On Sept. 18, 1977, a little-known comedian was canceled in real-time.
The comic had been invited to perform at a charity event for Save Our Human Rights. He was halfway through the show when he realized that the audience was mostly white and that the concert was actually a fundraiser for a gay rights organization. But that’s not why he was pissed.
A few days earlier, network executives informed him that they wouldn’t allow him to air a short film about a homosexual experience. Because he had hired LGBTQ writers and actors for his eponymous primetime show, he refused to take it out, knowing it meant his show would be canceled. In fact, he decided he would make the episode even gayer, according to biographer Scott Saul.
But that’s not why the comedian was pissed.
He supported gay rights, so—even though he was duped—he was happy to perform. But, as he stood backstage, he witnessed producers, stagehands and volunteers mistreat the Black performers while going out of their way to appease the white performers. In two minutes, he had witnessed the dichotomy of America.
He took the stage, prowling as if he were a predator about to attack. He recounted his own experience with homosexuality. He relayed the story of what he saw backstage. He told them how security guards had thrown out Black members of the audience. Then, he grew quiet, almost contemplative, whispering into the mic, asking: “How can f****ts be racist?”
The crowd jeered and booed. He realized he was in trouble, but he continued, as described by the book Furious Cool:
This is an evening about human rights, and I’m a human being.
I just wanted to see where you was really at, and I wanted to test you to your motherfucking soul. I’m doing this shit for nothing. But I wanted to come here and tell you to kiss my ass with your bullshit. You understand? When the niggers was burning down Watts, you motherfuckers was doin’ what you wanted to do down on Hollywood Boulevard. Didn’t give a shit about it.
Then he turned his back to the audience, hiked up the tail of his jacket, thrust out his backside and said, “You Hollywood faggots can kiss my rich happy Black ass.”
For weeks, he was pilloried in the press. Writers said he “committed the sin, often fatal, of offending one of the most powerful groups in the entertainment industry.” Two weeks later, his show was canceled and NBC paid him $2 million to not appear on television for the duration of his contract. A group of actors placed an ad in Variety condemning his homophobic rant. Universal Pictures canceled a film because the comedian’s co-star reportedly refused to appear on film with him.
And just like that, the rising star became a victim of cancel culture. You probably have never heard of this obscure but tragic show-business figure:
Some guy named Richard Pryor.
I like cancel culture.
Although many people claim that no one has ever been actually “canceled,” dictionary.com defines cancel culture as: “the phenomenon or practice of publicly rejecting, boycotting, or ending support for particular people or groups because of their socially or morally unacceptable views or actions.”
By that metric, I have canceled many people.
My history of canceling people began at an early age when I decided to stop fucking with Keith Anderson after he slapped my long-long-distance girlfriend, Thelma Evans when she confronted him over his drinking problem. Sure, I knew his NFL career had suddenly ended and he was drunk off toilet tank gin, but I simply would not stand for domestic violence of any kind. I was done with him.
I would later cancel many other famous celebrities, including UTFO (for catcalling and stalking Roxanne Roxanne). I canceled Milli for lip-syncing (I feel like Vanilli had no choice but to go along with the scheme). I even shunned noted attorney Phillip Banks for brutally murdering Aunt Viv and pretending nothing happened so he could shack up with a light-skinned hussy whose name also happened to be Aunt Viv. (I also feel like Jeffrey was at least an accessory after the fact. Yes, I believe the butler did it.)
While some might disagree that these are examples of cancel culture, the only difference between an individual canceling and the public canceling of someone by “the culture” is that Twitter didn’t exist in the 1980s. The idea that “things were different back then” is actually a manufactured construct born out of white America’s bewilderment. “Political correctness” is not new. Microaggressions are not a recent invention. No one ever liked it. Social media is the only new ingredient in the harmless phenomenon that we named “cancel culture.” And, if you disagree that it is harmless, consider the other tragic figures who whine the most about cancel culture. Whatever happened to Tucker Carlson? Jason Whitlock is jobless, right? I still feel sorry for poor Joe Rogan. No, each of these celebrities is doing just fine.
And that’s why I like cancel culture.
I think we should cancel more things. If little Ashleigh or Connor can’t cover their precious Caucasian faces like the rest of their classmates, I’m cool with canceling their asses. If you want to prevent teachers from teaching students actual facts, send the students to study hall during history class or keep their asses at home. If a community doesn’t want their tax dollars and public spaces to be used to show off and maintain monuments to white supremacy, we should be able to cancel those Confederate relics.
And if comedians want the freedom to say what they want into a microphone, people are allowed to react in the way they choose. Laughter is not the only valid response to racist, transphobic or homophobic words.
That’s why I love standup comedy.
I believe saying words into a microphone and evoking laughter is America’s purest art form. I’ve been employed by comedy clubs and have probably seen more comedy sets than many working comedians. I’ve studied comedy, absorbed it and appreciated it ever since I was 10 years old when I first discovered Evening at the Improv. The structure of a joke, the efficiency of words and comedy’s unapologetic excavation of truth are embedded in everything I write, from journalism to poetry to my actual job as a comedy writer.
Even though standup is one of the most difficult art forms, it is the essence of cancel culture. When any joke doesn’t get the reaction that a comedian prefers, the comedian usually modifies the joke or cancels it altogether. If they choose to keep repeating an unfunny, offensive or hack joke into a microphone, then they are choosing to receive whatever reaction their words evoke. Comedians like Andrew Dice Clay built entire careers off of this concept.
