clapping for everything he said that night. I was conflicted in even writing this piece, and other writers have touched on this night in a great way, but I wanted to share my experience too. Case in point, Dave Chappelle also made some rude Ray Rice jokes that night, but forty-five minutes into this rambling raconteurism, a devious grin on his face, he knew what he was saying was wrong even if the jokes were structurally funny. Now, this doesn’t excuse those jokes either, but the transphobic and homophobic jokes came from a place of ignorance, not mean-spiritedness, and as such, they should be called out so we can do something about it, especially when these rantings come from a person with such influence.
When Dave Chappelle finally left, the room in a smokey haze like an airplane on Mad Men, not as many people stood and cheered as when he arrived. I took this as a good sign. Chappelle is from an older generation of comedy, and we, the audience, have grown up in some big ways. I hope he will learn and grow as well.
If you are confused about the issue, this is a great time to educate yourself. There are plenty of great resources online, and there are some amazing trans and queer stand up comics whose work you should definitely check out including Cameron Esposito, James Adomian, Avery Edison, Rhea Butcher, Mo Welch, Jordan Wieleba, and Gabe Liedman. You won’t be disappointed.