November 1, 2021
After a cadre of Netflix’s employees walked out in protest over the media company’s temerity to stream Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special, the free speech culture war has reemerged in the cultural spotlight.
Chappelle’s latest comedic offering, The Closer, was met with either praise or indignant scorn. This stark divide was especially reflected in its Rotten Tomatoes reviews. Rotten Tomatoes separates critics’ scores from those of its audiences. Commentators such as Saagar Enjeti have recently pointed out this disconnect on Rotten Tomatoes, bringing to question the influence and credibility of esteemed media critics. On the popular review site, The Closer has received a whopping 96% audience approval score, with more than 5,000 ratings. The critics (all nine of them) conversely gave the comedian’s latest outing a paltry 44% rating.
This disparity is even more glaring when you compare these figures to the reviews of alleged comedian Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette from 2018. The darling of media critics, Nanette holds an impeccable 100% Tomatometer rating (for comparison, The Godfather is rated 96%) while the audience score rests at a feeble 26%.
Critics were similarly divided on the hotly debated Star Wars: Last Jedi, which, like Gadsby’s Netflix special, was brimming with gender politics. Critics on Rotten Tomatoes lauded the 2017 sci-fi film with a 91% Tomatometer rating, while hundreds of thousands of audience members averaged a 42% rating.
While Nanette has its earnest and heartfelt moments, it isn’t a comedy show and shouldn’t be categorized as such. Nanette is more akin to a Ted Talk, and Hannah Gadsby is a lecturer rather than a comedian. She meanders through her life experiences and traumas. But Gadsby doesn’t try to weave her stories into jokes. Instead, she preaches to her tribe about the foibles of men. A heaping supply of admonishment leaves no room for punchlines or wit.
Chappelle dabbled in this format in The Closer himself, retelling the story of his late transgender friend Daphne. But his stories, despite delving into such serious topics as suicide, were lighthearted; his jokes landed. “She came in dressed to the motherf***ing nines, I mean, I’m transphobic, and even I was like, ‘you look nice’,” he quipped.
As a thought experiment, try coming up with your favorite Hannah Gadsby joke. You’ll have a far easier time coming up with Hannah’s views on gender politics than recalling her signature punchline.
Norm MacDonald best explained this phenomenon in a 2009 interview , when he said, “When I first began in comedy, I would get people to clap, rather than actually laugh. You just say something that has no comedy in it at all, but people agree with it … But there’s a difference between a clap and a laugh. A laugh is involuntary, but the crowd is in complete control when they’re clapping, they’re saying, ‘we agree with what you’re saying — proceed!’ But when they’re laughing, they’re genuinely surprised. And when they’re not laughing, they’re really surprised. And sometimes I think, in my little head, that that’s the best comedy of all.”
Gadsby knows her audience and tells them what they want to hear. Her 100% Tomatometer critical acclaim reflects how closely the critics agreewith her, not how they appraise her show as art. Chappelle is a comedian; he observes the absurdities of life and pokes fun at them. “Caitlyn Jenner was voted woman of the year,” Chappelle wryly joked. “Her first year as a woman. Ain’t that something? She’s better than all of you. Never even had a period.” Chappelle brushes off the thought of how critics might interpret his humor.
The beauty of comedy is that it’s a tribeless art. Comedians don’t fit into anyone’s partisan factions; instead, they observe from the sidelines and often remind us how ridiculous our tribes can be.
Originally Published at The Washington Examiner