Opinion | You don’t need to be problematic to be funny

By Rachel Soloff, Assistant Opinions Editor

Dave Chappelle has been under fire recently for transphobic comments — such as defending J.K. Rowling’s transphobic remarks and stating that “gender is a fact” — in his new standup special, “The Closer.” Netflix jumped quickly to defend the comedian, and even fired a trans employee who was said to be organizing a walkout against the special. After the backlash, Chappelle doubled down saying he didn’t care about other people’s opinions on the situation before eventually offering a lackluster apology on Monday.

Chappelle is definitely not the first nor last comic to make bigoted jokes about a marginalized group in the name of comedy. Many older comedians rely on offensive stereotypes to make out-of-date jokes. When they are called out for these problematic jokes, they complain that they are being silenced. This is far from the truth — being blatantly racist, sexist, antisemitic, homophobic or transphobic is not funny. It’s a lazy and cheap way to get stale laughs and has no place in comedy. These jokes aren’t edgy — they are bigotry disguised as humor.

Comedians like Chappelle and Ricky Gervais seem to constantly complain that comedy has become too politically correct and that audiences are too sensitive. This is not true. Audiences have just started to call out comedians for harmful jokes. Most of the time, these jokes are just downright lazy, repeating the same bigoted sentiments used for years. Comedians say these jokes are just a part of their set and that they shouldn’t be taken seriously, but this discounts the real harm that they do.

By saying these offensive jokes to such a large and public audience, the comedians normalize bigotry. These comedians aren’t being “canceled” for their jokes being too edgy, they are being called out for the real damage they are doing to marginalized groups by recklessly spewing hatred.

This isn’t to say that comedy can’t get into topics about personal identity, as there are ways to tactfully and humorously talk about more serious experiences without hurting people. Transgender comic Robin Tran is a great example of this. She often makes jokes about herself and the difficulties of being a trans woman, but does so without tokenizing herself or reinforcing harmful stereotypes about transgender people. She is authentically herself, joking about things she’s experienced and making people laugh without causing harm. Tran made her fame participating in roast battles, which have often been used to make bigoted jokes for shock value to reach wider audiences. On an episode of the show “Roast Battle,” Alex Duong, Tran’s roaster, told respectful jokes — never relying on stereotypes about transgender women. 

Comedy is all about punching up by making jokes about those in charge — it shouldn’t focus on punching down on groups already facing discrimination. Chappelle mentioned the idea of punching down in his special in a dismissive way, implying that it’s OK to make transphobic jokes.

Comedians who just focus on the same bad jokes about the same groups of people neglect to achieve the true goals of comedy. For example, Chappelle has made numerous jokes about transgender people all with a similar, offensive punchline. In “The Closer,” after Chappelle says he supports trans people, he uses the wrong pronouns for a trans woman and uses a slur for transgender people. These jokes come off as meanspirited and divisive, while comedy is all about making others laugh and bringing joy.

If this older generation of comics is so upset with the new comedy landscape because they are not as freely available to make bigoted jokes, they should step back and make room for a new generation of comics. The older comedians may have just outgrown the comedy scene as people are less likely to put up with disrespectful comedy than they were even just 10 years ago. Instead of focusing on Chappelle’s out-of-date jokes about trans folks, there needs to be a stronger spotlight on trans comedians like Robin Tran and Patti Harrison who deserve the same or greater support.

Standup comedy is something that should grow with its audiences. If the audiences are saying that they won’t take bigotry, the comedians should take in the criticism and create new jokes. This week, transgender employees of Netflix walked out as a response to Netflix’s dismissal of trans voices on the Chappelle situation. This will definitely not be the last protest as people should continue to hold comedians and their production companies accountable for continually throwing money at these bigoted comedians.

Standup comedy has become incredibly dynamic and creative in the past few years. Bo Burnham created an entire special from his home this year that he filmed, directed, edited and starred in. Comedian Julio Torres has made one of the most creative specials with “My Favorite Shapes,” in which Torres uses puppets and crazy sets that create a quirky feel. Comedy doesn’t need to be stale anymore, it can go above and beyond. Saying comedy is dead is far from the truth. It’s offensive comedy that is dying and it should stay that way.

Rachel Soloff writes primarily about the entertainment industry and social justice. Write to her at [email protected].