This past Tuesday, Oct. 5, comedian Dave Chappelle—best known for his early aughts Comedy Central series Chappelle’s Show—released what he claimed would be his last comedy special “for a minute.”
Like every Chappelle special from the past five years, the comedy world braced for what it would contain—and what its contents would set aflame. It did not disappoint. The Closer contained, among many things: defense of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who many have labeled an active opponent of trans rights, ideas on how he would have run the #MeToo movement better, a joke about AIDS, and a long anecdote about his friendship with transgender comedian Daphne Dorman, wherein he claims: “She wasn’t their tribe. She was mine. She was a comedian in her soul.”
One of the voices raised in response to the special was one of Portland’s own—Black transgender woman comedian Dahlia Belle, who co-founded Portland’s Queer Comedy Festival. WW profiled her this year.
In a critical piece for The Guardian’s Stage section, Belle wrote an open letter to Chappelle.
“Dear Dave,” she begins. “We’re both comedians. I guess that makes me a member of your tribe. I’m sure you’ve never heard of me, though, and I can think of at least three reasons for that: I’m Black; I’m a woman; I’m transgender (i.e., “a trans”).”
Belle’s letter to the comedian is personal in tone and arguably more of an opinion piece than a work of stage criticism. But it also contains an important argument about what Chappelle is actually trying to do with The Closer: have the final word.
“It’s over,” Dave Chappelle says at the end of his special. “LBGTQ, L-M,N-O-P-Q-Y-Z, it is over. I am not telling another joke about you until we are both sure that we are laughing together. I’m telling you this is done. I’m done talking about it.”
Belle says that can’t be the end, although she admits she didn’t want to undertake the emotional work such a response would require. The letter wasn’t even her idea. The Guardian initially reached out to her standup colleague Jeffery Jays, a transgender comedian based in L.A. After discussing the special with a number of other standups, the group asked Belle to write the response.
“We realized this is essentially misogynoir [hatred and bias toward Black women that targets both their gender and race] and erasure of Black trans woman experience,” Belle tells WW in a phone interview. “They turned to me and said, ‘No one is better equipped to handle this than you.’”
So Belle—a longtime comedy writer and columnist—let him have it. In the letter, she attacks Chappelle’s material, calling it “formulaic” and “predictable edge-lord” stuff.
“Something I always admired about comedy was its ability to push boundaries and challenge norms,” Belle says. “Now it’s 2021, and I think we can all agree that bitter old men griping about progress are killing comedy.”
Belle says Chappelle’s fixation on treating transgender people as the target of jokes is a betrayal of Black trans women—and Chappelle’s own legacy as a boundary-breaking comedian.
“He’s built this sad new career out of whining that the queer community is too sensitive, just because we’re pointing out the fallacies of his arguments. I’m not even angry. He’s just wrong,” Belle says.
“He’s building a new legacy out of mocking the existence of trans people, while also erasing the experience of Black trans women. To him, being Black and being pro-Black isn’t something he can comprehend outside his own perspective as a cisgender heterosexual Black man.”
What really turned Belle’s stomach was Chappelle’s use of Daphne Dorman—who died by suicide in 2019—as an anecdote to support the last 16 minutes of his set.
“Every transgender person I know has lost someone by suicide,” Belle writes in The Guardian piece. “For you to use Daphne’s tragedy as your closing tag is the only thing you’ve done that’s made me angry enough to write a letter.”
Read Belle’s whole letter here.