Last week, Netflix employees staged a walkout to protest Dave Chappelle’s special The Closer. Yesterday, Chappelle said he was willing to meet with them on three conditions. One: everyone had to watch the special from start to finish. Two: the meeting would be at his preferred time and place. Three: “you must admit that Hannah Gadsby is not funny.”
I’ve been a big fan of Dave Chappelle since a full decade before his show made him famous. I started following him back in 1993, when I first saw him in Robin Hood: Men in Tights.* I think Chappelle is brilliant and hilarious. I also think he’s missing something fundamental about what’s funny and who’s qualified to judge humor.
Before I wade into this minefield: if you haven’t followed the controversy over Chappelle’s latest special, drop what you’re doing and read the masterful analysis by Helen Lewis. With remarkable clarity and complexity, she captures the tension between the left-wing authoritarians who preside over cancel culture and the right-wing homophobes who perpetuate prejudice against marginalized groups. The fundamental question: is Chappelle a Black person punching up at fragile white snowflakes or a rich dude punching down at vulnerable trans people?
Spoiler alert: he’s both. Nuance 1, Polarization 0.
Believe it or not, there’s a whole branch of social science called humor psychology.** Yep, it’s mostly a bunch of people who suck at telling jokes trying to deconstruct what makes other people funny. Humor researchers are to Dave Chappelle what baseball statisticians are to Babe Ruth. But it turns out that producing humor and judging humor are separate skills. Being good at making others laugh doesn’t guarantee that you appreciate everyone’s style of humor.
In humor psychology, one of the prominent theories is benign violation theory. The basic idea, inspired by Mark Twain and developed by Peter McGraw, is that comedy is tragedy plus distance. People laugh at jokes that cross a social or moral line but do it in a harmless way.
When psychologist Richard Wiseman asked over a million people around the world to rate 40,000 jokes, this was the funniest:
Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy calls emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says, "Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says, “Ok, now what?”
It's a violation of a moral code—the man shot his friend. It’s benign—no one actually got hurt in the process. People laugh at the guy taking the operator’s directions too literally.
I’m pretty confident this isn’t the funniest joke you’ve ever heard. So why didn’t a better one win? Because different people in different cultures have different ideas of what a violation is. And what’s benign to you might be malicious to someone else. Take an example based on McGraw’s research:
To help her family pay off debt, Jenny gathered her old jewelry, created an eBay account, and put her virginity up for sale.
Plenty of men find it funny—most of us have never worried about having to sell their bodies for sex. Women are generally less amused: it’s a little too close for comfort. It runs the risk of being offensive.
Here are two more:
To recruit new members, a church is raffling off a new Hummer SUV.
As a spokesperson for their pork products, Jimmy Dean hired a rabbi.
If you’re an atheist, you might be entertained. If you’re religious, not so much. Even in a joke, it isn’t innocuous to abandon God’s wishes while doing God’s work.
Benign violation theory helps to explain why the LGBTQ community has been outraged over The Closer and Chappelle doesn’t get it. Consider this one:
I can’t help feel like if slaves had baby oil and booty shorts, we might have been free a hundred years sooner.
To a straight cis Black man, it’s a benign violation. It’s obviously preposterous that softer skin and different clothes could’ve broken the shackles of slavery. To the LGBTQ community, it runs the risk of minimizing the real struggles and lives lost fighting for gay and trans rights.
Benign violation theory might also shed some light on why Dave Chappelle doesn’t find Hannah Gadsby funny. She’s attacking the patriarchy, and by his own acknowledgment, he casually refers to women as bitches.
Art has two dimensions: quality and taste. I’m not a fan of Picasso paintings, Wes Anderson films, or Elvis music. But I realize that’s a matter of taste, not quality. I can dislike the art while still admiring the skill of the artist. You can take offense at Chappelle’s jokes without dismissing the wit it takes to write them and the timing it takes to deliver them.
I happen to think Hannah Gadsby is a genius and Douglas was even better than Nanette. But I don’t need Chappelle to laugh at her jokes. I do want him to recognize how clever she is:
Making fun of Americans is still, technically, punching up. Although that window is closing.
As an American who worries about the fate of democracy, I laughed hard at that line. A Trump supporter might not.
As a white person in a society that’s still polluted with racism, I’m all for Chappelle making jokes about white people. As a feminist, I’d love to see him rethink how he uses his platform. I don’t think it’s benign when one of the world’s most successful men punches down at a talented queer woman in his profession. Especially in a world that has long devalued and denigrated women’s humor.
No one has a monopoly on taste. Ultimately, it’s not comics or critics who decide what’s funny. It’s the audience.
When Dave Chappelle said Hannah Gadsby isn’t funny, I think what he meant was that he doesn’t appreciate her brand of comedy. Personally, I don’t care who he thinks is funny. I do care about him making an effort to elevate other comedians instead of going for laughs at their expense.
*For the record, Robin Hood: Men in Tights is objectively the funniest movie ever made.