Dave Chappelle’s ‘reckless’ #MeToo and trans jokes have real after-effects

He then makes another, more familiar claim, which is that it’s not a comedian’s job to be right, but to be reckless. Addressing other comics, he tells them: “You have a responsibility to speak recklessly, otherwise my kids might not know what reckless talk sounds like. The joys of being wrong. I didn’t come here to be right, I just came here to fuck around.” In the other gig, he claims that, “as a policy, you gotta understand, I never feel bad about anything I say up here”

That’s the standard comics’ defence: first, I’m only joking, and second, a comedy stage must be a space (one of few remaining) where prevailing standards of correctness don’t apply. It’s a persuasive argument. We live in censorious times; people can be quick to take offence and over-eager to silence opposing voices. I do believe that comedy, and art in general, needs a leeway not always afforded elsewhere in the public sphere. As it wrangles with reality and tries to see things in new ways, it needs to be able to risk being wrong, or indeed hurtful.

Sometimes recklessness can be a comic virtue, too. But I’m not convinced Chappelle is being reckless when he dedicates substantial parts of consecutive standup sets to jokes about trans people. These are deliberate choices, made by a comic who clearly weighs his every word. Nor am I convinced that Chappelle’s children are in any danger of not knowing what reckless speech sounds like. Are they not on Twitter? Do they never hear their president speak? Reckless speech is everywhere – the only difference is, these days, it’s no longer given a free pass.

But I take Chappelle’s central point, that comedy has to defend its right to go against the grain, to test the boundaries of the sayable. In The Bird Revelation, he addresses #MeToo: the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Chappelle’s fellow comedian Louis CK. It’s an extended routine, staking out the perspective of a sympathetic alpha male and “imperfect ally”. While the protests against his jokes about CK’s and Spacey’s alleged victims will drown it out, there’s some thoughtful material here that reaches beyond the black-and-white verities of the post-Weinstein moment.

And yet those protests are justified. Several of the jokes punch down; others rehash the idea that victims of sexual harassment should “man up”. These aren’t the boundaries of the sayable: this is what reactionaries say every day. As in his earlier Netflix specials, here again he contrasts 21st-century social justice struggles with anti-racism, and finds them “weak” by comparison.

Now, I have no quibble with Chappelle saying this stuff on stage. I don’t think he should be silenced. But his right to recklessness is equal only to the right of others to criticise, debate and get “really mad” at him. You can claim the standup stage as a protected (safe?) space to speak without fear of censure. You can ask your listeners to remember that you’re just trying to be funny. But you can’t pretend that comedy, reckless or otherwise, doesn’t have after-effects in the real world. It does: it can reinforce (or challenge) how people think. It gets repeated in the playground, and the workplace. It isn’t consequence-free.

I support Chappelle’s right to be speak freely, but it comes with responsibilities – not least to respect the right of others to speak freely right back at him.

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