Amid a swirl of controversy around his new Netflix special, The Closer, Dave Chappelle took center stage Thursday night at a star-studded and sold-out show at L.A.’s iconic Hollywood Bowl. Though the superstar comedian did not repeat any of the jokes that have been loudly rejected by members of the LGBTQ community, GLAAD and the National Black Justice Coalition, he thumbed his nose at the notion of cancel culture while also promoting messages of kindness and love.
Chappelle shared the marquee with a screening of his Untitled: Dave Chappelle Documentary, a 118-minute film directed by American Factory Oscar winners Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert that offers an inside look at last year’s “Summer Camp” series. Mounted at Wirrig Pavilion near Chappelle’s home in Yellow Springs, Ohio, the more than 50 shows served to reinvigorate the small town during dark days in the COVID-19 pandemic as it played host to his circle of famous friends.
Some were on the bill tonight, including Snoop Dogg, Talib Kweli, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Stevie Wonder, poet Amir Sulaiman, Nas, Lizzo and a singing Jon Hamm. Comedian Jeff Ross kicked off the program with a short set, followed by a screening of the film, which one attendee described as “moving.” Then came Chappelle — dressed in a suit, with his wife and a cigarette in hand — for the main event that saw him being heralded at the mic on numerous occasions as the greatest living comic.
“If this is what being canceled is like, I love it,” the 48-year-old said in response to a standing ovation. The line, and many more like it, was greeted by rapturous applause from the crowd, which included a masked Brad Pitt, Tiffany Haddish, Donnell Rawlings, Chuck Lorre, Sterling K. Brown and others. At another point, he was more blunt: “Fuck Twitter. Fuck NBC News, ABC News, all these stupid ass networks. I’m not talking to them. I’m talking to you. This is real life.”
But that is precisely what the LGBTQ community, and in particular trans women, have objected to after Chappelle used their real lives, bodies and gender identity as punchlines in The Closer. “Gender is a fact. Every human being in this room, every human being on Earth, had to pass through the legs of a woman to be on Earth. That is a fact,” he says in the special, his last of a string of Netflix specials that also included Sticks & Stones, Equanimity and The Bird Revelation.
He also sided with Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling by identifying as “team TERF,” a term that means trans-exclusionary radical feminist, an ideology that excludes trans women as women. The special, currently No. 4 on Netflix’s top U.S. top 10 list of the streamer’s most popular titles, also features jabs at white gays, the #MeToo movement and lesbians, among others. “I don’t hate gay people, I respect the shit out of you — not all of you,” he says. “I’m not that fond of these newer gays — too sensitive, too brittle. I miss the old-school gays … the Stonewall gays. They didn’t take shit from anybody.”
In the few days since The Closer was released, Chappelle has received condemnation from the NBJC, which called for the special to be pulled from the streamer. “With 2021 on track to be the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the United States — the majority of whom are Black transgender people — Netflix should know better,” NBJC executive director David Johns said in a statement released to media. “Perpetuating transphobia perpetuates violence. Netflix should immediately pull The Closer from its platform and directly apologize to the transgender community.”
GLAAD weighed in on Twitter: “Dave Chappelle’s brand has become synonymous with ridiculing trans people and other marginalized communities. Negative reviews and viewers loudly condemning his latest special is a message to the industry that audiences don’t support platforming anti-LGBTQ diatribes. We agree.”
Jaclyn Moore, a trans writer, executive producer and showrunner who spent four seasons on Netflix’s Dear White People, took a stand on Twitter to say that she will no longer work with Netflix while the company continues to “put out and profit from blatantly and dangerously transphobic content.” She added: “I love so many of the people I’ve worked with at Netflix. Brilliant people and executives who have been collaborative and fought for important art. … But I’ve been thrown against walls because I’m not a ‘real’ woman. I’ve had beer bottles thrown at me.”
TV writer, producer and actress Franchesca Ramsey responded to a tweet that defended the comedian by posting, “‘Hey this is harmful’ isn’t an attempt at ‘cancellation’ nor is it possible to ‘cancel’ a very wealthy & famous man for spreading transphobic bullshit in the name of ‘comedy.'”
Despite a strict no-cellphones policy during Chappelle’s Hollywood Bowl show, a video surfaced showing Wonder offering brief remarks during which he tackled those two subjects: comedy and cancel culture. After being escorted into the lights by Chappelle, who seemed genuinely moved throughout the course of the night, Wonder said, “What we need to cancel is hate. What we need to cancel is fear because we have to have love, and we should never cancel that. I want us to cancel the idea of feeling that we don’t want anyone to laugh because if we don’t laugh, we cry. And I don’t believe that was God’s intention — ever.”
For his part, Chappelle delivered an earnest moment when he doubled down on themes so prominently displayed in the doc. “Do something nice for someone who looks nothing like you,” he said during the event, which wrapped at 11 p.m. with a fireworks display. “We have to trust one another.”
Netflix declined to comment. Following the Bowl outing, Chappelle headed to The h.wood Group venue Bootsy Bellows for an afterparty in West Hollywood. Among the attendees were Leonardo DiCaprio, Hamm and Wonder, who, once again, got on the microphone but this time to perform “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” and “My Cherie Amour.”
With reporting by Lacey Rose.