Comedians are suckers for low-hanging fruit, for jokes that “write themselves.” If you pursue a career in which it’s possible to work just one hour a day, chances are you’re equally lazy and clever. A comic is always ready to dash off a quick take on topics that seem engineered precisely for that purpose: Trump’s border wall, legal pot, Tinder, Harambe, the male birth control pill, Anthony Weiner, etc. With approximately 80 million comics in the U.S.—plus those just playing one on Twitter—every current event with comedic potential quickly gets buried under an avalanche of mediocre attempts at cheap laughs.
Many of these jokes are written in the stampede of the cultural moment, before the comic has a chance to parse the ramifications of what they’re saying. They’re often an attempt to one-up the last take, an ever-escalating fusillade of shitposts and cringe humor. Eventually, when all the ammo runs out, the topic is deemed “hack.”
Of course, it’s possible to unearth gold in well-trodden terrain; Louis CK’s viral “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy” rant started with his observation that comics deride air travel jokes as hacky while totally missing out on the miracle of flight. Great comedians go for the big, relatable, marquee topics and make them their own through sheer force of wit.
On the other end of the spectrum, take a look at I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, the Adam Sandler/Kevin Hart gay panic comedy celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Produced at a time when gay marriage and civil unions were only legal in a handful of states and the topic was beginning to fully enter the national discourse, it hasn’t aged well. Or look even further back, at Eddie Murphy’s Delirious (1983) and Raw (1987), two consecutive specials that contain shockingly homophobic jokes, albeit in a time when such comedy was the norm. They’re painful to watch now. They document a prodigiously talented comedian on the wrong side of history, a tarnish that will never buff off.
Which brings us to Dave Chappelle. Earlier this year on two new Netflix specials he outraged many fans with jokes about trans and queer people, which The New Republic described as, “easily the least funny parts, mostly because they showcase a man who seems stuck in a time warp, hung up about things he really shouldn’t be hung up about.”
Last week Chappelle began a 16-show residency at Radio City Music Hall, where he doubled down by opening with 20 minutes of trans jokes. Reports have not been positive. Why would he willfully choose to alienate so many—trans people and those who love and support them—for some relatively cheap laughs?
The answer, I believe, is that trans identity represents a perfect example of low-hanging fruit. With all the current talk about transgender issues—bathroom “privacy” laws, Caitlyn Jenner, pronouns, Trump’s military ban—the topic has been thrust into the national discourse both by those pushing for visibility and those who seek to deny it. As always, the more discussion there is the more comedians feel obligated to try their hand at a take.
The subject seems loaded with comedic possibility because it intersects so many familiar tropes: gender stereotypes, sex, genitalia, identity confusion, role reversal, taboo. But it’s also a risky subject with the potential to do real harm considering the way trans people are disgracefully oppressed and persecuted in our country: 40 percent of trans adults report having attempted suicide, 30 percent have been homeless, and they experience unemployment at three to four times the national rate.
Most comedy about trans people by cis people only reinforces that dismal state of affairs. Even if you have trans friends or loved ones, it can be difficult to fully understand what it’s like to be in their body enough to joke about it in a way that imparts laughter instead of inflicting more hurt, however inadvertently. (If you’re interested in seeing what that looks like there are a handful of comedy shows in Seattle where you can hear jokes about gender identity by—shocker!—actual queer and trans people.)
It’s no surprise that Chappelle is drawn to the subject of trans identity—he is, after all, a comedian, hard-wired to hone in on cultural hot topics. He’s got a sweet tooth for that low-hanging fruit. Unfortunately, the takes he’s giving us represent a hard right turn into wrong-side-of-history terrain. He’s so dazzled by the novelty and comedic potential of the subject that he’s lost sight of the very real plight of its targets. Coming from a man who decided to walk away from a massively successful TV show after seeing a white crewmember laugh a little too hard at one of his characters, it’s hard to believe Chappelle doesn’t understand what it feels like to end up on the wrong side of the joke through no fault of your own.