Navigating the Dave Chappelle Fracas at Netflix

In a recent live onstage interview with me, the Netflix co-C.E.O. Ted Sarandos said a lot of things about a lot of things, including the streaming business, the state of content production and his leadership style.

He also made sure to praise the comedian Dave Chappelle. He was asked during the audience Q. and A. about the complexity of compensation for artists and the matter of who owns the intellectual property they create. These have been big issues for Chappelle. The question was, in fact, asked by my teenage son, who is a Chappelle fan.

For those unfamiliar with the back story to the question from my son: The comedian got Netflix to remove “Chappelle Show” from the platform last year after complaining that ViacomCBS had licensed the program to Netflix without paying him. In a post on Instagram in February titled “Redemption Song,” Chappelle thanked Sarandos for his “courage” in taking the show off the platform, despite that doing so may have hurt the company’s bottom line.

So, it is probably no surprise that Sarandos is doubling down on Chappelle amid the controversy over the comedian’s latest Netflix original special, “The Closer.” The show includes a lengthy series of jokes about the trans community, as well as jabs at L.G.B.T.Q. folks and others. Not everyone is laughing.

Netflix Black and trans employee groups expressed their concerns to executives. Some employees are taking to Twitter to raise objections. There are plans for a walkout. It’s the company’s first real internal fracas.

The Black and trans employee groups had met with management earlier with concerns over a previous Chappelle special, “Sticks & Stones.” They were told then, according to Bloomberg, that programmers would be more circumspect going forward.

Apparently not. Check out the internal memo from Sarandos, first disclosed by Variety.

“With ‘The Closer,’ we understand that the concern is not about offensive-to-some content but titles which could increase real world harm (such as further marginalizing already marginalized groups, hate, violence etc.). Last year, we heard similar concerns about ’365 Days’ and violence against women. While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content onscreen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” Sarandos wrote.

“The strongest evidence to support this is that violence on screens has grown hugely over the last 30 years, especially with first party shooter games, and yet violent crime has fallen significantly in many countries. Adults can watch violence, assault and abuse — or enjoy shocking stand-up comedy — without it causing them to harm others.”

While Sarandos is right about the studies on connections between entertainment and violence, his response ignores the wider social context of the latest Chappelle show.

We saw a record number of violent deaths suffered by trans and gender-nonconforming people in 2020. And there is a spate of truly appalling bills in states across the country aimed at the trans community. (You can listen to my “Sway” episode with the A.C.L.U. lawyer Chase Strangio about that here, as well as my more wide-ranging interview with the Netflix head of global television, Bela Bajaria.)

This broader situation was pointed out by some on the Netflix staff, who are a little more nuanced about these issues than Sarandos gives them credit for. And they are quite aware that comedy can be controversial and even offensive.

“I work at @netflix. Yesterday we launched another Chappelle special where he attacks the trans community, and the very validity of transness — all while trying to pit us against other marginalized groups. You’re going to hear a lot of talk about ‘offense.’ We are not offended,” wrote a trans Netflix engineer, Terra Field, in a long thread on Twitter. “This all gets brushed off as offense though — because if we’re just ‘too sensitive’ then it is easy to ignore us. I’m surprised I haven’t had anyone call me (ironically) ‘hysterical’ yet today.”

This is a sophisticated point: The tiresome warriors of the online anti-cancel culture movement tend to claim that the objects of their scorn are too easily offended. But it’s not quite that simple.

Let me be clear, though: I have always thought that comics deserve a very wide berth, even when offensive and gross. This is the way many comics approach their job, to be the shock troops of society. Fine, whatever, I can turn off a show if I am annoyed.

But after watching the Chappelle show with my son this week, I came away with two conclusions.

First, while Chappelle is a truly gifted comic, he really is having trouble letting go of his pique at being labeled transphobic, something that has dogged him since early in his career.

Fine, he’s irritated, especially since the ever-churning internet has allowed the transphobic label to live on and on and on. Is it fair? Maybe not completely, to some. But he spends what feels like an awful lot of time lashing out at the trans community. Given that is a group of people who have suffered, and continue to suffer, more than other marginalized groups, Chappelle comes across as defensive and mean, even as he is talking about the need for empathy.

My second conclusion: In the course of the show, his act becomes, well, unfunny. As I watched, I wanted him to move on and cover other topics. He’s just obsessed.

“This will not be the last title that causes some of you to wonder if you can still love Netflix. I sincerely hope that you can,” wrote Sarandos in his memo.

Love Netflix? Hardly. And Chappelle might want to give it a rest, too. Thankfully then, I am stoked for the second season of “Bridgerton,” from Shonda Rhimes.

Climate change online

New machine-learning research published in the journal Nature Climate Change knitted together 100,000 studies of weather and revealed what we already knew: Climate change has affected most of the world, as much as 85 percent of the global population. Just in the United States, according to troubling data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, nearly one in three lives somewhere where a climate disaster has occurred.

The changing climate is obviously a calamity for humanity, but it’s also become an investing opportunity. According to Pitchbook: “So far in 2021, global investors have already closed as many climate-focused funds as were raised during the previous five years combined. … The flood of capital has led to a remarkable first half of the year for V.C.-backed climate tech companies, which have raised more than $14.2 billion worldwide — 88 percent of the total for all of 2020.”

In late 2019, in a piece for The Times, I wrote that the world’s first trillionaire would be a climate change technologist. It was more a hopeful guess than a reality, but I stand by that prediction.

One interesting little thing that happened last week, as the big tech companies are moving to become more aggressive about the information that rides on their giant platforms: Google is cracking down on climate change deniers and their ability to benefit from online advertising and to spread climate misinformation via advertising. Facebook had previously made some moves in this arena.


Apparently, the now-ousted coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, Jon Gruden, has no clue that the internet is written in indelible ink. He resigned this week after a series of homophobic and misogynistic remarks surfaced in emails. My fave detail of this story in The Times was this: In addition to Gruden and the former Washington football team president Bruce Allen, some emails “also included businessmen friends, Ed Droste, the co-founder of Hooters; Jim McVay, an executive who has run the Outback Bowl, annually held in Tampa, Fla.; and Nick Reader, the founder of PDQ Restaurants, a Tampa-based fried chicken franchise.”

Unfortunate juxtaposition … The delight of watching 90-year-old William Shatner, who played the iconic Capt. James T. Kirk in “Star Trek,” react to his 10-minute ride aboard Jeff Bezo’s New Shepard capsule earlier this week by declaring, “I hope I never recover from this.” Along with the ugh factor of the Washington Post story that posted about the less-than-inspiring management of the Amazon founder’s Blue Origin space company that shot Shatner up into space. “The new management’s ‘authoritarian bro culture,’ as one former employee put it, affected how decisions were made and permeated the institution, translating into condescending, sometimes humiliating, comments and harassment toward some women and a stagnant top-down hierarchy that frustrated many employees,” noted The Post, which is also owned by Bezos. In other words, to not so boldly go where many men have gone before.

Don’t miss this great essay by the “Roll Over Easy” radio host Luke Spray in The San Francisco Chronicle about “slow streets” and sustainability. Key line: “Despite our commitment to sustainability and the lip service we pay to being a transit-first city, it’s clear that our leaders’ perspectives are still largely shaped from behind the wheel. These leaders often speak of a need for compromise, but when it comes to our streets, there are no more compromises left that don’t compromise future generations. Our only path forward is to embrace a future that puts the movement of people over the movement of cars — not just for sustainability, but for our commercial corridors, our kids and our social fabric.”

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