So Dave Chappelle is back again with yet another Netflix special, The Closer. Its humor, which is hostile to LGBTQ+ people, dismissive of ‘pussyhat’ feminism, and defensive of celebrities like Kevin Hart, landed very badly to say the least. And the outcry has been loud.
How has Netflix responded?
They have suspended, and then reinstated, three employees who protested an internal meeting about the show. They have fired an employee who organized a walkout in protest of the special, saying that the employee had leaked internal metrics about it. (Apparently it cost $24 million to make. That’s $3 million more than the cost of Squid Game! They could have bought a lot more green tracksuits and dalgona with that.)
And how has Chappelle responded? Well…
He also had words for anyone who chose to watch the Netflix special despite having some idea what kind of comedy he’s known for: “Remember bitch, you clicked on my face.”
Indeed, the debate over Chappelle’s comedy seems to be exactly what he wants — a way to keep his name in the public eye, draw lots of curiosity views, make his fans feel even more protective of him, and in his own words “victim blame” anyone feeling outraged. And it seems to be working; Netflix’s official comedy Twitter account has been promoting the special by referencing some of its most controversial moments and retweeting praise from comedians. It all bodes well for more Chappelle specials in Netflix’s future — and more rounds of this debate. [source]
Oops. That blockquote is from an article about 2019’s incendiary (apologies: it’s practically a mandatory adjective) Chappelle special, Sticks and Stones, in which he is hostile to LGBTQ+ people, dismissive of the #metoo movement, and defensive of celebrities like Kevin Hart. The Closer sees him trade the Michael Jackson jokes for declaring himself a ‘TERF’ and defending J.K. Rowling, but one could imagine splicing the two specials together without most people noticing.
If we wanted to breezily summarize the popular take on canceling or ‘cancel culture’ or what Chappelle calls ‘celebrity hunting season’ (and breezy summaries, my friend, are what blogs are for –if you want the full story, read my book!), we could do worse than throwing most everyone into two rough categories:
- Canceling is unfair to the canceled, because it is wrong to take someone’s living from them for their perceived transgressions.
- Canceling is just voting ‘nope’ by withholding time and attention, so there’s no real question of fairness. Artists aren’t owed audiences.
Framed this way, the debate then proceeds along all-too-familiar lines. We debate whether the artist in question deserves to be canceled, as if it’s akin to a judicial sanction where proportionality is paramount. Chappelle’s segment about Kevin Hart, for example, argues that he shouldn’t have lost the Oscar hosting job over some decade-old homophobic tweets. Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos defended the decision to keep The Closer on its service in terms of creative freedom (but also noting that Sticks and Stones is their “most watched, stickiest, and most award winning stand-up special to date.”)
Philosophers have pushed the conversation about problematic artists further, of course, focusing on the hazards of admiring the immoral, or figuring out how we should draw the line when artists we love do bad things. Erich Matthes even mentions Chappelle specifically as a performer who is simply too popular to cancel.
And from what we’ve seen so far, Matthes is right. The outcry in 2019 didn’t rehabilitate Chappelle. Nor did the meetings that Netflix employees held with management in 2019 lead them not to offer him $24 million for another special. We’re having the exact same conversation about his art in 2021. The Closer, with its defensive last third, didn’t strike me as better than Sticks and Stones, but it’s currently #7 on Netflix. The op-ed writers can probably draft the copy for their take on the 2023 special now.
While the only thing worse than being talked about on social media is not being talked about on social media, there’s a more subtle problem with trying to cancel Chappelle. If an artist is actually canceled (not always clear if that happens), they’re probably going to try to come back. There isn’t a formal script on how to do this, but the basic outline can be sketched: Apologize. Make some kind of amends. Show some personal growth. Spend some time out of the public eye. Return with a new project. Definitely don’t reoffend.
Chappelle’s case is distinct from some of other troubling artists because it’s the content of his comedy itself that caused offense. This gives him more options. Comedy often plays with the fuzzy boundary between what’s funny-and-incisive and what’s offensive, and Chappelle was master of pushing that boundary just a little further. The man clearly isn’t afraid to offend. In Sticks and Stones he revived some jokes about the child molestation allegations against Michael Jackson after the shocking HBO documentary aired. His humor isn’t built only on his ability to shock, of course, but he’s one to lean into controversy, not shy away.
So, one can imagine Chappelle’s decision. Option A: Tone down the act, offer an apology, make nice, maybe do a little charity work. Win the upset fans back. Option B: Double down. Argue that comedy is supposed to be shocking and offensive and thereby rhetorically inoculate his act from criticism that it’s offensive. Remember, bitch, you clicked on my face. Risk losing the upset fans but endear yourself to those who like the shock value.
Moreover, doubling down is on brand for Chappelle. We expect pushing the boundary of comedy and offense as part of his aesthetic vision. One might expect all comedians to double down on offense, as Louis C.K. has also done post-scandal, but such an approach isn’t universal even among disgraced comedians. For example, Aziz Ansari returned with a Netflix special that featured him addressing the 2018 allegations of his boorish behavior on a date somberly before returning to a stand-up set. The new season of his series Master of None sees former lead character Dev fade into the background in favor of telling the misadventures in love of Lena Waite’s character, Denise.
Ansari’s comedy, however, never featured the boundary-pushing of Chappelle, and his persona – especially in character as Dev – is softer, kinder, goofier. Ansari’s supposed to be a feminist. Ansari may well be sincere in his apparent repentance, but even if he weren’t, his comedic sensibility didn’t leave him many options.
Chappelle himself doesn’t seem to be slowing down:
Last week, as the controversy over the special mounted, Mr. Chappelle made an appearance at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. In response to a standing ovation, he told the crowd, “If this is what being canceled is like, I love it.” [source]
It’s not just that Chappelle’s popular, nor that he’s proven in the past that he has no problem leaving millions on the table if he doesn’t want it, nor that he’s a comedian. None of these things makes him impossible to chastise through cancellation. It’s that appealing to an audience that enjoys offensive jokes doesn’t play against aesthetic type. If Chappelle’s art dines on controversy, cancellation serves it dessert.
Canceling thus has an underappreciated aesthetic dimension. Whether it is likely to succeed depends not just on what the artist did, or whether they have a large and forgiving fan base, but on the kind of art they make.
Mary Beth Willard is an associate professor of philosophy at Weber State University and regular contributor to Aesthetics for Birds. She is the author of the newly released book Why It’s OK to Enjoy the Art of Immoral Artists.