What Offends Me Most About Transphobic Jokes Is How Lazy They Are
"Identifying as an attack helicopter" isn't the brilliant material that comedians like Dave Chapelle and Ricky Gervais think it is.
One of the worst stereotypes aimed at transgender people is that we’re all a bit uppity. In the soccer game of identity politics we are often characterised as the trigger(ed)-happy referees, just itching to call out anyone who deadnames or gets a pronoun wrong. One of the most policed places that this happens is in the world of stand up comedy. Trans jokes are big business.
Have trans people become the unwitting poster children of woke culture? Over the past few years a lot of red cards have been flashed at stand up comedians, and as a transgender woman I can definitely see why — but as a transgender woman who also does stand up comedy I find myself genuinely conflicted.
When I watch a comedian saying something “offensive about trans people ” I’m more preoccupied with their technique than their offensiveness. A strange case of being offended as a comedian first and a trans woman second.
It’s like inside me are two wolves; locked in eternal battle. One is a trans woman and the other is a comedian. They are both humping my leg.
I’ve been doing comedy for 20 years (five of those post-transition) and I’ve seen it change a lot. In the early to mid 2000s the aim of most comics levelling their wit at hot button topics was to make people laugh despite their politics. A punchline so clever it cut through any prickling social discomfort you might have felt during the premise or setup.
But for comics nowadays the audience’s tastes have changed. And some might say for the better. Presently when I see a new comic trying to joke about school shootings, or pedophilia, or the Me Too movement, or even rape culture — my sphincter tightens and I feel like an anxious mother watching her child try to do a Russian table cloth trick. Will the punchline justify the ugly tension I’m feeling or will a tumult of offensiveness and cutlery rain into the audience and take out someone’s eye.
Inside me there are two wolves. One is a comedian and the other is a trans woman… they are both blogging furiously about the show they just watched.
ricky gervais has to lean on being transphobic because he literally doesn't have anything funny to say. he cannot come up with jokes to fill up an hour without being a dick
— the beads haver (@NoraReed) March 16, 2018
There’s no end of straight cis men (on Netflix) doing transgender comedy material. I think I’ve watched them all (quarantine helped), and so I’ve collected my thoughts about a few and thought I’d share them with you all.
”Like the thing today, the thing right now you can’t make fun of, the thing that’s too sensitive at this moment? Transgender people. See? You can’t do it. Can’t make fun of them. It’s too sensitive. In fact, you can’t even call them ‘chicks with dicks’ anymore. No. No. You have to call them ‘men who talk too much'” — Anthony Jeselnik
Anthony Jeselnik’s jokes never look good on paper. In a live setting though, (even one recorded on Netflix) you can still feel the sucker punch of his dark and black musings, but to pick at them from a page they lack any wit or surprise — just their apparent danger. Jeselnik’s act can only be described as a cancel culture BDSM session. An offensive onslaught framed in a safe and comfortable environment. His audience knows what to expect and most (if not all) will lean into it. They expect to have their limits tested.
Saying the unthinkable is an often hilarious and cathartic way to rail against social mores (identity politics included) and Jeselnick’s real skill is to accomplish this in as fewer words as possible: including his joke about transgender people. Jeselnik offends on two fronts (transphobia and sexism) in just ten words. It’s a marvellous feat of economy and audience control.
Tracy Morgan in his post accident comeback special Stayin’ Alive says he would fuck Caitlyn Jenner (a bold move and the one thing the movement needs more than anything else: trans amorous men brave enough to say out loud they would fuck us) but Tracy can’t leave it at that. He has to go into graphic detail about how he would fuck her. Graphic detail about the state of her body when he’s done with her. “I’d fuck her pregnant! I know she doesn’t have a pussy but she will when I’m finished with her.” It’s as if Morgan has something to prove, as if he misguidedly feels he has to “fuck the gay away”.
Ricky Gervais: Tells rich celebrities that they have no idea what they are talking about and are out of touch.
Also Ricky Gervais: Makes transphobic jokes and pushes stuff about how trans people hate comedy.
