What I Wanted To Say: Gadsby, “The Closer,” and the Definition of Comedy
Stand-up comedy has always been an influential part of my media consumption, though in a peculiar, indirect way. It was more like background noise to my upbringing, never in the foreground but looking back, rather ubiquitous. My parents never sat down and regularly broke down specials from legends such as Carlin and Pryor; instead, their work was sprinkled into the rest of the media I was exposed to in my formidable years.
This micro-dosing of comedy is probably how most people consumed the artform, but while most people let stand-up fall by the wayside, for some reason, it stuck for me. When I left for college and I was a big man with his own Netflix account (and by which I mean my own section of our family’s Netflix package), my appreciation towards the medium grew until I was spending more time watching stand-up specials than I was watching movies or TV shows.
That’s how The Jester’s Privilege started. While the stand-up comedy reviewing business is such a lucrative career option and surefire way into superstardom, surprisingly that wasn’t my primary motivator for starting a comedy review series. I love comedy, and I love talking about it, and no one I knew had the same passion for it as I did. So, I scream it into the void of the Internet, thinking maybe someone else out there feels the same as I do.
This also brings me to a topic that has surfaced much more recently than anticipated (more on that later), though I didn’t have a public forum to speak on it at the time, so here we are. In June of 2018, Hannah Gadsby releases what I perceive as a turning point in the history of stand-up comedy: “Nanette”. Though it wasn’t the first semi-narrative comedy special, nor was it the first bone-chillingly vulnerable one, I believe it set in motion the path of stand-up for years to come. The bar had been raised, and stand-up was no longer the sideshow for one’s attention span, but an artform that contained unlimited potential in the right hands.
Then I took to Twitter to find out a lot of people did not have the same experience as me. A lot of people, what I will deem “comedy bros” for the moment, were quick to declare what I would deem a masterpiece, “not comedy”.
As inane and unexamined that assessment is, I never sat down and thought of a definition before. I don’t think a lot of people do, since most people’s response is something along the lines of, “I don’t know, it’s stand up. Did I laugh? Alright, then it’s comedy. Now stop bothering me Nick, it’s 2:30 a.m. and I have work in the morning.” I understand that comedy doesn’t get analyzed in the same way other mediums do, and I get that if the comedy bros don’t find something funny, it’s not funny to them and no one can convince them otherwise. But the critique wasn’t “this stand-up special is not funny.” The critique was, “This is not comedy.”
That distinction is key in my eyes, because it negates whether or not you laughed or not. You could have found Gadsby’s astute observations of Vincent Van Gogh and the Australian Pride parade to be hysterical, but saying the whole special is not comedy excludes Gadsby from the realm of comedy outright. That never sat right with me, especially since a large portion of that show was dedicated to Gadsby, a queer woman, expressing her exasperation of being a comedian in the margins. However, I decided that I was thinking way too far into this, I just let assholes be assholes, and moved on with my day.
Then, in October of 2021, Dave Chappelle released “The Closer”.
Now, there’s a LOT to be said about the now-infamous special by Mr. Chappelle, and since it was released seven months ago, a lot has already been said. I’m not going to add any new perspective to the criticisms of transphobia and antisemitism, mainly since I’m not Trans nor am I Jewish. All I will say on that matter is that if you are in those communities, and you were able to trudge through that bullshit for the full hour, you deserve a medal. If you haven’t watched it, and believed the negativity was overhyped, I’m here to assure you it is not.
That’s when the “not comedy” argument came back into my head, because what Chappelle released last year wasn’t comedy, especially not of the stand-up variety. I think a general definition was can all agree with is this:
Stand-up comedy being a live performance in which the performer(s)’s primary goal is to provoke laughter from a given audience.
I think Chappelle forgot about the “laughter” part there, because the main goal of that special wasn’t to make the audience laugh. It was a surgically-precise practice in hate baiting and dog whistling. It was a special for the sole purpose of trying to get a rise out of the woke mob and making specifically trans people furious on Twitter.
It was an hour of, “You know what’s strange about trans people? It’s that he says he’s a woman, but he was a man actually! Isn’t that fucking weird? Oh, I’m sorry, did that joke trigger you?” That’s it. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say 45 minutes of that hour was devoted to saying homophobic and transphobic statements under the paper-thin guise of “I’m only joking, guys, relax.” He even called the LGBT community, “LGTB,” despite it being a very popular acronym and Dave Chappelle very much having access to the Internet.
Now, let’s bring it back to Hannah Gadsby. There are many ways to achieve a stand-up special, and thus brings us the genres of comedy: your prop comics, your musical comics, your roasters, your one-liners, etc. However, with this baseline definition, I don’t think there could be any dispute as to whether or not “Nanette” is comedy. Sure, it made me cry and question the very fabric of our culture, but it was also fucking funny. That was its main thrust, without question.
It’s a key motif in that special, in which Gadsby uses the “beginnings and middles” of certain stories to create and release tension. The whole point of that special was to explain why her comedy left out the important “endings” of her stories, and in doing so, allowed the audience to pick up where the deliberate jokes and releases of tension were. I understand that comedy is a subjective thing, and you might not have thought Gadsby was funny. But no one can convince me that she wasn’t trying to, and that’s what makes it stand-up.
Why does this matter to me so much? It’s because, like I said before, stand-up has loads of potential, when treated like the artform it is and could be. Stand-up is no longer just an hour of offensive material or “what’s the deal with airplane food?” Comedy has a story to tell, with vulnerability, depth, and commentary that makes you think as well as laugh. It is, by its nature, a disarming medium, and certain talents are using that disarming ability to speak on real subjects, whether that be their own personal, albeit relatable, trauma, or horrid institutions that oppress people to this day.
Limiting stand-up to simple quips and quirks and dismissing any critical thought from the medium with “they’re just jokes” dilutes the progress very talented people have done over the last decade or so. Narratives are forming, social commentary is being led, and more people than ever before are flocking to comedians for unadulterated truth and a deviance to the powers that be. So, as a fan and critic of stand-up comedy, I cannot wait to see who emerges on the scene, and pray to as many gods as I can name that none of them make “Closers”.
So, that was supposed to be the end of the piece. I finished it on Friday, and was having a friend edit it over the weekend. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up what happened while this was in the editing process.
John Mulaney, perhaps the quintessential stand-up comedian today, is on tour right now, and a few nights ago in Ohio, he offered a warm welcome to a local comedian onto the stage as the opener. The welcome slowly became chilled once the audience saw who the comedian was: Dave Chappelle. Not only was it Chappelle, but according to firsthand accounts, after the initial excitement died down, he picked up right where he left off from “The Closer.” Simply paraphrasing what occurred would not do it justice, so I’m going to put an account of an audience member here for full context:
I’m ready to call it: Dave Chappelle is out of jokes. He’s fresh out of original material, so he’s grasping at bigotry straws to see if anything will stick. Roxane Gay was right, this man has more allegiance to saving his ego than actually saying something hilariously profound, something I admittedly thought he was good at for a time.
Furthermore, unleashing Chappelle’s rhetoric on an unsuspecting crowd is bad enough, but in the context of the what show he was opening for, it made things exponentially worse for everyone involved. This brings me to my final point: what the hell, John? A lot of your mainstream success has come from young people, particularly young queer people, creating memes of your work and elevating you to this pedestal of the king of the “unproblematic faves”. Associating yourself with Dave, who hasn’t even attempted to reconcile with those same young queer people who come to see you, is a betrayal on your fanbase in an effort to stay friendly with both sides of the spectrum. This is Tyler and the seesaw all over again. Stop sitting on the bench.