In October of last year, which was forty-four years ago, comedian Dave Chappelle was honored with The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the highest honor in comedy. For those of you that have been living under a rock, this award was well-deserved; Chappelle was a teenage prodigy who lived up to his potential and then some, bringing an intellect and energy to the stage from his youth that propelled him to the top of the comedy world before his thirtieth birthday. While his stand-up history is prolific, his crowning achievement is Chappelle’s Show, quite possibly the funniest show of all-time which he wrote, directed, and starred in. Chappelle’s Show was genius, a satirical sketch comedy that mused on modern societal issues such as race, gender roles, addiction, the media, politics, and celebrity. This wasn’t the only sketch show with a conscious edge, but it remains the funniest by a wide margin, far outpacing the classic moments of SNL despite fewer than three seasons worth of content. Chappelle left the show during negotiations for future seasons(during which a $50 million contract was offered to him) due to his frustration with the show’s perception and his role in perpetuating stereotypes he was looking to break through, a decision that has been hailed as extremely brave in retrospect.
All of this is to say that Chappelle is beloved, but not by everybody. Chappelle signed a $60 million deal with Netflix for what amounted to six stand-up specials, one of which was a YouTube video released during the protests of George Floyd’s murder. After a long hiatus from recording his work, fans were eager to stream their favorite comedian who surely had a lot of jokes and opinions to share after years away from the spotlight. There are two things to know about these specials that are relevant to this article: first, the specials were hilarious. There’s no denying Chappelle’s innate ability to make people laugh, even as he’s discussing very serious subjects such as school shootings and the heroin epidemic. However, despite his hilarity, many are still trying to wrangle with thing number two, which is Dave’s clear apathy toward the transgender community. During five of these six specials, as well as his acceptance speech for the Mark Twain Award, Chappelle goes on crusades against the soft nation he believes we’ve become, using terms such as “brittle spirit” to describe the media and a public he views as hysterical and overly-sensitive. There’s merit to Chappelle framing comedy as something of a sacred ground, a place where no topic or person is off-limits, an idea many of us can get behind to some degree. But the same way Dave wonders how much he needs to adjust his own life to cater to the trans community, we need to ask how much we need to pretend to think his jokes on this topic are funny, insightful, or valuable in any way.
Chappelle has an ability to “go there” and have people accept it because the joke is just too goddamn funny to get upset about, yet he has missed the mark just about every time he’s pivoted to joking about the transgender community, a tactic he’d be overusing even if the jokes landed. I don’t say these jokes aren’t funny because they’re mean, I say they’re not funny because they don’t make anyone laugh that isn’t at the show themselves. Perhaps it’s because we truly are too sensitive, but having to listen to Dave cry about seeing a trans woman at a party and being corrected regarding her gender, or go on an abstract diatribe about a car full of representatives of each “letter” in the LGBTQ community has been more of a chore than an enjoyable experience. Gay jokes aren’t new, nor would anyone say they are off-limits. The masses generally understand that comedy comes for everyone for every reason, and if we can’t laugh about it then we probably need to loosen up. There’s also no law against telling bad jokes, if Dave wants to waste 15% of a special missing with his haymakers then he has every right to do so. What should disappoint his fans is his insistence to come back to this same issue time and again, to punch down at a group as courageous as any without offering nearly enough humor to justify it. While Chappelle does make positive remarks about the bravery of trans people, it’s clear that he can’t help himself when it comes to exhibiting his confusion and indifference, which is remarkable given how many otherwise-positive reviews of the special were buoyed with explanations of why his jokes fell flat. If Dave was truly touching on something that was difficult to make sense of, that’d be justifiable, but this issue has been covered extensively for years, to the point where somebody as tuned-in as Chappelle could have easily educated himself ten times over on the struggles of this group.
Chappelle is currently doing a series of outdoor, socially-distant shows in his native Ohio, inviting some of the most talented comedians in the world to perform, including Michelle Wolf, Sarah Silverman, and Tiffany Haddish. There were several other guests as well, among them a surprise: Louis CK. CK has been fairly quiet for the last three years after gruesome sexual assault allegations, which he confirmed were true, arose in the mid-2010’s and blew up in 2017 in the midst of the Me Too movement. Chappelle has, on two occasions, gone to bat for CK, once claiming the “punishment” was too harsh and another time claiming that the incident was really not that big a deal, that men who recently finished after masturbating should not be seen as a threat. The last part was a bit of humor on his part, but the point stands that these stances are at minimum tone-deaf, while I’d argue that powerful men taking the side of these offenders is enabling. CK and Chappelle are friends, and while Dave might see the invitation as doing his buddy a solid, the women(and men) that worked tirelessly to have their stories told of powerful men abusing their rank for sexual gain had their legs cut from underneath them.
