The “Alphabet People”: On Dave Chappelle and His Comedy of Errors

The stand-up offers some nuanced observations in his new special, "Sticks & Stones," but he's only willing to go halfway in his understanding of LGBTQ people.

I love Dave Chappelle. As a black man, as a queer person, as a poor, chubby, faggy immigrant kid, comedy has always been a bulwark for me against life’s harshest blows. And when it comes to comedy, no one does it better than Chappelle. Watching him do stand-up is like what it must have been like to watch Rembrandt paint. He’s a true artist, so I tend to give him a wide berth. But as a member of the “Alphabet People,” as he refers to the LGBTQ community in his new Netflix stand-up special, Sticks & Stones, it’s become harder to love Dave Chappelle. That's mostly because of other people's opinions about him, and not necessarily the comedian himself.

As a queer person, I’m told that I should take offense to Chappelle’s “homophobic” and “transphobic” jokes—though I think that misses the point of those jokes in the first place. But as a black man, his comedy still speaks to me in a way that folks who aren’t black couldn’t begin to understand. So though Chappelle's words could never truly hurt me, I watched Sticks & Stones with a mix of wariness and excitement.

Chappelle's Show premiered in January 2003, during my final year of high school. The second season coincided with my first year in college, when I was out in the world, truly on my own, for the first time. I would get high with my neighbors in our dorm, and we'd laugh our goddamn heads off, endlessly quoting skits that defiantly skewered race relations during the post-9/11 Bush years, when the movement for black civil rights had taken a backseat to the jingoism fueled by the tumult of the times. It was "un-American" to point out how fucked up things still were if you were a black or brown person, but Chappelle's Show did that, gleefully and brilliantly. And it wasn't just about controversy for controversy's sake.

During Sticks & Stones, Chappelle relates a story about working on Chappelle's Show and having to go to Standards and Practices because he had used the word "faggot" in a sketch. He emphasizes "faggot" for both comedic and dramatic effect, it being one of the few truly taboo words we have left, "nigger" being another. Chappelle recalls how, out of curiosity, he asked the woman at S&P why he's allowed to say "nigger" with impunity but he cannot say "faggot." She explained that it was because he is not gay, to which Chappelle responded, "I'm not a nigger either."

There's always a lot of debate about who gets to say what. Being a double minority, I've always felt I had the right to say whatever I wanted—though this is something I learned the rest of the world didn't quite believe as strongly as I. Like, I can't just run down a list of ethnic slurs for the fun of it simply because my peoples have been enslaved and repressed and oppressed for centuries. Discrimination, sadly, isn't like casino chips that you can cash in whenever you're feeling ornery. What it's good for, then, is a mystery to me.

Still, the general rule is you can make disparaging epithets about whatever minority you happen to belong to. I made a similar argument about rappers using "faggot" in their songs. Chappelle, being neither a "nigger" nor a "faggot," uses those terms presumably to illustrate a point, or to score a laugh. Doing the former is genuine artistic expression; doing the latter is just cheap.

With The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas, his first two Netflix specials and his return to comedy after his abrupt departure from Chappelle's Show in 2005, Chappelle waded into some transphobic waters. At one point, he referred to a trans woman as a "man in a dress" and questioned the evolving definitions of gender identity.

"I support anyone’s right to be who they are inside," he said, "but to what degree do I have to participate in your self-image? Why do I have to switch up my pronoun game for this motherfucker?"

It's not so easy to say that this is "just comedy" and therefore shouldn't be taken seriously. Jokes have weight, but the intention behind the joke is equally important. The best comedy is commentary—it distills a difficult concept into a setup and a punchline. The reason Chappelle unceremoniously walked away from his acclaimed show and a multimillion-dollar deal was because he was feeling frustrated that his message was getting lost and taken away from him. So when he talks about artistic integrity, he truly means it. After all, how many among us could walk away from 50-mil-in-2004 dollars? Souls have been bought and sold for far less.

Personally, I viewed that material from Chappelle's earlier Netflix specials as his attempts to grapple with a changing world and how he fits into it—which is largely what most, if not all, of his recent stand-up has been about. Chappelle is the most cerebral of stand-ups—as opposed to, say, Kevin Hart. I've never found Hart particularly funny, but I get why other people do. He's a populist comedian—middle of the road, appealing to the most basic, common denominator. And though Chappelle doesn't go so far as to defend Hart in Sticks & Stones, he does address the circumstances that led to his departure as host of the 80th Oscars.

“Kevin Hart is damn near perfect. In fact, Kevin is precisely four tweets shy of being perfect,” Chappelle begins. “Ten years ago Kevin had made some very homophobic comments. I’m not going to repeat what he said 'cause this is Atlanta. You know what I mean. I’m sure there are a lot of gay men here tonight… with their wives.”

