This week, Dave Chappelle made an epic return to stand-up comedy with two new Netflix specials. So far, the reviews have been mixed, with some even wondering why he decided to come back. After 12 years of being M.I.A from the glory days of The Chappelle Show, the comedian returned, armed with several harsh jokes that peddled in rape culture, homophobia, and jabs at the trans community. Of course, Chappelle is not the first—or the last—high profile comedian who walks the fine line between what’s funny and what’s offensive, but his latest effort does raise the question: when does a comedian cross the line?
Here’s one clue: Rape is never funny.
Again, for the folks in the back: RAPE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT JOKES ARE NEVER FUNNY.
We have a real problem in our society known as “rape culture,” which continues to uplift predators and criminal behaviors while normalizing the reduction in agency one has over their own body. Statistics have shown that every 98 seconds a person in America is sexually assaulted, but only a small fraction of predators, six in every 1000, goes to jail for sexually violent crimes. Rape is no laughing matter, especially when we take into account the number of people who never get justice after being assaulted. This means that when people make these types of jokes for quick laughs, those who are silent may just be victims who are forced to relive painful traumas. Moreover, while Chappelle admitted rape is a heinous crime, making light of the Bill Cosby case and calling the elderly comedian “the Steph Curry of rape” diminishes the effect it has on victims.
Sexual assault jokes were just the beginning, however; Chappelle didn’t pull any punches when discussing gay rights and the LGBTQ community either. In reference to a proposed federal statute that would remove the words “husband” and “wife from documents and replace them with the term “spouse,” Chappelle said gay people should just “go outside, talk it over amongst yourselves, and whichever one of you is gayer, that’s the wife.” As an outspoken member of the LGBTQ community, I understand that our fight for legal rights doesn’t always match up to public opinion, but I just wonder how many Black people would have laughed at a White comedian joking about Black people’s fight for equal treatment under the law during the Civil Rights Movement. You see, it’s not always about what you like and don’t like about a particular marginalized group as much as it’s about what is right and what is wrong. Although the joke may be funny to some, for those of us who live under the scrutiny of heteronormative policy and procedure, Chappelle’s antics aren’t an easy pill to swallow.
Chappelle’s jabs at the LGBTQ community didn’t stop with gay folks; he went in on the trans community, too. From talking about “missing Bruce [Jenner]” to joking about how he knew Caitlyn Jenner was transitioning because Kanye West said he had “two mother-in-laws,” Chappelle’s ultimate dig came when he proclaimed it was safer to be trans than to be Black.
“How the f–k are transgender people beating Black people in the discrimination Olympics?” Chappelle asked during Spin, the first of the two comedy specials. “If the police shot half as many transgenders as they did n-ggas last year, it’d be a f–king war in L.A. I know Black dudes in Brooklyn—hard street motherf–kers—that wear high heels just to feel safe.”
The joke got laughs, but Chappelle completely ignored the fact that people can be both Black and trans while also minimizing the violence Black trans people face every single day. Moreover, Black men, toxic masculinity and hetero privilege have killed Black trans women at alarming rates. I recently wrote about how seven trans women of color have been killed, with another happening just this week in Baltimore, since the beginning of the year. There is NOTHING funny about violence against the trans community, especially in juxtaposition to Black men and women being killed by police. For a comedian as talented as Chappelle, an easy laugh should never come on the backs of those who are losing their lives over nothing more than being who they are.
Comedians often try to bring humor to harsh situations, but some are doing a real disservice to the audience if they aren’t actually talking about why these issues are so dangerous for those who experience them. If trans issues, and gay folks, and rape culture aren’t off limits, then why not make jokes about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman? Why not joke about the missing Black women in DC, or Timothy Caughman, who was killed by a self-proclaimed White supremacist for nothing more than being Black and alive?
I’m sure many of the people who watched Chappelle’s specials got a good kick out of his edgy humor at the expense of others. I just hope that one day they’ll understand that clowning the oppressed and victimized is no laughing matter, especially when the ones being mocked are fighting for their existence in a world that continues to deny them dignity and justice.
George M. Johnson is an activist and writer based in the Washington, D.C. area. He has written for EBONY.com, Pride.com, Thebody.com, The Grio, The Huffington Post, and Teen Vogue on topics of health, race, gender, sex, and education. Follow him on Twitter: @iamgmjohnson.