"Chappelle remains a gifted yarn-spinner who shifts from gravitas to irreverence as deftly as anyone," says Jason Zinoman of the controversy over Netflix's The Closer. "But judged purely by originality and construction of jokes, he’s a star in decline. There are some startlingly hack jokes, like a well-worn one about Mike Pence’s sexuality, and others about pedophilia and Covid that badly need the shock of offensiveness to make an impact. Why has he been so fixated on transgender people for so many years now? It may be that he believes deeply that gender is a fact. Maybe he passionately wants to let us know he’s 'Team TERF,' as he says in The Closer— an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. Neither of those points come with punch lines. It could also be that he sees pushing these hot buttons as the easiest way to make a big fuss. One of the major developments in comedy over the past decade has been the rise of comics animated by opposition to left-wing dogma and cancel culture. I have seen struggling comics boost their careers by pivoting right — or, more precisely, anti-left. There’s no question that there is a market for it. While he has lost some fans, Chappelle is a hero to this group now. In middle age, Chappelle acts less like a comic and more like a pundit. He’s far more comfortable than most of his peers in going long stretches without jokes. His recent monologues about George Floyd and the way streaming services have not compensated him for showing his sketch show were both righteous and largely without humor. In 2006, after he left Chappelle’s Show, which made better arguments that jokes should be able to punch in any direction than anything he says in these specials, he proclaimed in an interview, 'I feel like I’m going to be some kind of parable.' Then he said he was going to be either a legend or a tragic story. Give Chappelle credit for this: In a climate in which people seem to get more excited about culture wars than culture, he has figured out a way to be both. Still, I suspect the long-term impact of the last few specials will not flatter his reputation. Comedy moves fast. And right now, there are more funny transgender stand-ups getting hours ready at comedy shows in the city than ever before. The legacy of The Closer might be less in the jokes it makes than in the ones it inspires."
Ted Sarandos, in his role as the head of content at Netflix, ought to know exactly how vital and transformative programming is: "He, and the company, make a lot of money off of that presumption," says Sonia Saraiya. "Right now on Netflix, you can watch Disclosure—a documentary on how images in media profoundly affect trans people, who remain a marginalized group with devastatingly high rates of violence. (The film, actor Jen Richards recently clarified, was not produced or commissioned by Netflix; the company purchased streaming rights for it months after the doc’s Sundance premiere.) Indeed, anti-trans violence has surged in 2021, making this year likely to be the deadliest on record for trans people in the U.S. It is not rocket science to suggest that a huge comedian spouting bigotry on a major media platform might make it a little more likely that an already at-risk group of people will suffer more violence. Chappelle offers absolution for prejudice; he’s making anti-trans prejudice acceptable, digestible, indeed, even funny. Netflix knows just how powerful Chappelle’s anti-trans rhetoric is—because his specials have devoted, vocal fans. Ironically, Sarandos is picking and choosing his real-world effects; he’s singling out the adoration of Chappelle’s fans while dismissing the effect of anti-trans rhetoric. Obviously, this is at least partly about money. Netflix has put money into Chappelle, and Netflix gets significant viewership out of Chappelle’s outrageous specials; pulling them means pulling the plug on the multimillion-dollar investment in Chappelle’s big opinions. Studio heads have long made devil’s bargains for their talent. But what about other talent? What about the LGBTQ+ artists at Netflix that have turned that streaming service into a haven for queer audiences? Or the employees who spend every day making Netflix’s uncanny algorithm, its vast library of content, work a little better?"
A 2016 Atlanta episode shows how trans storylines have changed: "In the first season of the acclaimed FX series, up-and-coming rapper Alfred 'Paper Boi' Miles (Bryan Tyree Henry) comes under fire for tweeting a profanity-laced message to fans who called him 'weird' for saying he would not want to have sex with Caitlyn Jenner," writes Bethonie Butler. "Amid the controversy, he appears on a public-access news show opposite host Franklin Montague (Alano Miller) and Dr. Deborah Holt (Mary Kraft), a White trans issues advocate who accuses Paper Boi of being transphobic and posits that it’s for lack of a father figure. The episode, titled 'B.A.N.,' descends into full-tilt parody when the host of 'Montague' throws to a segment about a Black teenager who claims to be 'transracial.' 'I’m a 35-year-old White man,' the 15-year-old says in between footage of him browsing at a farmer’s market and playing golf. In the episode, written and directed by Glover, Paper Boi grudgingly becomes part of a conversation about transphobia and homophobia in hip-hop. He insists he has no hatred for transgender people but doubles down on his criticism of Jenner — who had come out as transgender a year earlier in a Vanity Fair cover story — and repeatedly misgenders her...In the episode, written and directed by Glover, Paper Boi grudgingly becomes part of a conversation about transphobia and homophobia in hip-hop. He insists he has no hatred for transgender people but doubles down on his criticism of Jenner — who had come out as transgender a year earlier in a Vanity Fair cover story — and repeatedly misgenders her." Butler points out The Peabody Awards cited the episode in its award, adding: "Even as the episode garnered praise for its unique format (including hilarious commercial spoofs that riffed on very specific aspects of Black culture), some critics were tentative about the transracial gag and whether it made a mocking false equivalence between race and gender identity."
The controversy over The Closer isn’t an example of “cancel culture" -- it’s an expression of culture, full stop: "Without the generations-long fight against demeaning or stereotypical depictions of LGBTQ people, Netflix would not have Orange Is the New Black, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette or Disclosure to crow about when Chappelle or Ricky Gervais, Money Heist or Tiger King, ignites a backlash," the Los Angeles Times says in an editorial. "The streamer’s ascendance means facing the contemporary equivalent of the pickets and boycott threats that once faced broadcasters: the expectation that one’s subscription dollars will not be used to pay for dehumanizing language about trans people. What’s happening to Netflix and Dave Chappelle isn’t new. LGBTQ people have been demanding better of the medium’s most powerful institutions since before Netflix existed — and will, one can safely assume, well after it’s gone. The concerns are largely the same; so are the tactics. The only difference is the target."