— Lily Simpson (@LilySimpson1312) January 6, 2020
So, the prime suspect in our criminal line up is Ricky Gervais. The arrows he has levelled at the trans community are noted and many. Gervais takes shots at Caitlyn Jenner both at the Golden Globes and in his 2018 special Humanity, albeit to make light of Jenner’s vehicular manslaughter case, and in particular the way celebrities aren’t held to account like the rest of us. He yanks the table cloth and leaves the cutlery and our indignation still standing. Being the media’s newest trans darling doesn’t make her exempt from critique is what he’s saying. A hard but necessary pill to swallow. So far so good but where Gervais gets it wrong is in wrapping up this routine, where he tells us he now identifies as a chimpanzee called Bobo.
One thing I find genuinely upsetting about this is how trite and hack it is. It’s nothing new for trans people to listen to the cis folk use our language and idioms against us. “I identify as an owl! I’m short but I identify as a tall person! I might be fat but I’m actually thin on the inside; I’m trans-slender. I identify as an attack helicopter… (Fnar. Guffaw. Snort!!) To this last one my bog standard response lately has become “Well why don’t you fly away and fuck off then”.
Find a new joke.
When Gruen host Wil Anderson came under fire in 2019 for suggesting that a Digital Avatar Instagram Influencer (read; fake-in-the-computer-made-up-bloop-bleep-person @lilmequila) identified as a robot I think the backlash was largely due to the joke feeling like more of the same. While I could see this as an attempt to utilise the currency of a zeitgeist buzz phrase for comedic effect it’s not lost on me that the trans community and our allies probably all rolled our eyes and thought “Oh no, not this again”. Any broader inference that both trans identities and robot influencers are actually fake feels like a long bow to draw, but as a comic my opinion is also that “zeitgeist buzz phrases” are not the only ingredient of which great jokes are made.
hi this is super important pic.twitter.com/QqlvoB23rc
— 🤍 (@MissRinAelia) April 16, 2021
And then we come to Chappelle. First off I will say this — he is really good. The tension he creates when bringing up taboos is electrifying. He owns what he says 100%. Chapelle’s mode of attack is often ‘say the unthinkable and work back from there’. He truly is a court jester dancing within the grey areas of public opinion. And while this does work to his benefit he really does seem to want to have his cake and eat it too. Again, much like Gervais, Chappelle wants to revel in his audience’s ignorance of us. His routine is a laundry list of trans scare stories: surely sex with us means you’re gay. Or Aren’t you all like Rachel Dolezal? Or I danced with one and I didn’t know they were trans. I feel tricked!
Chapelle keeps saying how much he respects us and has no problem with us — the smart person’s way of saying “I’m not transphobic, but….” yet once again this feels like misdirection. A way to get us on side while setting up for the punchline.
Chappelle is also under the impression that he has gained a free pass card because he met a trans woman (another comedian; the late Daphne Dorman) who laughed at his trans jokes. No mean feat Dave. Even I laughed at some of your trans jokes. We’re not all the same and no one has to be trans to find your material problematic.. Like duh! This is about as genuine as saying “Well, my one black friend doesn’t mind.”
Other comics with trans material include Louis CK, Joe Rogan, and Steve Hughes. They range from acutely transphobic – (Steve Hughes) , to winkingly offensive (as is the case of Jeselnik) to even oddly compassionate (strange to say, but that honour goes to CK). While Louis says he envies us for being the only people who have fully worked out what is wrong with us and subsequently fixed it, he then includes a throw away gaffe about identifying as an owl.
The truth about all these routines though is that they’re simply not written for us.. They’re written for cisgender people. And if we find them funny it’s usually by default. We laugh but we remain on guard because this humour still others us. The audience laughs because we remain alien and unfamiliar to them. Most of these comics are uniting the audience in their mutual ignorance of us and that isn’t helping at all. No one goes home with any renewed insight into trans people’s lives. When people leave the comedy club we all still seem a bit uppity.
Chloe Black is a comedian, screenwriter and broadcaster. She tours regularly and is writer/ creator of web series Transferred, currently in development with Electric Yak Productions and Screen Australia