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‘Punching Down’ At Everyone Makes Dave Chappelle’s New Special A Knockout

Dave Chappelle
Image CreditNetflix/YouTube

Chappelle is the court jester attempting to chide those in charge into seeing the folly of their ways.


Dave Chappelle’s newest special on Netflix, “The Dreamer,” opens with a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Then the comedian takes the stage and begins reminiscing about his career. Almost 24 years ago, he was on the same stage — the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C. — taping his first special, “Killin’ Them Softly.”

His girlfriend, now wife, was in the audience, pregnant with their first child. He couldn’t fill the room and had to hand out tickets on the street to get people into the seats. He was still grieving his father’s death, an event that left Chappelle unsure of his ability to smile or laugh again, and of his ability to make it as a comedian. The “late, great Norm Macdonald” came to his rescue, inviting him to meet Jim Carrey, one of Chappelle’s favorite comedians. The experience, while not exactly what Chappelle had envisioned, lifted him from his funk and helped him endeavor to live the life he had imagined.

When the meeting occurred, Carrey was playing comedian Andy Kaufman in “Man on the Moon,” a role for which he spent every waking moment in character. Chappelle says that in hindsight, it was a special moment, as he got to see “one of the greatest artists of my time immersed in one of his most challenging processes ever.” At the time, though, Chappelle was “very disappointed” because, “I wanted to meet Jim Carrey and I had to pretend this [n-word] was Andy Kaufman. All afternoon. He was clearly Jim Carrey. I could look at him and could see he was Jim Carrey.”  

“I say all that to say,” Chappelle continues, “that’s how trans people make me feel.” The audience roars and Chappelle says, “Here we go!” — just in case anyone watching thinks he’s going to start pulling punches. He does, however, stress that he’s not going to spend the entire special making fun of trans people, “only three or four times tonight, but that is it!” Besides, he informs us, he’s got a whole new angle. “I ain’t doing trans jokes no more. Tonight, I’m doing all handicapped jokes,” adding, “I love punching down.”

Punching Down or Telling Jokes?

Not surprisingly, his critics are not pleased with his continuing insistence on punching down, which normal people would call telling jokes. A columnist at MSNBC laments that he’s become the “Punch-Down Prince.” A writer at Variety wants Chappelle to “try some new material.” The critic at large at The New York Times suggests the comedian now prefers “making points to getting laughs.”

The audience for “The Dreamer” apparently didn’t get that memo. They laugh throughout the special, in which Chappelle careens from jokes about trans people to Madison Cawthorn, from poking fun at Chris Rock to mocking the people who died in the Titan submersible implosion. He makes fun of himself, his wife, and almost everyone else he knows.

He continues to do what he set out to do when he taped that first special, which is to live his life as a comedian who genuinely enjoys making people laugh while eviscerating sacred cows. Given that the so-called “trans community” is one of the biggest sacred cows at the moment, Chappelle knows he isn’t punching down any more than he’s punching down when he mocks celebrities or elected officials. This is what his critics, who are more concerned with identity politics than entertainment, ignore.

An Audience for Comedy

The aggregate rating for “The Dreamer” on Rotten Tomatoes is over 80 percent positive. Scrolling through search results for “The Dreamer” on X, né Twitter, reveals mostly supportive comments. Netflix continues to support him and give him a platform. Most importantly, people keep watching him. Perhaps, even in 2024, there is still a market for humor.

This bodes well not just for Chappelle, but for those of us who enjoy actual laughter, not the “comedians” who prefer making points to generating laughs. While the entertainment industry is largely held hostage by modern pieties (see Disney and “Saturday Night Live”), true comedians continue to poke holes in those pieties as they always have. Moreover, what makes Chappelle effective, as with Ricky Gervais, Anthony Jeselnik, and Bill Maher, is that he’s a fellow traveler with those who denigrate him. He’s not a conservative poking holes in those pieties. He’s a liberal making fun of leftists.

This, of course, is Chappelle’s actual sin. It’s not that he’s mocking trans people or the disabled or anyone else. It’s that he’s exposing the mental gymnastics that identity politics requires its adherents to engage in. He’s the court jester attempting to chide those in charge into seeing the folly of their ways. Shakespeare couldn’t have written a better foil for the modern age.

Chappelle continues to advance confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life he imagines, one which, not uncoincidentally, leads him to success unimagined in common hours. And that dream is to make us all come together, lighten up a little bit, and remember that it’s OK to laugh at one another.

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