Back when I first broke into the Boston stand-up scene in the early 90s, I'd often run into this weird little subset of comics who mainly worked the clubs across the river in Cambridge and such places, who truly believed that they were on a mission to change hearts and minds. I'm not kidding. They'd be varying degrees funny, but felt like their comedy was meant to be a force for making society better. And were encouraged by the guy who ran Catch a Rising Star in Harvard Square, who would sometimes berate comics who went for honest laughs instead of "progressive" comedy, accusing them of "pandering." I was friendly with some of those comedians, and whenever the subject would come up, Young Me's reply was to say, "I just think people work hard all day. They're overworked and underpaid. And go out to a comedy club and plunk down six bucks because they want to be entertained. Besides, when the world gets saved someday, no one's gonna be saying 'Let's thank all the comedians. We have their insightful monologues to thank for ushering in our new utopian paradise on Earth."
I bring this up because in a lot of ways, I was wrong. It IS possible for comics to have an impact on the culture. Just not the kind of performers who ran Catch into the ground with their smug, grandiose, laugh-free diatribes in the 90s. But the comedians who are pushing back against against the Joke Police and doing the best stand-up they know how, regardless of who's offended. Doing their jobs in other words. Guys like Bill Burr, Ricky Gervais, and of course, Dave Chappelle. Who was spot-on regarding this very topic in this clip from last year. And who, along with Gervais, has faced pushback from Netflix employees, even as he's raking in revenue for a streaming service that just lost a million subscribers.
And yet the battle that guys like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin lived and died fighting is far from over. Because Chappelle himself got a show shut down last night.
Source - A Minneapolis theater canceled Dave Chappelle's sold-out show at the 11th hour on Wednesday to appease a group of woke protesters who threatened violence if the star was allowed to perform.
First Avenue, a storied Minneapolis venue, canceled the show just hours before the famous comedian, 48, was supposed to hit the stage, bowing to the demands of MnUprising, a woke activism group which labeled Chappelle a transphobe.
The group complained that Chappelle 'harmed' them with his 'transphobic views'.
They launched a Change.org petition and attracted 125 signatures - a 12th of the crowd expected at the show on Wednesday night.
It was enough to persuade First Avenue to ditch the event, despite having sold 1,500 tickets at $129.50-a-pop, a total of nearly $200,000 which they would have taken a handsome slice of.
So given the eerily South Parkian tone of that press release, I guess we can assume all the other problems of Minneapolis are solved? Thanks, First Avenue!
Before we go another sentence, it bears repeating that anyone who says Chappelle's stand-up is transphobic is telling us they haven't watched him perform, without saying they haven't watched him perform. He's a multimillionaire and the No. 1 comedian in the country who doesn't need me going to bat for him. But the last 10 minutes or so of his latest Netflix special is the most genuinue defense of a trans person you're ever going to hear. Heartfelt, but also hilarious. Which is the point. If he was trying to be funny in the lazy, schoolyard, "Look at that person who's different from you and me! What a weirdo!" no one would defend that. Or laugh. What he does is the opposite. It's having no sacred cows. No one who's above getting made fun of. And that's not only how you entertain and audience, it makes us all more human.
But obviously there's more work to be done on that front. Because we've still got businesses that are terrified beyond the capacity to simply tell a small group of people, "No. The show must go on." The internet got 125 people to sign a petition, and that infinitesimal protest was enough for First Avenue to cave. They told 1,500 paying customers to go piss up a rope. Decided they were better off with a dark theater than a satisfied audience enjoying themselves. Happy to hand $200,000 over to the Varsity Theater. I'd admire them for taking a stand so principled that they'd set fire to 200 grand. But there was no principle behind this. Only fear. Fear of pissing off a tiny minority who claim to be afraid of jokes, because they put them in danger.
Meanwhile there's only one person in this equation who has actually had violence done against them. And that is Dave Chappelle:
So is Chappelle allowed to blame the people canceling his shows for the "impact" their protest might have? This sanctimonious statement from First Avenue uses all the buzzwords like "diverse voices" and "freedom of artistic expression," but means the opposite. You can have your voice and your expression as long as 125 people don't make the zero effort necessary to put their name to a Change.org petition? If so, where does this end? Do we get to shut down a concert because someone uses the word "bitch" in a song?
Because that's what the opposite end of the political spectrum was doing about 30 years ago. But like The Who sang, "The parting on the left, is now a parting on the right. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." And censoring performers because a few people willingly choose to entirely miss the point of the entertainment they provide for the rest of us just encourages them. And makes everything worse.
I'll end with this. If every American agreed that we'd all form two camps. One, that is a total "safe space" the way the First Avenue people imagine it, and the other where entertainers are given slack to say whatever the fuck they want? Maybe a thousand people would chose to live in the first place, and the other 330 million of us would all crowd into the second. And there's no question of which camp would be filled with happy people enjoying the hell out of their lives.