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In his incendiary Emmy-nominated Netflix comedy special The Closer, Dave Chappelle reminds his audience that Twitter may be an influential force, but it often reflects a distorted version of real life. Throughout the special, in which everything from the pandemic to police shootings is fair game, he jokes about the blowback he received from the LGBTQ community and their allies after a previous special where he cracked about anti-trans violence. As Chappelle makes very clear in The Closer, he doesn’t care if trans people or other detractors use social media to try to cancel him. “Twitter is not a real place,” he says. And the Television Academy apparently agrees.
The Closer has earned two Emmy nominations, one for directing and one for prerecorded variety special. For the latter, Chappelle is up against a rather wholesome set of contenders, including an Adele concert, a Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga double bill, a Harry Potter cast reunion, and Norm Macdonald’s final comedy special and memorial. The Chappelle nominations have rattled those who feel his flippant attitude and glib response to the concerns of trans people should not be celebrated via television’s highest honor. Especially after The Closer became more notorious for the controversy it elicited than any of Chappelle’s actual punchlines.
Indeed, when Netflix released The Closer in October, the company immediately became engulfed in a cultural firestorm. Many commenters called for the special to be removed from the platform altogether, while some Netflix employees staged an organized walkout after several staffers who spoke out against the streaming giant claimed they were suspended for criticizing the special online. (Netflix denies it reprimanded any employees for their personal beliefs.) As the comedian’s fans flooded comment sections online decrying censorship, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos repeatedly defended his cash cow Chappelle, taking a hard-line stance supporting freedom of speech and artistic expression.
What do I make of all of this? Frankly, Chappelle’s Emmy nominations lead me to one conclusion: I must have no clue what my fellow countrymen love to watch. And it’s a flaw. The Yellowstone snubs notwithstanding, perhaps Emmy voters are actually more plugged in to the tastes of most Americans than I am. Social media may not be a real place, but the voices on my feeds are loud enough at times to fool me into believing they represent the majority of those who follow pop culture.
Sociologists call this phenomenon the “filter bubble” — defined as a state of intellectual isolation that can result from personalized algorithms that edge us further and further toward those we agree with and shield us from information we don’t like. The filter bubble is why, for example, many of my friends were convinced Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election or couldn’t fathom that CODA might win best picture. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok may feel like the town square, but they only serve to enforce our own echo chambers. They are merely snippets of others; they don’t represent a whole person, a dynamic conversation or a tangible experience.
Historically, I’ve found Emmy preferences to be on the stodgy side. Less than a decade ago, the TV Academy was still showering Modern Family with nominations long after the sitcom felt fresh and exciting. The rise of streaming has changed the state of Emmy contenders, as subscription-based services have been able to invest in a diverse array of innovative auteur TV creators. But the same tunnel vision tendencies exist — Ted Lasso has gummed up several acting categories alone — and I’m left wondering if I’m the stodgy one who just doesn’t understand why scores of people love this saccharine dramedy.
I recently got into a debate with a friend who, after observing the Discovery+ and HBO Max merger outcry, wasn’t convinced that “that many people actually watch Property Brothers or Chip and Joanna Gaines.” I had to remind her that the No. 1 comedy on television is Young Sheldon. My friend and I only ever hear people rag on the Kardashians; we rarely hang with those who made them billionaires. As the streaming bubble continues to pop, more and more Hollywood execs are realizing that network and cable are still major moneymakers. Old-school may not be considered sexy, but it moves wallets.
So, is Dave Chappelle old-school? His take-no-prisoners style certainly is in this day and age. I may not always be in touch with the mainstream, per se, but I’m observant enough to recognize that transphobia, and, in particular, a casual suspicion of trans people, is still as mainstream as it comes. It makes me wonder if many Emmy voters clung to Chappelle’s special during ballot season precisely because of its memorably polemical assertions, not in spite of them. Twitter might be a warped representation of reality, but the TV Academy is probably banking on the clickbait heat a Chappelle win could ignite.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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