Open season on comedians? Understanding the Dave Chappelle attack

The sharpest opinions on the debate from around the web

Dave Chappelle.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Comedian Dave Chappelle was attacked on stage Tuesday while filming a set for the Netflix Is a Joke stand-up festival. The suspect — identified as Isaiah Lee, 23 — reportedly attempted to tackle Chappelle before being restrained by security. Lee supposedly had a knife and is being held on $30,000 bail; Chappelle was not seriously harmed.

While "it's not immediately clear what led the man to tackle Chappelle," according to The Washington Post, Chappelle reportedly made jokes about the trans community during his set on Tuesday and has previously been accused of spreading transphobia with his Netflix specials Sticks and Stones and The Closer. Here's what the experts are saying about the attack on Chappelle and the ongoing debate about what's fair game in comedy.

1. Open season?

Some observers fear that the attack on Chappelle — along with Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Academy Awards last month over a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith — could normalize violence against comedians. "We can all thank Will Smith for setting the example that led to Dave Chappelle getting assaulted on stage last night," comedian Tim Young, who is also a columnist for the right-leaning Washington Times, tweeted Wednesday.

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Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade also warned that Tuesday's attack could prompt further violence against less well-guarded comedians. "If it happens to Dave Chappelle in a Netflix special … What chance do you have in a small club in the Midwest somewhere where somebody wants to [say], 'Oh, I don't like that joke. Turns out, I have a gun with me'?" he asked.

2. A question of free speech

Others have warned against limiting what is acceptable in comedy. "For many comedians, freedom of expression is a fundamental value," explains The Christian Science Monitor. "That's why John Cleese, Bill Maher, David Spade, Bill Burr, Ricky Gervais, and Mr. Chappelle complain that so-called wokeness has a chilling effect on comedy and societal customs."

Other prominent anti-woke commentators have agreed. "A mark of a free society is that comedians can be just exactly what they are ... They're people who push the edge of what's acceptable," author Jordan Peterson said in 2019, defending a British comedian who was arrested and fined after teaching a pug to do a Nazi salute. Comedian Joe Rogan expressed similar concerns about attempts to silence comedians after Chappelle released The Closer. "These ideas that you can't make fun of are dangerous. They're not good for anybody. They're not good for the people who hold those ideas," Rogan said on his podcast.

3. Comedy can cause real-world harm

Chappelle's critics argue that whatever pushback the comedian might face for his jokes, transgender people could suffer far worse. Aja Romano argued last year at Vox that "study after study has shown a direct connection between the type of perceptions of gender identity Chappelle is performing and anti-trans violence" and that his comedy promotes "bigotry" and amplifies "gender essentialism," making "trans people deeply unsafe."

Jaclyn Moore, who resigned as a co-showrunner on Netflix's Dear White People after the streamer aired The Closer, said Chappelle's comedy makes it "easier to commit violence against" transgender people. "I just want my friends to not get killed," said Moore.

4. Bigoted comedians are asking for it

Other commentators went a step further, claiming that physical attacks against comedians they regard as bigoted are justified. "PSA: Comedians aren't under attack. Bigots like Dave Chappelle who weaponize comedy as a way to harmfully punch down on Black women, transgender people, and those he feels more powerful than — are," tweeted journalist Ernest Owens.

After the infamous Oscars slap, mononymous Teen Vogue contributor Stitch denounced "the pearl-clutching responses to the slap" that "don't recognize the violence of Chris Rock's misogynoir" — a neologism that describes misogyny directed at Black women. "[I]t's clear that many people think saying 'protect Black women' is just lip service and doesn't need to be followed up with action," Stitch wrote.

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