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Why we need to stop telling comedians what they can't say

The idea that a joke will offend some people is obvious. It is farcical to keep empowering the offended

Dave Chappelle attends the 46th Kennedy Center Honors gala 2023. Photo by AFP
Dave Chappelle attends the 46th Kennedy Center Honors gala 2023. Photo by AFP

Ricky Gervais is not the world’s best stand-up comedian. He may still be one of the funniest people on the planet, the man who created The Office—and comparing the beloved American version of The Office to the bittersweet British original is like comparing an exciting flavour of ice cream to the lightbulb: one is comfort food, the other changed the world. Yet Gervais, who sells out stadiums and commands exorbitant Netflix bonuses, isn’t a virtuoso teller of jokes.

Dave Chappelle is the world’s best stand-up comedian. He is an extraordinarily gifted storyteller whose personal anecdotes are studded casually with epiphanies. He is a master of structure, seeding ideas in an audience’s head long before leading them to surprising—and delightful—payoffs, a man who treats a comedy gig the way Bruce Springsteen treats a rock concert—complete with encores that blow your bloody mind. He is a titan of comedy, a fearless provocateur who enjoys having the audience in the palm of his hand and toying with their preconceptions.

Also read: Dave Chappelle's Netflix special draws criticism

No modern comedian has made an arena explode like he did in The Age Of Spin (2017, Netflix) where he describes having met O.J. Simpson four times. The special reaches a magnificent crescendo, Chappelle says goodnight, takes his bows. Then, as if making up a last joke to respect the standing ovation, he takes the mic again. “Wait, wait, wait, wait, I forgot,” he says. “The fourth time I met O.J. Simpson….” It is glorious, the smashing story almost eclipsed by the war whoop of joy the audience feels on realising that this not an afterthought, but a coup de grâce.

These comedians, the highest paid in the world, had new Netflix specials at the end of last year and—surprise surprise—Gervais’s special, Armageddon, is significantly funnier than Chappelle’s latest, The Dreamer. This would seem shocking but Chappelle has constantly, and single-mindedly, been carving a reputation as a spiteful comic, a man who wants to make jokes about the trans community and has been told he can’t do that. It’s tiresome, unfunny and has made Chappelle uncharacteristically repetitive.

As with most older comics, Gervais has also been attacking liberal hypocrisy, but making digs against snowflakes suits Gervais’s comic stylings—which include reading out ungrammatical tweets and slamming trolls onstage. Chappelle appears visibly hamstrung: it feels like an anti-aircraft gun has taken issue with some mosquitoes.

The wokes are, however, buzzing loud. Volume is their game. The increasingly unreasonable liberal mob has gone after comedians with a puritanical vengeance. Not only do they find these jokes distasteful—as is their right—they insist that streaming services de-platform comedians they disagree with, comedians that keep saying things they shouldn’t say… from an ever-expanding list. It’s reminiscent of the late great George Carlin and his immortal routine of the seven words you weren’t allowed to say on television. “Those are the heavy seven,” Carlin said, listing seven big swear-words. “Those are the ones that’ll infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war.”

Carlin was rallying against censorship, and we clearly need to be reminded that all censorship is bad. Saying Chappelle “can’t” make jokes about trans people is not far removed from saying that Munawar Faruqui should not be allowed to make jokes about Hindu deities—jokes that he didn’t even make—or that a character called Shiva (in the Amazon show Tandav) shouldn’t be allowed to discuss “aazadi.”

The idea that a joke will offend some people is…obvious. It is farcical to keep empowering the offended because, as Jimmy Carr says in His Dark Material (Netflix), “jokes about terrible things… are just jokes. They’re not the terrible thing.” People naturally have the right to take offence to anything at all, but there should only be one recourse to that: that they stop watching.

I might feel stung, for instance, at someone making a Salman Rushdie joke. We all have our own pantheons, and it isn’t any comedian’s responsibility to pussyfoot around what I may consider sacrilegious. If some comedians are more tasteless, laugh less. Comedy is a fantastically subjective art-form, and thanks to a steady stream of specials on Netflix and HBO, there’s something for everyone—I don’t have to listen to the comedian who does a punchline a minute, you don’t have to listen to the man making “my wife” jokes, and neither of us has to listen to the angry meninist. It’s ice cream, and nobody should picket against Tutti Frutti.

“The problem with being liberal,” says Neal Brennan in his lovely 2022 special Blocks (Netflix), “is there’s no amount of liberal that’s liberal enough. If there’s a bunch of Republicans and someone goes ‘I’m a Republican’, they go ‘Come on in’. If there’s a bunch of liberals and a liberal goes ‘Hey, I’m liberal’, they’re like, ‘We’ll see’.”

By saying someone—anyone—doesn’t have the right to say something—anything—we are getting in our own way. Netflix throws its weight behind Chappelle and continues to give him specials and millions, but the service unceremoniously dropped Tamil film Annapoorani where one character tells another how Indian deities used to eat meat. It’s now impossible to keep up with or to wholeheartedly agree with the woke agenda. Comedians could, and should, be talking about so much. Instead here they are, charging again and again, tilting against the windmills of woke-ness. Here are seven words we shouldn’t soon forget: They broke Chappelle, and that’s not cool.

Also read: Dave Chappelle 'more than willing' to meet LGBTQ groups over special

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