At this point, the audience erupts in laughter, as did I. It's a great joke. Unexpected, with flawless delivery. Is it homophobic? Kind of, I guess. Though I'm no arbiter of what is and isn't homophobic, the only real victims would seem to be the imaginary closeted gay men or their clueless wives. But sometimes a joke is just a joke. The joke Hart made, about smashing a dollhouse over his son's head if he suspected he was gay, was not just a bad joke, but a joke with no layers to it. It's blatantly homophobic, with homophobic intentions. And, as Chappelle notes, it just makes no damn sense:

Oooh, the gay community was furious. And I don’t blame 'em. I got a lot of gay friends, and all of them, 100 percent of them, all have told me fucking horror stories about the shit they had to go through just to be themselves. Crazy, crazy stories. And in all those stories, I gotta tell you, not one of them has ever mentioned anything like their father smashing a fucking dollhouse over their head. 'Cause clearly Kevin was joking. Think about it: You have to buy this nigga a dollhouse to break it over his head in the first place. Does that sound right? Is anybody going to do that?

Chappelle goes on to say that both he and Hart had broken an unspoken rule of show business: "No matter what you do in your artistic expression, you are never, ever allowed to upset the Alphabet People."

And that's when we get into the age-old argument: When does your artistic expression encroach upon my personal freedom, and vice versa? It's a question many artists have to struggle with, and with comedy it's especially hard. And with the LGBTQ community, it's even more complicated. Because we've been the butt of the joke for centuries. This is something Chappelle seems to understand since by his own admission he has friends of "all kinds of letters"—though the "T," he says, "hate my fucking guts," no doubt referring to the controversy surrounding his previous specials.

"And I don't blame 'em. It's not their fault, it's mine," he says. "I can't. Stop. Telling. Jokes about these niggas. I don't want to write these jokes, but I just can't stop!"

Here it would be easy to dismiss Chappelle for being transphobic and insensitive, because for a cis man to make fun of trans people because he doesn't understand or fully accept them is weak and lazy, and frankly something I'd expect more from Kevin Hart. But then he launches into a fairly nuanced metaphor about the LGBTQ rights movement, which is something Hart would—and, as he demonstrated recently, could—never do.

"You hear all those letters together all the time—LBGT, LBGT—and you think it's just one big movement. It's not. All those letters are their own movement—they just travel in the same car together."

As the joke goes, the Gs are driving the car because they've got the white men. When it comes to discrimination and oppression, as Chappelle puts it, white men are like, "We know these roads. In fact, we built these roads." The Ls are in the passenger seat, though the Gs "don't like them that much." The Bs are in the backseat, and if there's one thing the Ls and the Gs can agree on, it's that the Bs "are fucking gross." And sitting next to the Bs, "all the way in the backseat by themselves, looking out the window" are the Ts.

"Everyone in the car respects the Ts, but everyone also resents the Ts," Chappelle continues. "It's not the Ts' fault, but everyone in the car feels the Ts are making the trip take longer."

Of course Chappelle is missing the fact that the Ts were the ones who hot-wired the damn car. By the time we get to the Qs, hitchhiking on the side of the road with their respect for pronouns and gender identity, we're in some unexpected territory. While a part of me was glad a straight black man was addressing the LGBTQ community, another part of me was cautious of where he was taking us on this journey. That's when he says that the whole concept of being transgender is funny in and of itself.

"They have to admit, that's a fucking hilarious predicament," Chappelle says. "If it happened to me, you'd laugh, wouldn't you?"

Chappelle then throws nuance out the window for a cringe-worthy Asian impersonation when he likens being transgender to being "Chinese but born in this nigger body." That's when he puts the "problem" in problematic.

“It’s kind of sad; I think Chappelle used to have really interesting and prescient things to say about power structures and things like that, and I just don’t think he’s interested in dismantling that anymore,” queer Asian comedian Joel Kim Booster recently said in an interview. “At least not from an interesting place, or at least not from beyond his own point of view—which is his right as a comic, I guess, but it felt a little bit, I don’t know, old, when I watched it.”

Any part of the human condition or the human experience can be funny and should be up for comedic grabs. There have been very good and very funny jokes about AIDS, the Holocaust, slavery, 9/11, you name it. Making fun of terrible or confusing or tragic things is a way to manage them when they can feel totally unmanageable. But a truly effective joke requires understanding, and Chappelle is only willing to go halfway in his understanding of trans people. His comedy suffers for it.

Sticks & Stones is at times hard to watch. Though Chappelle occasionally makes salient remarks about race and our climate of constant unmitigated outrage, he offers up perspectives that feel out of sync with what the times dictate. But that's okay. We don't all have to think the same, or believe the same things. The greatest trick Chappelle pulls off in this special is voicing unpopular opinions and forcing us to listen.

I actively avoid any sort of conservative rhetoric, and while I don't believe Chappelle is going to pull a Kanye and show up somewhere in a MAGA hat (God, I hope not), I do think we live in a world that is sorely lacking in nuance. Dave Chappelle may have some ratchet things to say about trans folks, and while there's no excusing that, he's got a lot to say about a lot of things. And for the most part, he's still worth listening to, even if he is reluctant to change. He would not be worth listening to, however, if he were reluctant to understand, which I don't think he is. But then again, you don't have to listen to him at all.

"I don't know if I can live in this new world you're proposing," he laments during the special. I don't know if any of us can live in a world where outrage is focused on the people who comment on and try to make sense of how fucked up shit is rather than the people who fucked it up in the first place.

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