But even more terrifying is the idea that CK was “punished” and had “everything taken away from him” as Chappelle claimed in his stand-up. CK spent the better part of the 21st century establishing himself as one of the best comedians in the world, collecting millions and even writing and starring in his own TV shows, Louie and Horace And Grant. Before CK got into stand-up, he was a burgeoning filmmaker, most famous for making Pootie Tang. CK had seen some success, but nothing that measured up to what the next fifteen years would look like for both his status and his bottom line. It was shortly after Pootie Tang came out that CK sexually assaulted a pair of female comedians whose story, which they relayed immediately following the incident, was silenced for fifteen years before coming to light in 2017. In those fifteen years, CK amassed a fortune from both comedy and film, making enough money to surely last a lifetime, if not ten lifetimes over. The idea of CK getting anything taken away from him is absurd, as those fifteen years were borrowed time that he was afforded before he faced even a shred of criticism for his actions, not some deserved career cut short by a fake-outrage mob. It cannot be overstated that CK faced zero real consequences, no legal action was taken and he was free to live in any way he chose. Framing his brief hiatus from Hollywood as some horrible trial or tribulation does a grave disservice to actual survivors. CK claims he lost $35 million in income, a number 99.9% of us could ever dream of seeing in a lifetime. The focus should not be on the money he “lost”, but the money he earned while everyone with financial skin in the game worked to bury these allegations. Entertainment is no different than any other field, no matter how we treat it. The best software engineer in the world is replaceable just like the best comedian in the world(a claim I’d argue CK never could’ve made) can be ousted in a moment’s notice, with his spot being taken by one of the thousands of penniless stand-up acts that have waited their entire, unproblematic lives for such a chance.
Chappelle and CK are not the only examples of men who say or do awful things, but they are a perfect example of how the “fake outrage” described by many that yearn for a bygone era is coming from the transgressors, not from a public that demands only a modicum of respect for celebrities they enjoy to continue consuming their work. “Cancel Culture” is a term we’ve all heard ad nauseum, a tired trope used by those that are upset, furious even, at rich and famous people being held accountable or even mildly criticized. This is one writer’s interpretation of course, but the discussions around the term have gotten out of control, and I use Chappelle and CK as examples because of how clear it is that we are all getting played. Chappelle, somebody who does not say “cancel culture” in specials but who implies his distaste for it quite clearly, begins one special with a hyperbolic impersonation of an audience that refuses to support anyone who’s ever done anything wrong, no matter the context. Aside from being an asinine sentiment, Chappelle is *far* more upset at this new reality than anyone who’s been on the cancelling side has been about real atrocities.
This also opens up to three important questions: Is cancel culture even real? If so, who’s been cancelled? In the case of those cancelled, were the consequences fair? Some light research can help answer those questions, let’s start with seeing who has been “cancelled”. Of the people that have been cancelled, there are really only two of prominence who will likely never be relevant again in a good way, and that’s Harvey Weinstein and R Kelly, the former being a movie producer whose exploits have been well-documented and the latter an R&B singer who had plenty of defenders despite his grotesque history. If anyone has any objections to Weinstein being cancelled I can’t imagine what they’d be, what regular person would have feelings toward this guy? As far as Kelly, his streams(no, his music streams) increased despite an ongoing legal battle. Kelly is a has-been who was able to amass a fortune despite his exploits, which include kidnapping women and brainwashing them into living with him in addition to his sex tapes with minors. Many were far too minor to have any leeway, and without a fanbase that cares about you, you’re past mistakes are likely to spell doom. That’s how it goes in any business, if you’re new you have no margin of error until you’ve established yourself as valuable. Old racist tweets might be survivable for A-listers, but not for this group trying to break in or ride a lack of talent as far as it can go, sorry!
