Dave Chappelle For Gender Realism

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How does a millionaire celebrity comedian with a boatload of awards retain his subversive edge? The great Richard Pryor solved the problem in the 1970s and 1980s by ever more extravagantly—and hilariously—going off the rails. “I say, ‘God, thank you for not burning my dick,’” he deadpanned on Sunset Boulevard, after having set himself on fire while free-basing cocaine. For Eddie Murphy, a follower of Pryor’s who has drifted into schmaltz and Shrek, the solution has proved more elusive.

Dave Chappelle is luckier than his two heroes. Having pocketed a reported $50m for six shows on Netflix, the 48-year-old stand-up is even bigger than they were at their peaks. And Mr Chappelle, who lives with his wife and children on a farm in deepest Ohio, shows no appetite for Pryor-level debauch or for voicing cartoon donkeys. No problem. The subversion bar has been reset so low by the censorious left that his irreverent, observational comedy has never seemed more topical or edgy. Thus the furore stirred by his jokes about transgender politics in the last of those shows, entitled “The Closer”, which was released last week.

Even many of his critics concede that the lead-in to Mr Chappelle’s long transgender riff is pretty funny. Because of his past jibes at the community, Mr Chappelle claims, in mock fear, a conspiratorial well-wisher warned him, “they after you”. “One ‘they’ or many ‘theys’?” he hissed back. But whatever the critics thought of his craft, they adjudged his act “transphobic” and to be condemned. As evidence, many cited his defence of J.K. Rowling’s insistence on the biological reality that trans identity and sex are different. (No wonder, he deadpans, that women are annoyed that Caitlyn Jenner won “woman of the year her first year as a woman, never even had a period…”) “The phobic jokes keep coming,” sighed the Guardian. “He needs new ideas,” huffed Vulture.

Mr Chappelle is of course foul-mouthed and shocking. He delivers an anti-Semitic one-liner in his show, chuckles as his audience gasps, then repeats it slowly, three times. Transgressing public mores, to deliver laughs, or social insight, or just to make people squirm and wonder why, has been the dominant tradition in stand-up ever since Pryor put a match to institutional racism, too. This reflects a singularly American set of conditions: high levels of social tension, a dominant place in popular culture for the most persecuted group and strongly protected free speech. Mr Chappelle, who, like Pryor and Mr Murphy is African-American and a master of many forms of comedy, calls stand-up his favourite form and an “American phenomenon”.

Because of its connection with social justice, most standup comedians, especially black ones, are of the left. But, again, the phenomenon must be edgy to be funny. So no whites are excluded from Pryor’s or Mr Chappelle’s racially loaded critiques, including the sympathetic left-wingers laughing wanly in their audiences. And that dramatic tension, between performer and fans, has increased in recent years as the activist left has increasingly presumed to police speech. A declaration in 2014 by Chris Rock, another top black comedian, that he could no longer perform for college crowds because they had become “way too conservative…[in] their willingness not to offend anybody,” was a signal cultural moment. For Mr Chappelle, who was in the process of relaunching his career around that time, it was also inspiring.

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