One thing to keep in mind as the Chappelle controversies fade into the background (slowly, slowly) is that his attitudes about trans people aren't particularly uncommon in comedy. He's just the most famous person expressing them. Allow me to use 3,000 words to explain:
In a Patreon-exclusive episode of his podcast released last week, Tim Dillon questioned the number of trans comics on Vulture's list of Comedians You Should and Will Know. "Did you see the new Vulture list of comedians where like, of 22 of them, I believe 16 of them are trans?" he asked guests Devan Kosta and Ida Tavakoli. "Which, I mean, God bless, but it just statistically seems impossible."
Noting that there are "for sure" talented people on the list, he suggested Vulture is "making a statement" by including only a few straight white men. "There's no ambiguity here about what this now is: this is a list to highlight comedians that are not straight and white men," he said. "Gay people are like 10% of the population, trans people are like 1% of the population, and together they make like 91% of the list. 92% of the list. Seems like a bit of an overcorrection." (If I'm not mistaken, there are three trans comedians on Vulture's list.)
Now, Dillon is obviously prone to using exaggerated language and dramatic modes of speech for comic effect. But he also uses them to make points he sincerely believes. Here's how he responded when Tavakoli said she couldn't think of any trans comics:
There's a few of them. And I'm sure there's some that are very funny. But when you have a list of 22 people, when you look at the amount of comics that are out there, if I look at a lot of these young comics that are gay, non-binary, trans—the vast majority of them are not that accomplished. Meaning, you know, if we were to look at reality and facts—sorry—but if we were to look at like, are you working as a comedian? Have you figured out a way, are you doing standup in rooms where people pay to see it? Okay, if the answer is no, okay, you're a writer, but what show are you writing on? Is anyone watching the show you are writing on? Does anyone know what that show is? Is it a hit show? Is it a recognizable show?
Are you in a movie? Are you on a TV show? Are you out there in culture in a way where people would go, "That person is very funny"? Now I know that this list is—it's a list like, "Well, these are the people you're gonna know." I would never expect to be on a list like this because, well, number one, I'm me, but number two, I'm past the point of like, "You're gonna know this person." You should know me if you follow standup, you know, to a certain degree. But like, to me, I'm like, we look at some of these comics and some of them are really funny on Twitter. There's some very, very funny people on the list. But you say to yourself, you go, "It seems to me that the list is a political statement." And the statement is like, "Here are all these comedians that you're gonna know. You're not gonna know any straight male white comedians."
That's kind of what the list says. "Here are the comedians you should know." And maybe they're right. And they're going, "We're deciding who you're gonna know. And you're not gonna know any straight white male comedians." And you go, "How many of them have spent 10, 20 years getting an act, making it unique, working their asses off, getting late night set after late night set, doing competition show after competition show, putting in the time, putting in the years, being mature?" And so many of these comics that are on this list are like, they're under 30, they're young, they're children, they're babies. They've been doing standup a few years. They do a few bar shows and you go, what metrics are we looking at here?
That's an awful lot of words railing against imaginary problems. Fortunately Dillon is not a particularly complicated thinker: he usually ends up saying exactly what he means. In this case it's that he thinks the status of straight white male comedians—you know, people who put in the work—is under threat. What's the threat? An illegitimately ascendant class of queer and trans people.
Longtime Tim Dillon observers, which I hope you aren't, will recognize these comments as part of a longstanding derisive attitude towards trans people and trans activism. Two frequent guests on his podcast are Jesse Singal and Katie Herzog. If you're unfamiliar with their work, Singal and Herzog are Intellectual Dark Web-type journalists who've made careers out of "raising concerns" about trans issues, taking flack for shoddy methodologies and problematic framings, and treating the criticism as cancel culture-esque efforts to stifle legitimate inquiry. Earlier this year Dillon released a sketch mocking Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Rachel Levine, a trans woman who coincidentally has become a recurring punching bag for right-wing podcasters. In a December 2020 Patreon-exclusive episode, Dillon agreed with Joe Rogan that it's "ridiculous people that are biologically male have a ton of advantages in many sports, especially fighting"; said he thinks it's "absurd" that "kids are getting hormones and transitioning"; and insisted "thinking people can see a huge problem with this social contagion aspect of anything."
(There is no evidence for social contagion theory, which holds that many young people identify as trans out of peer pressure; that hasn't stopped Joe Rogan from saying people transition for clout. Doctors generally recommend children start hormone therapies no earlier than puberty, not when they're "six years old," as Dillon says later in this segment.)