But long before the words “cancel culture” even came into the mainstream, a new generation of comedians began lamenting the attack on their chosen profession. They whined about the outrageous attack on free speech and diversity of thought, with an illogical, anti-comedic argument: If comedians can’t say what they want, then their art form would die. And if the art form dies, then who would serve as our nation’s truth-tellers?
The early discussion mainly took place on podcasts and in the darkened corners of comedy clubs but, as the fight against “wokeness” and political correctness grew into a conservative cause, they became more vocal. Fox News hosts and comedians with large, self-sustaining audiences amplified the argument until a confounding synergy arose between these two congregations.
If you want to see how comedians should respond to this pedestrian lack of reasoning, look no further than the greatest comedian of this generation—Dave Chappelle.
Chappelle is a master of his craft. His uncanny ability to make people think while not sacrificing his goal of laughter is unparalleled. Others have tried but—if we’re being honest, Lenny Bruce was not that funny; George Carlin was more of a witty performance poet/humorist and Richard Pryor was too talented to compare to any human being who ever stood on stage. Anyone else you think should be on this list was just really really good. Dave Chappelle is a great comedian.
And Dave Chappelle’s comedy is transphobic.
Even after people called out Chappelle’s newly released Netflix special for its transphobia and cultural appropriation (He did kinda steal the usually Caucasian defense: “But one of my best friends was trans,” and the oft-used “I don’t have a transphobic bone in my body”), I refrained from weighing in—not because I was afraid of being canceled. I just thought The Closer wasn’t very good.
While watching it, I kept waiting for him to tie everything together in a way that would explain the lack of jokes per minute. After an hour of him ranting about a community that doesn’t affect his life in any way, I just knew there would be a brilliant denouement. I am rarely offended by anything (even racism doesn’t necessarily offend me), so I wasn’t outraged. But because the justification never materialized, the resulting think pieces seem like a string of culinary reviews of a Tuesday night meal at Applebee’s.
I cannot see into Chappelle’s soul and, even if I could, I am not a trans person, so I can only listen to trans people say this is about transphobia. And, aside from Caitlyn Jenner, every trans person I know or asked had the same opinion.
“Those kinds of jokes, that kind of rhetoric about who you are not being real, not being valid or not being worthy of dignity and respect have an immense toll on the psychology of anyone and any marginalized group,” said transgender activist and writer Raquel Willis during our mutual appearance on MSNBC’s The Cross Connection, adding:
But of course, Dave Chappelle is not just on a playground, he is literally on one of the largest platforms globally...
And yes I know a lot of folks think it’s a jump to see that this will lead to increased violence. But that animus is being stoked when you hear things like trans women are not the women we know ourselves to be. It influences the rhetoric we hear from lawmakers trying to push for trans folks to not be able to use public accommodations or trans students to not be able to go after their passions in sports.
But Chappelle would not be moved.
“It’s been said in the press that I was invited to speak to the transgender employees at Netflix and I refused,” Chappelle told an audience in a recently released video on his Instagram page. “That is not true. If they had invited me, I would have accepted it.
“Do not blame the LBGTQ community for any of this,” he continued. “This has never had anything to do with them. It’s about corporate interests and what I can say and what I cannot say.”
Chappelle explained how he filmed a documentary during the pandemic that he desperately wants the public to see. But since the outcry over his special, he reported that “today, not a film company, not a movie studio, not a film festival. Nobody will touch this film.” After saying he is “more than willing” to give the transgender community an audience, Chappelle continued: “But you will not summon me. I am not bending to anybody’s demands.”
He wants us to feel sorry that his film is being targeted. If only there was a metaphor for people marginalizing something based on unfounded biases. Say what you will about him, but his stance is one of the whitest stances of all time.
Chappelle’s pedestrian point is that he should be free to practice his art in public but he should be immune to public reaction. Apparently, he believes that laughter is the only response that he will consider valid. Chappelle is essentially saying that that the humanity of trans people is less important than his little film and his freedom to say whatever the fuck he wants. And to make his point, he is only using the trans community as a metaphor.
In a country where white skin and capital is king, the only agency and intersectionality afforded to some people is the right to say “I don’t fuck with you.” And that’s all cancel culture is. It seems like a man who walked away from $50 million because of the way people laughed would understand that. Black people in 1955 Montgomery, Ala. called it a “bus boycott.” Mistreated employees call it a strike. A person who asks the public to boycott a Netflix show because they feel disrespected is called Dave Chappelle.
Funny how some things go both ways, huh?
But Chappelle shouldn’t worry. Netflix has already paid him. He sells out arenas in minutes. Trust me, Dave Chappelle will be OK. He is immune from being canceled.
White people could learn a lot from Dave Chappelle.
Instead of whining about critical race theory and passing legislation, why won’t you publicly face an actual critical race theorist and hash out your differences? Just admit that you’re OK with police shooting Black people in the face if it means keeping your Subaru safe in your suburban garage. Why won’t Kyrsten Sinema, Joe Manchin and Republican legislators say they’d rather preserve their power, even if it means Black people won’t be able to vote? Why not say you don’t like Muslims and Mexicans and masks and mandates and democracy?
You own the financial industry, the mainstream media landscape, politics, the judicial system, and every Fortune 500 corporation in the country. Trust me, you’ll be alright. You’re uncancelable!
So, instead of blaming cancel culture, white people should just turn their backs to everyone else, hike up the veil of white supremacy, thrust out their backsides and say:
“You niggers can kiss our rich happy white asses.”