“Everything Is Funny till It Happens to You”: Dave Chappelle, Transgender Jokes, and Binging Multiple Comedy Specials

Curator's Note

In three of Dave Chappelle’s four Netflix comedy specials—released in groups of two simultaneously—he talks about transgender people, and there was significant public pushback to that material. The specials’ release dates invited a binge viewing experience even though the four specials were recorded many months, or even years, apart, and the binge viewing experience obfuscates the trajectory of both public reactions and Chappelle’s responses to his own jokes about transgender identity.

Deep in the Heart of Texas was filmed in April 2015, almost a year before his first official Netflix special was filmed (March 2016). The two specials were released on the same day in March 2017 in reverse order. The older of the two specials is Chappelle’s most crude in terms of ideas about transgender individuals: he complains about mistaking pronouns, and he doesn’t even know what to call a transgender woman—opting to caller her a “tranny” instead. A year later, when he recorded The Age of Spin, his thoughts had matured to an extent, stating his support for people to live as they see fit even if other people do not understand them. He still relies on several tired/hurtful transgender-themed jokes. But the Netflix order of the specials places Deep in the Heart of Texas—with its cruder transgender jokes—as his final thoughts on the matter before the next two specials were released nine months later.

The third special, Equanimity, was filmed after the release of the first two specials, and so he could respond to some of the public controversy surrounding his material about transgender people. Transgender people are “really mad about that last Netflix special,” Chappelle states near the beginning, but which is the “last Netflix special”? The one filmed most recently or the oldest one that happened to be published most recently?

Ultimately, in Equanimity, Chappelle self-reflects on his own feelings about transgender identity, deciding that his problem is with the “dialogue” about transgender people. He admits to feeling remorse about making a transgender fan feel hurt, and he describes a time when he met, danced with, and later had sex with a transgender woman (an excuse for his material? or a genuine confession of the source of some of his transphobia?).

If viewed consecutively in Netflix’s bingeable release schedule, the specials portray a single front of transphobia. And conversely it obfuscates how public outcry shaped Chappelle’s decision to reflect on, and perhaps even modify, his public thoughts on transgender individuals.

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