We generally have the same debates about comedy over and over. Let’s address those upfront: Art should be made without restriction. Free speech reigns supreme. Sometimes good art should make us uncomfortable, and sometimes bad people can make good art. Comedians, in particular, are going to punch up and down and side-to-side.
Also true: Comedy is not above criticism, even if the most famous, wildly wealthy comedians will keep insulting those who question them. It’s just laughs, right? Lighten up. All criticism is forestalled with this setup, in which when you object to anything a comedian says, you’re the problem. You’re the one who’s narrow-minded or “brittle” or humorless.
“Shut up,” Dave Chappelle recalls telling a woman who had the gall to challenge his comedy, using a sexist slur and laughing at how witty he is, as if he’s the first man to ever deliver such an original, funny line. “Before I kill you and put you in the trunk. Ain’t nobody around here.” The audience cheers, before Mr. Chappelle explains that he didn’t in fact threaten the woman: “I felt that way, but that’s not what I said. I was more clever than that.”
Mr. Chappelle spends much of “The Closer,” his latest comedy special for Netflix, cleverly deflecting criticism. The set is a 72-minute display of the comedian’s own brittleness. The self-proclaimed “GOAT” (greatest of all time) of stand-up delivers five or six lucid moments of brilliance, surrounded by a joyless tirade of incoherent and seething rage, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia.
If there is brilliance in “The Closer,” it’s that Mr. Chappelle makes obvious but elegant rhetorical moves that frame any objections to his work as unreasonable. He’s just being “brutally honest.” He’s just saying the quiet part out loud. He’s just stating “facts.” He’s just making us think. But when an entire comedy set is designed as a series of strategic moves to say whatever you want and insulate yourself from valid criticism, I’m not sure you’re really making comedy.
Throughout the special, Mr. Chappelle is singularly fixated on the L.G.B.T.Q. community, as he has been in recent years. He reaches for every low-hanging piece of fruit and munches on it gratuitously. Many of Mr. Chappelle’s rants are extraordinarily dated, the kind of comedy you might expect from a conservative boomer, agog at the idea of homosexuality. At times, his voice lowers to a hoarse whisper, preparing us for a grand stroke of wisdom — but it never comes. Every once in a while, he remarks that, oh, boy, he’s in trouble now, like a mischievous little boy who just can’t help himself.