Ricky Gervais famously stirred the pot at the 2016 Golden Globe Awards with a joke about Caitlyn Jenner many perceived as transphobic: “I’ve changed. Not as much as Bruce Jenner, obviously. Now Caitlyn Jenner, of course. What a year she’s had. She became a role model for trans people everywhere, showing great bravery in breaking down barriers and destroying stereotypes. She didn’t do a lot for women drivers, but you can’t have everything, can ya?” As he went on to explain, the latter bit was a reference to the 2015 fatal car crash Jenner caused on California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Therefore, Gervais argued, the joke’s real target was the “women drivers” stereotype and not Jenner’s then-recent transition.
Two years later the British comedian hasn’t forgotten the joke’s reception. In fact, his new Netflix special Humanity is quite literally the result of his wanting to defend the joke. “Hosting The Globes has made me want to do a new stand up show next year,” he said in 2016. And to make this even weirder, Gervais is not the only big comic to create a new hour with such a defensive angle in mind. The third of Dave Chappelle’s four Netflix specials released in 2017, Equanimity, also spends some time explaining away his controversial lines about Jenner and transgender people from The Age of Spin.
A great deal has already been written about Gervais and Chappelle’s respective attempts to draw humor out of what many Americans perceive to be a pertinent civil rights issue (albeit at the civil rights seekers’ expense). So instead of barreling through the original jokes yet again in order to explain why they’re transphobic or not, let’s consider the comedians’ mutual decision to regurgitate them in an attempt to explain why they’re funny. By revisiting them, both want to tell their audiences why these jokes aren’t anti-transgender people and why their critics are wrong. They apparently feel the need to explain their comedy with more comedy, but the gambit isn’t entirely successful. Mostly, it suggests both are unwilling to move on.
It’s also a lazy move. In the preface to his 1941 book A Subtreasury of American Humor, E.B. White opined, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” In other words, anything that’s meant to be funny stops being funny when one attempts to explain its mechanics. The driving force behind this sentiment is the notion that a successful joke should stand on its own. If the punchline falls flat, or proves to be more offensive or shocking than funny, then the joke does not succeed. Comedy is subjective, but if a comic has to explain why a joke is funny, are they working hard enough to get the laugh?
Posing a deeply philosophical quandary like this is also a gambit since volumes have been written in an attempt to find answers. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the typical crowd at a comedy show just wants to laugh. They don’t want a lecture on why the jokes are funny or not. So what are we, the audience, supposed to think when four minutes into Humanity, Gervais revisits the Golden Globes by launching into a defensive explanation of his Jenner joke? He peppers the bit with additional punchlines to make it appear lively and fresh, but the whole thing is just him stumping for his brand of humor. He spends more time demonstrating how the comedic sausage is made, and lashing out at those who dislike its taste, than he does feeding it to his hungry listeners.
“That’s a clever joke and I’ll tell you why,” Gervais says with a smirk. “The subject of that joke is stereotypes. I’m playing with the notion of stereotypes. I start off saying, ‘She’s a real woman.’ Some would say that’s a liberal, progressive attitude. Then I go, ‘Well if she’s a real woman, I’ll hit them with the old-fashioned, reactionary stereotype: She must be a bad driver.’ The target of that joke is a celebrity killing someone in their car.” To be fair, as the Golden Globes joke was originally constructed and delivered, Gervais’s subsequent explanation is accurate. While it does mention that Caitlyn Jenner used to be Bruce Jenner, the punchline itself concerns her driving and an old gendered stereotype.
As the nearly 15-minute bit continues, however, Gervais admits that because of the ensuing backlash, he learned precisely why the transgender community disliked the joke so much. By “deadnaming” Jenner, or calling her by her former name, Gervais’s joke was labeled transphobic. This particular issue notwithstanding, he also discusses Jenner’s response that she ought to host the Golden Globes, his agreeing with her, and the countless criticisms he read and responded to. “‘Why is it transphobic?’” he poses rhetorically. “They were saying, ‘It’s about a trans person.’ That’s ridiculous. That’s like saying a joke about Bill Cosby is automatically racist. It depends on the joke.”
Yes, it does depend on the joke, but Gervais’s need to over-explain himself says more about himself than anything. It suggests he is unable or unwilling to let the controversy go, and judging by his latest tweets about Humanity‘s reception, it’s a sure bet that all the renewed attention may result in more explanation-driven stand-up down the line: “Please let me know if anything in #Humanity really upset or annoyed you. I want to start collecting material for my next show.” The explanation is also by no means the final word in the special itself. Gervais launches into a glaringly problematic series of jokes that, among other things, imagines what Jenner’s doctor’s appointment was like and equates transitioning with identifying as a chimpanzee.
As for Chappelle’s own example of attempting to explain the joke in Equanimity, it comes at the 18-minute mark with his bold-faced claim that “people get mad about everything I say.” The sheer number of think pieces that have targeted him for his Jenner jokes (and other choice routines) is already quite high, and it’s probably unfairly higher than the number of reactions Gervais has garnered for similar material. Even so, Chappelle’s apparent need to justify himself exposes a similar inability to let things go, for he too begins with an example of the criticism levied against him and responds by repeating the joke and offering an expository defense.
“I felt bad that I made somebody else feel bad. To be honest, I don’t know what I said that upset that person. I have so many transgender jokes. But I feel like it was probably this joke I’m about to tell you right now,” he quips. “And it’s not even that bad of a joke. It’s a true joke.” By “true,” Chappelle means the joke’s reference to Jenner’s posing nude on the cover of Sports Illustrated. “I know it’s not politically correct to say these things. So I just figured, ‘Fuck it, I’ll say it for everybody else. Yuck!’” He then insists the joke was at no point calling Jenner a “bad person,” and therefore was not transphobic by implication, but does little to redeem himself in the minutes that follow. Instead of moving on, Chappelle launches into more the “transgender jokes” he previously boasted about, resulting in a non-apology for The Age of Spin‘s original misdeeds that sticks to its guns.
Such a quality has already earned, and will continue to earn, Gervais and Chappelle uncritical praise from their most ardent fans. Much like Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks, and other popular comics known for their divisive, “politically incorrect” takes on contemporary issues, the fact that they’re sticking to such controversial jokes equates to a defense of free speech against the tyranny of censorship in the minds of their supporters. The problem is, Gervais and Chappelle aren’t really trying to do any of this. By revisiting their past jokes about transgender people and the controversies they caused, they’re relying on lazy explanations to simply grab a few laughs while trolling their critics.