Nearly three weeks after its October 5 debut on Netflix, Dave Chappelle’s stand-up special “The Closer” remains embroiled in controversy. Last week saw the promised walkout of trans Netflix employees and allies in protest of their employer’s defense of Chappelle and his increasingly trademark transphobia, as well as comments from Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos in which he expressed regret regarding how the company had handled employee concerns about “The Closer” while continuing to defend the choice to proceed with the special.
“When we think about this challenge — we have to entertain the world — part of that challenge means that you’ve got audiences with various taste, various sensibilities, various beliefs,” Sarandos said. “You really can’t please everybody or the content would be pretty dull. And we do tell our employees upfront that we are trying to entertain our members, and that some of the content on Netflix you’re not going to like, and so this kind of commitment to artistic expression and free artistic expression is sometimes in conflict with people feeling protected and safe. I do think that that’s something that we struggle with all the time when these two values bump up against each other.”
Amidst all the Netflix-centric fervor of the last week, it was easy to miss another individual weighing in on the controversy: none other than Chappelle’s buddy and fellow comedian Jon Stewart. The former host of “The Daily Show” commented on the matter to TMZ, saying that he thought a lot of the angst could be chalked up to miscommunication and, of Chappelle, “I know his intention is never hurtful. He’s not that kinda person.”
Now, that’s a nice, bland answer from a friend, about a friend — very “he wouldn’t harm a fly.” It would be stupid to try to dissect the statement because ultimately it doesn’t matter. Of course, it doesn’t matter because Stewart’s opinion about the Netflix transphobia issue objectively does not matter, but more importantly, it doesn’t matter because intent has nothing to do with it.
See, if intent mattered, then every car accident would be no-fault. If intent mattered, it wouldn’t hurt when you thoughtlessly grabbed a hot pan. If intent mattered, no one would ever drown. In intent mattered, then involuntary manslaughter wouldn’t be a crime punishable by law.
This misbegotten idea about the importance of intent belies another, more pervasive schism within a much larger conversation: cancel culture.
Celebrities, particularly those previously or currently being held accountable for their actions, love to rage against the idea of living in a cancel culture, in which you cannot disagree with popular opinion online or otherwise, without being cruelly attacked and run out of the business on a rail. Comedians blame wokeness and internet mobs for defiling the sanctity of the comedy arena, where anything and everything should be a punchline.
The thing is, no one is stopping comedians from being edgy or offensive. Certainly not Chappelle, whose Netflix special reportedly cost the streaming giant $24 million dollars. Kevin Hart, Ricky Gervais, Dave Chappelle, they can all say whatever they want, whenever they want. Free speech, and all that jazz. But they don’t get to control the narrative that results from their words, and they also don’t get to remove themselves from that narrative.
What’s at work here is not cancel culture. It’s consequences. Chappelle isn’t a victim. He’s the perpetrator. What he’s experiencing isn’t an attack on his free speech, it’s simply other people expressing themselves via their free speech. It’s not about free speech and cancel culture. It’s not even about intent vs. action. It’s so much simpler than that. This is about cause and effect. If you want to dehumanize trans lives to a global audience, go for it. If a company wants to pay you millions upon millions of dollars to do it, great. But those actions have reactions and that’s not something you get to control.
Today Chappelle posted a video to Instagram addressing, but not apologizing for, the matter claiming that the reaction to the special has now threatened an upcoming documentary due to play at film festivals about his 2020 stand up tour.
“This film that I made was invited to every film festival in the United States. Some of those invitations I accepted. When this controversy came out about ‘The Closer’, they began disinviting me from these film festivals. And now, today, not a film company, not a movie studio, not a film festival, nobody will touch this film. Thank God for Ted Sarandos and Netflix, he’s the only one that didn’t cancel me yet,” he said.
The comedian also wanted to set the record straight about sitting down with transgender employees of Netflix.
“It’s been said in the press that I was invited to speak to the transgender employees of Netflix and I refused. That is not true — if they had invited me I would have accepted it, although I am confused about what we would be speaking about. I said what I said, and boy, I heard what you said. My God, how could I not? You said you want a safe working environment at Netflix. It seems like I’m the only one who can’t go to the office.”
But he also said that he has the support of the LGBTQ community, that everyone he knows from that community has been “loving and supportive, so [he] doesn’t know what this nonsense is about” and that the backlash is actually about “corporate interests, and what I can say, and what I cannot say.”
To review: The LGBTQ community has been so loving and supportive, and it’s not their fault this is happening. But it is the transgender Netflix employees’ fault. So much so that he feels unsafe going into Netflix offices to sit down and not apologize to the group. The true villain is corporate interests. Except not the $25 billion dollar global monolith that is Netflix. They’re the only ones not cancelling him.
Maybe Jon Stewart’s right. Maybe his buddy’s intent wasn’t to hurt. Maybe he’s not that kinda person.
But he did. And I increasingly suspect that he is. And that’s something that Chappelle has to live with.