Shows, movies, and songs have been brought up as problematic, and it’s important to note those none of these are people, but for what it’s worth many gained more streams/plays once the respective controversies arose. I can also promise you that nobody really cared about any of these existing, the controversy came from a small group pointing out problematic lyrics/scenes/themes while a much larger, louder group took this as the outrage mob coming for classic songs, shows, and movies. Cops and Live PD were taken off the air but still exist on streaming platforms even following the recent Black Lives Matter movement and protests against the police brutality those shows glorify. Celebs such as Jamie Foxx, Jimmy Fallon, Ellen, Lana Del Rey, Jeffree Star, Aziz Ansari, Scarlet Johansson, Doja Cat, Matt Lauer, JK Rowling, and Michael Jackson have faced zero real consequences. Foxx had sexual assault allegations that he’s largely put behind him, same with Fallon and his blackface sketch from his SNL days. Ellen still has her show, Del Rey still has her fanbase of twenty-somethings who post sad quotes on Instagram from their parent’s yachts, Star is still doing what Jeffree Star does, Ansari got a Netflix special after his allegations and even spoke at Chappelle’s award ceremony, ScarJo has famously gotten plenty of roles, even some she has no business playing, and Doja Cat’s hit song Say So was number one in the country, which dropped significantly after her racism was exposed all the way down to number one, a tragedy. Rowling’s bigoted stances were rewarded with an invitation to join a group of prominent media members in signing an open letter railing against cancel culture. Michael Jackson is dead, and many, including Chappelle, couldn’t care less about what he did while he was alive. As far as Lauer goes, his creepiness did cost him his job(getting paid millions to host a morning show), but he’s been making a comeback that has been generously covered by the same media that somehow can’t fathom why “cancel culture” is a so prominent.
We answered questions two and three already regarding who’s been cancelled and what’s “happened” to them. So now we can tackle question one, is cancel culture real? There’s enough here to draw your own conclusions, but this writer would argue that celebrities and their teams have used this term against the public to protect themselves from criticism of any kind. There’s no longer any way to criticize or hold accountable anybody in a position of power and prominence without being accused of looking to cancel them. It’s a savvy play that much of the public fell for, by making criticism part of a larger idea that now has negative connotations, you can operate in whatever way you desire without fear of criticism. These celebrities don’t even need to defend themselves anymore, their fans will wage war on their behalf despite having zero personal experiences with those whose reputation they are battling so hard to protect. It’s also been amazing to watch media carry the water for this anti-accountability movement, with prominent opinion writers whose opinions have been rightly criticized as half-baked or flat out incorrect crying cancellation and writing at length about the dangers of calling out clear bullshit.
The trick has been pulled off right under our noses, and it’s been tremendously executed by a group with far too much experience in damage control. Society as a whole began to say “hey, these people that have money, fame, adoration, and privilege should at least have to be decent people.” In turn, they began listening to people with these horrific stories and ending their support for deviants that hurt people tremendously on their way to glory. Instead of just ending their poor behavior, Hollywood began a crusade, coining the term “cancel culture” and doing everything they can to demonize and ostracize those who hold the powerful accountable. Understanding our role in all of this is crucial, and we all need to take steps that help those more vulnerable than us feel both included and safe in their place of work. Letting people make their own decisions on who they do and do not support is fine; everyone has a line, for some of his fans, R Kelly still has yet to cross that line, while others may never watch Jimmy Fallon again despite how long ago he posed for blackface. But calling out this behavior is still critical, and until people refuse to allow abuse given out by the powerful to the vulnerable, the work isn’t done. Cancelling in the now-traditional sense is likely ineffective in this climate, but if we can at least keep these abuses in the equation when it comes to who we choose to support, then we can continue to protect those whose voices still hold far too little weight.
Chappelle is a prime example of the difference between cancellation and criticism, a comedian who’s made a point of being problematic and gotten rewarded for it left and right. Dave proved himself wrong, railing against a fake culture that would’ve claimed him as a victim had it ever actually existed. CK is lucky enough to now be apart of Dave’s crusade, the Jackie Robinson of garbage people being let back into a society that supposedly “cancelled” them, with Dave playing a problematic Branch Rickey doing all he can to ensure that accountability’s shelf-life remain painfully short. Let’s be very clear here, there is no statute of limitations on actions that hurt your reputation, there is no expiration date for survivors forgetting about what was done to them, and there is no grandfathering in of powerful people that committed these acts before they became who they are today. Legality and the court of public opinion are very different things, there is no free speech violation happening here in the same way standing against school shootings fails to violate the second amendment. Continue to take stands, continue to demand decency, and continue to fight for survivors and vulnerable groups until this behavior is eradicated once and for all.