Don’t know if you’ve heard, but Ricky Gervais and Dave Chappelle have been under fire lately for their steady diet of “jokes” about the trans community.  (In Chappelle’s case, “under fire” means literally being attacked on stage by a man who claims to have been triggered by the comic’s material.)  Both Gervais and Chappelle continue to sell out shows, so neither have real-life concerns about being canceled.  But the comedians are definitely on the defensive, offering a number of reasons to justify punching down in their live shows and a neverending stream of Netflix specials.

ComedyNerd just ain’t buying those reasons. I mean, listen to these guys.

Gervais claims his transphobic humor is intended as a public service message for imperfect normals, “getting us over taboo subjects” that apparently we’re incapable of transcending without his comic guidance.  And in any event, it’s not like Gervais means any of it. "It's mad to think that joking about something means you're anti-it."  Of course -- why would jokes express a comedian’s point of view?

Netflix

If we joke that Gervais is an idiot, that doesn't make us anti-Gervais.

For his part, Chappelle is mostly sticking to “I said what I said.”  But look, he’s 'open' to discussion.  Dave has offered to meet with Netflix employees and others who have a problem with his comedy -- under some very specific conditions. First, they have to watch his entire recent special, The Closer, for context. Second, they must meet at a place and time of Chappelle’s choosing. (What is this, a hostage negotiation?) And finally, they must admit that gay comic and Chappelle critic Hannah Gadsby “is not funny.”  Seems perfectly sensible. 

Netflix

What if all this is an elaborate scheme to have lunch with Hannah Gadsby?

But if we’re not completely buying these arguments for continuing to tell trans jokes, there are at least four more (albeit dumb) reasons why Chappelle and Gervais insist on performing this kind of material.

Defiance.

Many comedians seem to be born with a specific gene in their DNA sequencing, one that says “you can’t tell me what to do.”  Gervais’s whole schtick at the Golden Globes is to be the bloke sitting at home who shouldn’t have been invited.” Naughty boy!  Give Matt Damon what he has coming to him!

Comedian and SNL alum Jon Lovitz recently whined about possibly having to think twice before speaking.  “As soon as you say to a comedian like me, ‘You can’t say that,’ the first thing in my head is, ‘Oh, and now I have to.’” 

That “now I have to” defiance is apparent in Chappelle’s “I said what I said,” as well as his doubling down on trans material despite social media outcry. But “you can’t tell me what to do” is never the spoken justification -- that comes in the form of “it’s just a joke!”

Look, it’s fun,” says voice-of-reason Joe Rogan, speaking in defense of Chappelle. “It’s just making jokes. That doesn’t mean hate.”

Gervais is on board -- no hate here.   “In real life of course I support trans rights,” he says. “I support all human rights, and trans rights are human rights. Live your best life. Use your preferred pronouns. Be the gender that you feel you are.”

Pause. Pause. Penis joke.

You just don’t get it.

“My target wasn’t trans folk, but trans activist ideology,” says Gervais. “
I’ve always confronted dogma that oppresses people
and limits freedom of expression.” 

There it is -- the classic rhetorical twist for comedians who find themselves in trouble.  The problem isn’t the material. It’s the unsophisticated audience who can’t grasp its meaning.  (Or can’t take a joke.)

“People get offended when they mistake the subject of the joke with the actual target,” Gervais told Stephen Colbert. “Smart people know you can deal with anything, particularly when dealing with something like irony.”

The implication, of course?  If you don’t like it, you’re not one of the “smart people.”  Conversely, if Gervais’s trans jokes make you laugh like a hyena? You’re a satirical genius!

Chappelle also argues that the offended just don’t get it, occasionally playing the “some of my best friends are gay/trans/marginalized” card when called out. “I still don’t think those jokes are transphobic,” he told Rogan. “I’m not gonna have that discussion but if I ever have to, boy I’m ready.”  We’re ready too!  Let’s have it!

I need attention.

Gervais cops to it. He'll do whatever it takes to prick up an audience's ears.  I’ll pretend to be right wing,” he says. “I’ll pretend to be left wing. I’ll pretend to be clever. I’ll pretend to be stupid. Whatever makes the joke funnier, without prejudice.”

It's attention he's after. As Gervais argues in his Netflix special SuperNature, he’s not doing it for the money. He’s already rich!  

(For some reason, Chappelle likes to point this out too, bragging about his huge houses and impossibly long driveways.  Maybe it’s another shield against people who claim the comics are trying to cash in on hate?) 

I have a personal axe to grind.

Chappelle seems to be up to something else.  

Vanity Fair’s Chris Murphy notes that Chappelle’s jokes are more barbed, comedic arguments that society values the queer community more than it does Black men. “In our country, you can shoot and kill a (n-word), but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.” 

Chappelle is clearly frustrated and hurt that those he offended are trying to get him kicked off of Netflix or worse. Each sold-out show he performs is vindication that he was right all along, an act of revenge against people who want him to stick to jokes about more innocuous topics -- or, perhaps, to shut up altogether. 

Which, of course, doesn’t explain why Chappelle had to go there in the first place.

The issue, argues Them’s Shar Jossell, is that “these jokes often come with a hefty price for the trans community, and there are harsher implications at play.” Jossel points to a Human Rights Campaign study that painted 2020 as the deadliest year on record for trans people.  

That was the message behind a Netflix walkout protesting Chappelle’s special.  “We are here today not because we don’t know how to take a joke,” said trans activist Ashlee Marie Preston. “We’re here because we’re concerned that the jokes are taking lives.”

So yeah, it’s serious stuff.  But that doesn’t make the subject off-limits for comedy -- there are plenty of hilarious trans comics who joke about it all the time in ways that are insightful, informed, and yes, funny. That’s all we’re asking from Gervais and Chappelle. Not reasons or arguments for misguided bits but smarter comedy, with jokes that clearly punch up instead of down. What do you say, Netflix -- can we put that in the rider for the next special?

For more ComedyNerd, be sure to check out:

Father’s Day: 20 Dad Jokes For Around The Grill

5 SNL Performers Who (Apparently) Were Miserable Coworkers

The Origins Of 15 Iconic Comedy Movie Props

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