My existence is not your next punchline

Comedians have the power to shape how we think

Comedian Jon Stewart with former president Barack Obama on The Daily Show in 2010

For my first ever event at the Oxford Union last week, I was thrilled that I would be able to see the American comedians Jon Stewart and Dave Chappelle. Like Stewart, I am an American Jew, and his biting, level-headed political commentary was a constant presence in my household during his 17-year run on The Daily Show. I knew less about Chappelle but since he was touring with Steward, I reckoned he must be alright.

The discussion started out tame enough, with the two launching into a debate about whether or not comedians hold any real power. Whilst Stewart said no, Chappelle pointed out that President Trump, though perhaps not intentionally a comedian, had been a TV show host just like Stewart before he took to the Oval Office. They then reminisced about the various times they had hung out with the Obamas, but Stewart stuck to his guns, claiming that any power he held amounted to little more than “shouting rage into a turbine.”

The commentary turned to the question of political correctness, a topic around which both appeared to feel that they had been persecuted for in recent years. A friend of mine asked them to clarify what exactly they were referring to when complaining about what they saw as an over-policing of “political correctness”: as she pointed out, there’s a difference between a racy joke and an attack on the humanity of already marginalized people.

To my surprise, both Chappelle and Stewart seemed almost immediately to become defensive. On his part, Chappelle recounted how he had gotten in trouble recently for telling a joke that used the word “tranny,” after he had sought the counsel of an advocate for trans youth, and she had warned him not to use the slur. He defended this choice as necessary for his “comedic art” and chided anyone who was offended as being overly sensitive.

Stewart concurred that people who say insensitive things need to be given room to learn because “no matter how woke you are, everybody sleeps sometimes”. You can tell when someone is open to becoming better, he said, and you have to give them room and help them to do that rather than attacking them for their missteps.

He went on to explain that he doesn’t use the terms “faggot” and “retarded” anymore in his comedy. I was relieved, thinking he was giving a personal example of the kind of growth and change he was referring to — until his recounting of the story turned into a joke (bringing the Union benches to raucous laughter) where the punchline was calling someone a faggot.

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When another student got up to challenge their assertion that marginalized people should give powerful comedians infinite free passes to “learn” not to use terms that demonise and dehumanise them, Stewart and Chappelle — right after insisting that we were the ones who were too sensitive — couldn’t handle it. They barely let her get a word in, interrupting her and getting the whole hall to cheer and applaud them for a joke at her expense, rather than engaging with and responding to her question. For all their talk of needing room to learn, they didn’t seem particularly keen on taking the time to.

I left the event feeling disappointed, but unsurprised. I went home and looked up Dave Chappelle’s trans jokes, and I was not shocked to find that the controversy he had stirred up was not just in his use of the word “tranny.” He had made a breadth of hateful commentary about trans people and trans bodies, describing us (in so many words) as terrifying and disgusting. He has been called out and educated by fans, media outlets, and LGBTQ+ organizations alike, and yet he continues to stand by the things he has said. If you were going to be offended by him, he thinks, you shouldn’t have clicked on his Netflix special.

This is a common response to critique among older (especially male, especially white) comedians in recent years. After backlash for purposely misgendering and mocking Caitlin Jenner, English comic Ricky Gervais doubled down with more transphobic jokes on his own Netflix stand-up special. American comedian Jerry Seinfeld refuses to perform anywhere near college campuses, where he feels that the tyranny of PC culture poses an existential threat to comedy.

The argument goes that these comedians are being asked to make too many allowances for people’s feelings. The punching-down jokes they target against trans people, or black people, or Muslims, or people with disabilities, are “just jokes,” and it constitutes an assault on their creative freedom for them to have to face any consequences for their words. If you don’t like it, they say, watch something else — no real harm is done beyond the hurt feelings of a few snowflakes.

But if they were really willing to learn, they would know by now that this consequence-free slinging of hate is a fantasy. Case in point: the life expectancy of a trans woman of colour in the United States is 31 years old. The culture that excuses her assault, her homelessness, and her murder as unimportant (or even justified) is fuelled by the relentless narrative that trans people are not people: that we are disgusting, unworthy of love, and disposable. When a stand-up set makes trans people the butt of the joke, it gives the audience an excuse to laugh at our expense. They get to relieve their secret tension of knowing they feel the same way, finding comfort in thinking that if a famous comedian (and his packed auditorium of viewers) thinks trans people are gross, it’s okay for them to think it too.

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And when our fellow citizens don’t see us as people, they are less likely to come to our aid when, for example, our president’s administration threatens to define us out of existence and revert the fragile gains that have been made in recent years in terms of our most basic civil rights protections.

The Daily Show is the longest-running show on its network, Comedy Central, and it reached millions of viewers each night Stewart went on. Chappelle’s stand-up special, featuring all his best anti-trans content, is available to many of Netflix’s 137 million users worldwide. It is thus undeniable that these two men wield power with their words. Their unwillingness to listen to those who feel that their comedy is complicit in perpetuating views that engender violence against vulnerable populations shows a complete disregard for the responsibility that comes with that power. At the Union, Stewart and Chappelle chose instead to use it to publicly shame a student less than half their age and to quash legitimate criticism against them.

I know it probably hurts their feelings to realise that their jokes — which must have been hilarious in a time when only the opinions of straight, cis men held any weight — just aren’t that funny anymore. But whether they want it to or not, their comedy has cultural power, and their ignoring of that truth does not preclude the harm that their words are capable of doing. If they aren’t willing to listen, learn, and evolve, it might just be time for someone else to take the stage.