Dear Mr. Chappelle,
First and foremost, I would like to offer my condolences to the passing of your friend, Daphne, especially given the unfortunate circumstances in which she left this world.
I’m writing you this letter to address the uproar and hullabaloo surrounding you over the past couple of weeks– namely pertaining to your most recent Netflix comedy special, The Closer. This entire situation, and the way it has been playing out brings to mind a story out of a different part of show business that is obviously much different from the realm of comedy– professional wrestling.
Follow me for just one second, it’ll all make sense.
In a particular 2007 video interview (via YouTube) with former Extreme Championship Wrestling star Steve Corino, he tells a story about an event in which he and other performers were putting on an independent wrestling show for a Jewish community center with about 400 people in attendance. Another wrestler slated to perform in that very show was the legendary Iron Sheik (remember him?), best known for his work with WWE in the 1980’s. Carino describes a conversation between The Iron Sheik, and his opponent– a Jewish wrestler named The Mighty Macabee, where Macabee asks Sheik to come up with a way to make the crowd effectively hate him given that Macabbe himself was slated to play the role of a babyface (good guy) while Sheik (as he always is) was in the role of a heel (villain). So, the Iron Sheik recorded the most anti-semitic rant (which I cannot and will not repeat here) to the crowd, while they booed the loudest and sure enough made him someone you want to hate. The Iron Sheik and The Mighty Macabee achieved their goal of getting the crowd going, albeit using proverbial low-hanging fruit.
It was what people in the pro wrestling business would call “getting the cheap heat”.
Some of the derogatory jokes you made about many marginalized groups for about 34 minutes of the aforementioned Netflix special have given you exactly that.
The Cheap Heat.
Don’t get me wrong, the point that I think you were trying to make over your entire Netflix run of specials, I actually agree with– What’s bad for the goose should also be bad for the gander too. Society as a whole should be outraged at jokes that are truly insensitive towards any marginalized group, whether it be Black people, other minorities of color, or any member of the LGBTQ+ community. However, there are much better ways of showcasing said point that are not at the expense of anyone who faces constant marginalization.
I understand that back in the 90’s and 2000’s, “Shock Jock” comedy was all the rage. A lot of comedic acts back then, including yourself, were saying wild and offensive things to seem edgy. Along with many people during that time, I was laughing every time and not thinking much of such material, whether it was from a stand-up show, or your own sketch show on Comedy Central. However, what sets you apart from your constituents of that era was also your ability to also tell really good comedic stories on stage, which meant that “shock jock” wasn’t your sole schtick. I think that’s the reason why you’re virtually the sole comic from that era that’s still thriving. However, in an age where most people in American society now recognize how a lot of these “jokes” were never really cool to begin with, while also recognizing that they echo discriminatory, hurtful, and sometimes even dangerous and also violent beliefs and actions that often comes from racists, homophobes and transphobes, why would you keep picking from such low hanging fruit, especially, since you’ve proven before that you no longer need such vulgarity to be funny? I cannot speak on behalf of other marginalized groups, nor am I a stand-up comedy expert, but I could’ve sworn that the business of comedy involved trying to have the most people enjoy your art as humanly possible. I would imagine “punching down” on any marginalized group would be very detrimental to that purpose.
As someone who has been a fan of yours over the past two decades, it’s a bit disappointing that the massive backlash from people has taken place when it comes to your comedy, though, in my opinion, its more than well-deserved. Do I think you’re truly a transphobe? Do I think that you’re a racist? Do I think you should be cancelled? My answer to all three is “No.” However, the more you “punch down” on those who are marginalized, the harder it will be to see that.
To paraphrase, you said at the end of The Closer that you would lay off the LGBTQ+ jokes, although I think you should lay off of all “jokes” about marginalized people altogether. Even in certain segments of your Netflix run, you’ve shown us that you’re brilliant without such material. I hope, for the sake of your reputation, that you stick to your word on that, because though getting the “cheap heat” might be a little bit better for a pro wrestling character, it doesn’t have any place in the world of stand-up comedy.
Sean A. Tunstall
ps. embedded in this letter is the pro wrestling interview I mentioned earlier.