I could go on, but I hope you get the point. This is all transphobia. Its function is to use sciencey language to stoke fears about trans people. Its other function is to cast the movement for trans liberation as a small number of performative activists who nonetheless pose a genuine threat to traditional social hierarchies and our pure, innocent children. It's as disgusting as it is ordinary. Lots of comics are doing this because lots of people are transphobic. The superficially progressive tilt of corporate entertainment is proof, to them, that progressivism is all an act. Only in the unpolished realness of comedy can they find sanity and sanctuary.
"I've started to get into the transgender thing, because I believe that women not getting hit is not good."
I'm sorry but it gets worse. As you have perhaps noticed, we are in the midst of a prolonged white backlash. I have argued that right-wing comedians should be treated as extensions of right-wing media because I believe they are underappreciated parts of the messaging machine fueling this backlash. Liberal comedians do not view the propagandists in their midst as propagandists but as fellow comedians, a perception that renders them unable to reject extremism in spaces where they actually have power. I suspect that if the Comedy Store were to book Ben Shapiro on the same lineup as Marc Maron and Eddie Pepitone, Marc Maron and Eddie Pepitone would be unlikely to accept the decision on free speech grounds. But this is a courtesy they extend virtually every night to comedians with the same politics and audiences, who say stuff like this to tens of thousands of paying subscribers:
Here's the thing. That white woman voice, I have such a—reaction to that white woman Karen voice that she just had. Where she goes like, "Hey, you know, you're just kind of yelling, can you not yell?" I want to go over there and I want to drag her out of that unit, truly, and beat the living shit, like, beat the shit out of her. You know what I mean? Like, there's something where—I've started to get into the transgender thing, because I believe that women not getting hit is not good. You know what I mean? Like I gotta really be hon[est]—there was a time in the old west when a woman would get dragged out of the saloon by her hair. And that meant that she had too many and she was getting mouthy. And then for a very long time, it became wrong for something—for a scene like that to happen. But women in movies used to get open-faced cracks right across the face. Now I want everyone listening to this to understand that I'm not ever saying that violence is an option. But I don't believe in gender. Right. Do you understand? I don't believe in biological gender. I only believe in conditioning. Do you understand? She was conditioned to be a woman like I was conditioned to be a man.
Like most people, comedians are creatures of self-interest. The problem is that while self-interest drives comedians on one end of the political spectrum to act, it drives the other side to do nothing. Most center-to-left comics are reluctant to endorse deplatforming out of an allegiance to liberal norms, yes, but also because they envision themselves reaping what they sow. Meanwhile the reactionaries are happy to intimidate quote-unquote woke comics out of the industry because they (correctly) perceive left politics as a threat. Sharpening our rhetorical frameworks will make it easier for the Marc Marons of the world to recognize that it's already in their interest to drive right-wing propagandists from their spaces. There is no hope for an inclusive, egalitarian industry so long as they remain.
"That is the junk critical race theory horseshit that's been floating around the college campus world for a long time."
I want to make very clear that I am not exaggerating when I use the phrase "right-wing propagandists." Last week's elections demonstrated the awful power of the manufactured panic over critical race theory, which even in its most high-minded articulations is a rejection of the idea that systemic anti-Black racism exists and shapes our entire society. To participate in this panic is definitionally to spread racist propaganda. With that in mind I would like to share these passages from a June 2020 Patreon-only episode of The Tim Dillon Podcast. Again I will acknowledge that Dillon uses dramatic language for comic effect, but he also uses it to say what he means. The context here is a diatribe about the George Floyd protests (he says he supported them but refused to participate) and the ways white people self-flagellate online:
I will not go on Twitter and start talking about, "I'm a part of this system that crushes the soul of the"—stop. Is it easier to be white than Black in this country? Yes. Yes. For the majority of people, if we're going to generalize, yeah. But white people on Twitter, cut it out. It's getting embarrassing. You're washing protesters' feet. You're on Twitter. Talking about the, "My skin makes me racist." No it doesn't. That is the junk critical race theory horseshit that's been floating around the college campus world for a long time and now has floated up to the media and it's why James Bennett at the New York Times just resigned. Who was I think the, I guess the editor of the editorial page or whatever. He resigned because Senator Tom Cotton wrote an editorial saying if the police are unable to contain the chaos, we're gonna have to send in the military.
In most polls, Americans believe that by about 58%. The New York Times decided to publish that. Then there was a coup in the New York Times. People decided that was not the right way to go. The other writers started losing their minds and James Bennett resigned. This is a fucking tragedy. And this is what we're using, you're using the death of a man—the disgusting death of a man at the hands of police who should go to jail for the rest of their lives—you're using it. Okay. To completely get rid of people's opinions that you might find uncomfortable, that you might not, you might disagree with. You're using it to shut people up. You're using it to silence people, you're using it to advance other causes that you claim are directly related to that, you know, get rid of capitalism, eat the rich, blah, blah, blah.
