Close Up | Dave Chappelle: Too close to the bone?

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There are things only Chappelle can get away with; things other mortals cannot say without provoking public opprobrium that might end their careers. Photo: Supplied/Archive
There are things only Chappelle can get away with; things other mortals cannot say without provoking public opprobrium that might end their careers. Photo: Supplied/Archive


In his latest special The Closer, which premiered on Netflix this week, iconic comedian Dave Chappelle tells a shocking story of what social media can do to overly sensitive individuals.

A few years ago, when he was a constant presence in San Francisco, US, doing sold-out performances there, Chappelle struck up a relationship with a woman who’d attend almost all of his shows.

She always laughed at the same jokes she had heard before. Many of the jokes were about and had offended some transgender people, and Chappelle had been excoriated on Twitter for them.

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Having established that this woman was herself transgender, Chappelle wondered to himself why she was not offended.

In one of their off-stage bonding sessions, he established that she was actually very funny. She had even tried her hand at stand-up comedy.

When he got ready to record what would later become his controversial – well, everything he does is controversial – Netflix special Sticks & Stones, he realised that he needed an opening act for the show.

Chappelle decided to give the woman, Daphne Dorman, a break. He invited her to be the opening act. Bad decision.

To hear him tell the story in his latest special, Dorman “stunk”. Dismal as hell.

That night, after she exited the stage, Chappelle took over. Any other comedian would have fled the theatre immediately after the atrocious performance, which attracted some boos. Not Dorman.

She found herself a seat right upfront and started laughing as if she had no care in the world, as if she hadn’t embarrassed herself just a few minutes previously.

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After the show, Chappelle went backstage with her. They had a roaring time, drinking and swopping lines.

He was struck at just how strong she was. Also not lost on him was the fact that the woman was hilarious off-stage.

He then undertook to be her mentor, to help her improve her act. Dorman was ecstatic.

When Sticks & Stones was finally released, it provoked Twitter outrage, with members of the LGBTQI+ community baying for Chappelle’s blood, calling for him to be cancelled.

Dorman joined the fray.

For a white transgender woman, she was swimming vigorously against the flow of an LGBTQI+ community narrative which held Chappelle in contempt, saying he was punching down at them.

Her tweet said:

Punching down requires you to consider yourself superior to another group. He doesn’t consider himself better than me in any way. He isn’t punching up or punching down. He’s punching lines. That’s his job and he’s a master of his craft.

Dorman’s defence of Chappelle did not go down well with her own people and the broader LGBTQI+ community.

There was immediate Twitter backlash. Days after the backlash started, Dorman committed suicide.

This week, just hours after The Closer was aired, Chappelle again came under attack on Twitter and other platforms.

The special was recorded in Detroit, Michigan, and serves as the final offering in Chappelle’s $60 million Netflix deal.

Surprisingly, Dorman’s family came out in his support. Her sister, Becky, wrote in a text that was later reproduced on the online news website The Daily Beast: “Daphne was in awe of Dave’s graciousness. She did not find his jokes rude, crude, off-coloring, off-putting, anything. She thought his jokes were funny. Daphne understood humor and comedy. She was not offended, [so] why would her family be offended?”

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Dorman’s younger sister, Brandy, wrote: “Dave loved my sister and is an LGBTQI+ ally. His entire set was begging to end this very situation.”

It was moving to watch Chappelle this week and hear how close he is with Dorman’s family. After her death, he set up a trust for her daughter.

In the special, Chappelle says that he wishes to live long enough to personally give the money to Dorman’s daughter when she turns 21. He would tell her: 

Young lady, I knew your father and he was a wonderful woman.

There are things only Chappelle can get away with; things other mortals cannot say without provoking public opprobrium that might end their careers.

When Chappelle says he doesn’t give a f***, he means it. Only a guy who has in the past walked away from a $50 million deal because a joke in the show offended him can say the things that Chappelle does.

The responses to this week’s release are a barometer of American intellectual and emotional wellbeing. They show a nation in emotional and intellectual turmoil.

David Johns, the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, called for The Closer to be removed from Netflix.

“With 2021 on track to be the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the US – the majority of whom are black transgender people – Netflix should know better. Perpetuating transphobia perpetuates violence,” Johns said.

“Make no mistake, black LGBTQ+ people ... have always existed. The fight against oppression is not a zero-sum game, and the pervasiveness of white supremacy in the US is not an excuse for homophobia or transphobia.”

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But rapper 50 Cent gave the show a thumbs up, writing on Instagram: “Dave Chappelle is a funny mother****er. That was flawless.”

Reflecting on Chappelle’s impact over the years, Craig Jenkins wrote in the online magazine The Vulture: “Sketch comedy was the perfect setting for Chappelle’s ruminations about race and class. Inside the confines of a sketch, Dave was able to reveal our ugliest tendencies, wielding the god-king power of a comedy writer seemingly lacking in fear or reservations while maintaining a safe distance from the actions of his characters. Beneath a flurry of punch lines and quotables, his sketches were dioramas of American disorder.”

I must thank Chappelle for telling the story of Daphne Dorman, a tragic cautionary tale of what happens to people who swim against the tide, whatever that tide might be at any given stage of our development as a species. 


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