The Cancellation Scam

Artists like Dave Chappelle don't fear cancellation; they depend on it. What they really fear is irrelevance.

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The Cancellation Scam
Photo:Eamonn M. McCormack (Getty Images)

Dave Chappelle is the last of a dying breed. He knows this, and he seems very preoccupied with the ever-approaching spectre of change. His latest work has particularly obsessed over the past, even as he gestures towards reckoning with the present.

In The Closer, his highly controversial comedy special on Netflix, the comedian grumbles about how new “gays” are too sensitive, too brittle. He misses old-school gays, those “Stonewall niggas.” In a sense, he’s saying that he misses the days when people knew how to take a joke. He misses the days when jokes made at the expense of LGBTQ people, like jokes made about any marginalized group, could exist without having to be unpacked, deconstructed, criticized, or cancelled.

But so-called “cancellation” is part of the legacy of comedy, isn’t it? Laughter isn’t the primary goal of the controversial jokes Chappelle makes in his latest special — Asian jokes, Jew jokes, jokes about molestation, jokes about gay and trans people — it’s everything that will undoubtedly follow. The outrage, in a sense, is a way for many comedians to assert their iconoclasm, their genius, joining a pantheon of pop culture artists who have been persecuted for pushing the envelope and then lauded as artistic martyrs – the Lenny Bruces and Richard Pryors and Eddie Murphys of the world.

Chappelle once said of his idol and influence Richard Pryor: “What a precedent he set. Not just as a comic, but as a dude. The fact that someone was able to open themselves wide-open like that. It’s so hard to talk in front of people or to open yourself up to your closest friends. But to open yourself up for everybody: I freebase, I beat my women, I shot my car. And nobody’s mad at Richard for that. They understand. Somehow they just understand…that is the example I would think to myself that gave me the courage to just go back on the stage.”

This is what makes Chappelle’s latest work in The Closer so fascinating to watch — he’s trying to open himself up and perform a genuine panic (as he’s attempted to do in past Netflix specials) that inclusivity will somehow lead to cancellation of people who don’t perform perfect “wokeness.” Of course, he doesn’t really fear cancellation — he relishes and welcomes it. What he really fears is irrelevance.

This is, I believe, the cancellation scam. Many artists these days create work or say things publicly that are specifically calibrated to create these kinds of reactions and debates, and for whatever reason, the LGBTQ community has become a focal point of this grift. Take, for instance, the rapper Boosie, who shares a similarly bizarre over-preoccupation with the LGBTQ community — particularly the movements of superstar rapper Lil Nas X.

Last week, amongst a flurry of homophobic slurs, Boosie tweeted that Lil Nas X should kill himself. Later, after the inevitable backlash, he tweeted: “IF YALL THINK THE WHOLE WORLD HATE ME “YALL TRIPPIN “ I HAVE INTERNATIONAL LOVE N RESPECT FOR HOW I AM N WHAT I STAND FOR n never forget THERES A GHETTO N EVERY CITY ,STATE, COUNTRY ETC. WHO ROCK WITH BOOSIE FRFR #therealest.”

He’s likely right: The tweet received over 10,000 likes. That doesn’t make any of his rhetoric less harmful, but that’s a point a lot of this straight-cis-male panic is intent on never acknowledging.

The cancellation scam knows that with outrage will always come counter-outrage — people who want to signal their intellectual freedom or social individualism by steadfastly applauding artists who spout harmful or outdated ideas. Figures like Chapelle, Boosie Badazz, Da Baby, Kevin Hart, and even Eminem long before them (this is never-ending, after all) depend on this reaction and crave it. They seek to mitigate their irrelevance by orchestrating controversies that position them as arbiters of free thought and free speech, when they are in fact less interested in these ideals than they are with constructing and maintaining their own legend. This approach to art is fundamentally lazy — it mistakes violence for trailblazing genius and public outrage for confirmation of that genius.

And yet, since the controversy around the Chappelle special has risen and fallen, I’ve been thinking a lot about the utility of so-called “problematic art.” On the one hand, it can perpetuate harm and embolden bigots. On the other hand, it reveals so much about who we are and where we are as a culture. The panic and fear in Chapelle’s latest comedy is probably the most interesting thing about his work these days. Artists like Chapelle serve a very important purpose — they stand as reminders that even so-called geniuses fear irrelevance and can run out of new and interesting things to say.

In that sense, The Closer has its place; it’s a time capsule of the moral panic surrounding trans lives in the 2020s. I imagine that maybe 50 years from now (if the world even still exists), some kid will see a clip from The Closer— maybe the moment when Chapelle declares proudly, “I’m a TERF!”—and laugh. Of course, they won’t be laughing with him, they’ll be laughing at him and how ridiculous this all was.

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