Will Netflix remove Dave Chappelle’s special after staff boycott?
There is no shortage of famous comedians who have attacked the issues facing the world through humor. From Richard Pryor’s refreshingly honest retelling of his drug-induced fire incident to Maria Bamford’s deep dive into mental health and relating to the world through it. While it’s no secret comedy can use humor to illuminate the darker side of life, the universal truth is comedy is subjective.
Generally accepted as one of the greatest comedians of all time, Dave Chappelle has never had a hard time brutally expressing his perspective on the world. But has he gone too far? In his new Netflix special, The Closer, Chappelle pulls no punches to give his opinions on the trans community. However, the response wasn’t as positive as his previous specials.
Long before Netflix, Dave Chappelle began his comedy career by getting booed offstage in front of the infamous Amateur Night audience in 1990. The failure was the experience he described as the moment that gave him the courage to continue his career aspirations. By 1992, he performed on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam. His performance catapulted him to performing on Politically Incorrect, The Howard Stern Show, and David Letterman.
After numerous movie & standup appearances, Chappelle landed his show on Comedy Central, Chappelle’s Show. The show’s main focus was sketches that parodied everything from racial stereotypes to politics. He used the enormous popularity of the show to promote the work of other black comedians. His most popular bit involved his portrayal of Rick James and screaming, “I’m Rick James, bitch!”
In 2004, Chappelle walked off the stage during a standup performance after berating the fans for screaming his famous phrase from his show. “This show is ruining my life,” the comedian said. “You know why my show is good? Because the network officials say you’re not smart enough to get what I’m doing, and every day I fight for you. I tell them how smart you are. Turns out I was wrong. You people are stupid.”
Chappelle abruptly left the show in 2005, just as season three was about to air. Quitting the show saw him walk away from a $50 million contract with Comedy Central. Rumors circulated that his exit was due to drug addiction & mental health instead of the ethical & professional concerns he reported.
Netflix went from mailing DVDs to your home to one of the most influential global brands by creating a streaming platform with an endless amount of diverse content created with a mostly hands-off approach. This strategy allowed Netflix to grow to 213 million subscribers and develop hits like Squid Game out of nowhere.
Yet what makes Netflix unique — the scale, resources, and strategy to create a hit without promotion — is also what has landed the company in hot water with The Closer.
In the past, some of Netflix’s biggest rivals in media have handled controversy around its stars by taking definitive action. After The Closer premiered, Chappelle was criticized for his comments & jokes about the trans community, which some believe are harmful to LBGTQ+.
The most extreme example was when Disney-owned ABC canceled its hit sitcom Roseanne in 2018 after its biggest star, Roseanne Barr, went on a racist Twitter rant. The show would return as The Conners, but the cast didn’t include Barr. Roseanne was one of the most popular and highly-rated programs on TV at the time.
Since the controversy has surfaced, the co-CEO Ted Sarandos defended the special in multiple posts. One of his statements claimed, “content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” The comments made by Sarandos caused division within the company. As a result, a group of employees organized a walkout.
According to Zak Shaikh, vice president of programing research-based media firm Magid, the strategy is unlikely to change even with the walkout organized. The most significant difference between Netflix and their other competitors is that the latter doesn’t sell advertisement space, so the controversy will not upset advertisers.
“Netflix’s goal is to be TV and to be that they have to cover everything, and that’s their strength,” he said. “They have so much content. It’s a volume play to cover all of those bases. But when you do that, when you take risks, you’re going to cause some controversy. It’s impossible not to.”
Whatever your feelings are on Dave Chappelle’s special, there doesn’t seem to be any movement on Netflix’s part. While the trans community & its supporters remain upset, the streaming service looks to be committed to keeping the special up.