[here we'll skip the long section where he complains about Catherine Cohen getting canceled, recommends the work of Jordan Peterson and Camille Paglia, and promotes "indifference," that is, the idea that we should all just worry about ourselves and our own families while engaging with our larger communities in the interests of public safety and prosperity:]
But this fucking canard, this nightmarish reductive fuckin', just pool of self-wallowing in your whiteness? You're wallowing in your privilege. What are you, what does that do? Well, I mean, what are you, trying to get brownie points by saying whiteness—there are white people in this country that are fucked. That have been fucked since the day they were born. And there are Black people that are doing great. So it doesn't really help anybody, okay, to just basically draw a line around an entire group of people and say they all— regardless of their personal individual circumstances—they all are part of a system. You know who's part of that system? Kamala fuckin' Harris. Okay? That you were all jumping around for six months ago. She was a fuckin' DA. She's part of the system. I worked on a tour bus. Okay? Okay. So if you can show me how I was arresting nonviolent drug offenders on my tour bus while I was pointing out the fuckin' Chrysler building, if you want to show me, make that argument to me. But Kamala Harris was a DA.
Again, Dillon is verbose but mercifully uncomplicated: he eventually gets to the point. Like every other white person enflamed about anything involving the language of racial justice, from the 1619 Project to police violence protests, he's animated by the notion that he personally is complicit in systemic racism. Do you see what makes him so popular? He gives the people what they want: reassurance that racism isn't their problem; permission to get outraged at any suggestion it is.
"I gave Black people millions of dollars."
I know what you're thinking. This is a comedy podcast. Where's the joke?
Be careful what you wish for.
You may or may not be aware that Dillon sold subprime mortgages, including to himself, before the financial crisis. As you read the following passages, please keep in mind that he has defended subprime mortgage brokers on multiple occasions. You will be tempted to think there's no way this is serious, and you must resist the temptation. Okay, the below comes a few minutes after the above:
When I sold mortgages—this is the other thing. The idea that I harmed the black community. I gave black people millions of dollars. I didn't even ask if they had a job first. When I was selling mortgages. Okay? I would just hand you a million-dollar bag of money. I didn't even say, "Hey, what do you do for a living?" I said, "Here we go, you want some money?" So how are you coming at me? When all I've done is the right thing.
I gave myself a bag of fucking money. I had my house foreclosed on too. I had my credit ruined. Life in the big city. What are you gonna do? While you motherfuckers were spinning around doing fuckin' fa--oty improv dances, I was lining the pockets of janitors with millions of dollars. Life is short. Enjoy it while you can. I've never met better people than the people who sold subprime mortgages on Long Island. Never. Okay? And I saw what happened to them. Just like what happened to a lot of patriots during Covid-19. They were told they couldn't work anymore. They were told to go home. They were told to pack it up. "Pack it up, boys, you're done here." And all they had ever done was give money to people. Didn't matter who they were. All they'd ever done was lend money to others. The banks, we were straight Robin Hoods. And somehow it's my fault that Kamala Harris is a cop.
I won't have it. I won't have it. I won't have it. I will not have my image be tarnished. I will not have the image of a subprime mortgage broker be tarnished.
Tim Dillon currently has 35,517 Patreon subscribers grossing $187,428 per month. He headlines the New York Comedy Festival later this week. At a certain point you have to wonder if the industry's hostility to marginalized groups might have anything to do with the shelter it provides men like him.
A popular response to criticism of quote-unquote offensive humor is that it can't hurt you if you don't listen to it. This argument is easy to dispense with once we start calling propaganda propaganda. If what I don't know couldn't hurt me, Fox News and Facebook would have no effect on my life; somehow I don't think that's the case. No, in reality reactionary propaganda hurts the people who consume it and the people who don't. The deteriorating state of American politics is a testament to this power.
Comedians like Tim Dillon will tell you it's their job to expose the darker sides of humanity. This is a smokescreen. Many great comedians use their art form to interrogate and exorcise the darkness within us, but not these guys. There's nothing artistically or intellectually complex about unhinged rants against all those trans people getting undeserved acclaim. There's no hidden meaning in ten-minute anti-anti-racist screeds. There's only hatred and grievance, raw and unadorned.
Maybe this is illuminating in its own way. If popular culture reflects the society that creates it, I wonder if comedy might be something of a crystal ball peering into the future. What we see in all these comics shamelessly reveling in the unsayable is a glimpse of America's id, the unfiltered fears and desires of the forces shaping our lives. If you want to know where we're headed, look to comedy: how it's come to enshrine bigotry as an inalienable right, the way it protects abusers, the people who cheer as they waltz back onstage and the people who quietly watch.
It's a grim vision, but at least it's not particularly funny, either.
The passages quoted in this newsletter contain light editing for clarity. Header image via YouTube.