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Comedian Dahlia Belle challenges the problematic takes in Dave Chappelle's special

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Dave Chappelle, venerated as one of the all-time comedy greats, is facing strong criticism again for his jokes about trans people, this time in his most recent special, "The Closer" on Netflix. Over a 70-minute set, Chappelle returns again and again to jokes about LGBTQ people, references criticism he's received for being transphobic and homophobic and take swings at Jewish people and women. Mx. Dahlia Belle is a comedian from Portland, Ore. She's a Black trans woman, and she wrote a letter to Chappelle in The Guardian titled "Dear Dave Chappelle, Transgender Comedians Can Take A Joke, But Why Are Yours So Unfunny?" And a warning - this conversation contains specific language about violence. Mx. Dahlia Belle, welcome to the program.

DAHLIA BELLE: Thank you so much for having me.

MCCAMMON: You say in your letter to Chappelle how influential he was on your own understanding of comedy. What is it that makes him so successful as a comedian? And how does that play out in this special?

BELLE: I feel what's truly amazing and impactful about Dave Chappelle is his precise ability to, like, really tear into the core of a topic in a way that is still entertaining and compelling to his audience and his ability to really pull together a full narrative, which I do think he manages to do in "The Closer" as well. It's just that his narrative is completely false, and that kind of kills the humor for those of us who actually know the subject matter.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. I want to talk about that narrative. As a comedian yourself, talk to me about how this special is put together, its focus. What stood out to you?

BELLE: The entire special is built around this rhetorical argument that his seemingly transphobic jokes are not about women and they're not about queers or trans people, who he frequently refers to by derogatory terms. His issue is with white people because as long as he says that any critique someone makes of him is an example of anti-Blackness, then in his imagination, he's untouchable.

MCCAMMON: You know, Chappelle says he's been accused by trans people of, quote, unquote, "punching down" on them, and he ends the special by pleading with others not to punch down on what he calls his people. I wonder how you hear that call.

BELLE: I hear that call as a complete erasure of my existence, which - as a Black trans woman, it's truly painful because our existence is already ignored.

MCCAMMON: Some of Chappelle's jokes seem predicated on the idea that gay people are making progress in America faster than Black people, and therefore it's acceptable to make jokes at the expense of LGBTQ people. I wonder how you think about that.

BELLE: I think that's a very fascinating theory. In Portland, I see plenty of Black Lives Matter signs. I see plenty of murals of Black men who have been murdered by police - not one poster, not one mention of any of the numerous Black trans women who have been assaulted, shot, stabbed, literally set on fire. So I am curious as to how, quote, unquote, "our movement" - so the broader LGBTQ efforts for liberation, legal protection - I'm not sure of how we've advanced beyond the rights of my other community, Black people. And especially since if I, as a Black trans woman - I am facing oppression due to being a woman, I face oppression due to being Black, I face oppression due to being trans, I face oppression due to being queer, what benefit am I receiving for any of that?

MCCAMMON: That's Mx. Dahlia Belle. She's a comedian and activist from Portland. Thanks so much for joining us.

BELLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.