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Shedding Some Light on Dark Humor: How Far is Too Far?

“People take jokes literally,” says stand-up comedian Daniel Sloss in his Netflix special, Dark. “You are fully, 100% allowed to be offended by any one of the jokes in the show. That is your right. All I ask is that if you are offended by one joke, could you just have the common […] decency to be offended by the rest of them?”

Let’s face it: dark humor isn’t particularly innocuous. After all, it is called dark humor for a reason. If you’re anything like me, this comedy style is simply your taste, but plenty of people are often uncomfortable or put-off by its subject matters, many of which are about controversial topics or themes including death, race, war, and crime. Oftentimes, comedians who incorporate dark humor into their sets use it to explore complicated topics in a thought-provoking way, but its vulgarity can sometimes be viewed as insensitivity and there are those who have every right to be offended. Yet, the question has to be asked: how much can be taken literally in a comedy show? And in the age of “cancel culture,” how far is too far?

Perhaps you’ve heard of Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix comedy special The Closer. In recent weeks, his new special has been heavily criticized for his transphobic comments, and while social media and news outlets have been scrutinizing him, Netflix workers went as far as to stage a walk-out in protest. Dave Chapelle is considered by many to be one of the best comedians out there, and although he’s not necessarily a dark comedian, he certainly uses elements of it to discuss difficult topics, particularly those pertaining to race and sexuality. This isn’t the first time he’s been called out for anti-trans comments, in fact, it’s something he discussed liberally in The Closer. Yet somehow, in the process of trying to clear up his muddy history of transphobia, he wound up creating more of a problem. So, of course, I had to watch the special for myself to see just what everyone was talking about. 

Chapelle’s special centered around his controversial past with the LGBTQ+ community, but his main point was that in social movements, like feminism and queer liberation, issues of race are often disregarded, and he’s not wrong. Disparities of race prove to be the root of almost all social movements and by leaving it out of the conversation, progress is stunted. But a lot of people heard a clip where he aligned himself with TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). Simply, he believes that sex and gender are not separate, but instead the same thing; that biological sex, especially pertaining to women, is what constitutes gender. Yet, within the special, he clearly holds a certain respect for trans individuals and brings up a moving story about a transgender friend of his. The trans community has every right to feel upset that a large platform like Netflix would promote a special with what many consider anti-trans commentary, but there are also those who disagree that Chapelle should be scrutinized altogether. 

So, should controversial themes, which present very real problems for people, be a topic of a comedy special? When handled correctly, dark humor creates a space for people to cope and discuss difficult subject matters while keeping the tone lighthearted. Though it’s hard when social media can easily pull things out of context, providing a platform for anyone to share their opinions in just 280 characters. It’s all too easy to forget that a comedian, especially a dark comic, is meant to make you laugh; their jokes are meant to shock you and to make you think. That does not mean that a comedy routine should invalidate an entire group of people, it just means that comedy as a whole deserves to be examined with the same eye we use to examine anything else: within context, within reason, and with a little humor.

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Isabelle Gross

U Mass Amherst '23

Isabelle is a junior at UMass Amherst and a New Yorker through and through. She majors in French Studies with a minor in Linguistics. Her interests include (but are not limited to) reading, writing, and traveling. She hopes to help create a world of acceptance and kindness through storytelling.
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