The Emmys Have a Dave Chappelle Problem

Earlier this year, Louis C.K. proved his own “cancellation” was a myth when his big comeback special Sincerely Louis C.K. not only landed a nomination but went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album.

Don’t be surprised if Dave Chappelle pulls off a similar trick at the Emmys.

Now, to be fair, hateful speech is not the same as C.K.’s abusive behavior, but it now feels inevitable that Chappelle’s controversial Netflix special The Closer will be rewarded by the Television Academy when nominations are announced this Tuesday.

In addition to Chappelle’s Netflix special, the nominations for Outstanding Variety Special (Pre-Recorded) are expected to include some non-comedy entries as well, including Adele’s One Night Only concert and a similarly problematic Harry Potter 20th anniversary reunion on HBO Max. But it is comedy—and Chappelle, specifically—that have dominated the category in recent years. The comedian’s previous Netflix specials Equanimity, in which he defended Louis C.K., and Stick and Stones, in which he mocked Michael Jackson’s accusers, won the award in 2018 and 2020, respectively.

If The Closer is included among the nominees, it will be despite immense backlash against the transphobic jokes at its center—and the comedian’s continued obsession with that topic. Even after he was attacked on stage at the Hollywood Bowl, Chappelle quickly joked that the assailant must have been a “trans man.” More recently, he assailed students who criticized him as “instruments of oppression.”

But it will also come at a time when Chappelle—much more so than Louis C.K.—has maintained the support of the comedy community, speaking on behalf of his friend Jon Stewart at the recent Mark Twain Prize ceremony—an honor he received himself in 2019—and making a surprise appearance on one of John Mulaney’s summer tour stops that drew criticism from fans who felt bombarded by his anti-LGBTQ+ jokes.

So ahead of the nomination announcement this week, here are five comedy specials that deserve a spot over The Closer.

Jerrod Carmichael — Rothaniel

Of all the specials on this list, Carmichael’s game-changing hour is (hopefully) the most likely to make it into the final crop of nominees. Directed by his frequent collaborator—and the man who should have won last year’s award in this category—Bo Burnham, Rothaniel is a sneakily hilarious and moving set that promises to uncover multiple secrets about Carmichael and delivers. Coming out as a gay man is among the least surprising things the comedian reveals about himself over the course of the laid-back hour, which evolves into a sort of public therapy session with the hyper-engaged audience.

Moses Storm — Trash White

When comedian Moses Storm dropped by The Last Laugh podcast back in January, I called his HBO Max special Trash White the first great stand-up special of 2022. Not only is it visually dazzling with a set made out of literal white trash, but Storm has a hell of a story to tell about growing up in a doomsday cult and reckoning with how that unconventional childhood has impacted his ability to exist as an adult in the world. And on top of that, it includes a beautifully rendered, inadvertent tribute to the late Bob Saget, who played a surprisingly big role in Storm’s upbringing.

Ronny Chieng — Speakeasy

Speakeasy, gorgeously filmed in New York’s Chinatown, is The Daily Show correspondent Ronny Chieng’s excellent follow-up to 2019’s equally hilarious ​​Asian Comedian Destroys America! Instead of complaining about “cancel culture,” Chieng flips the script by daring viewers to “cancel” him so he can stop being so successful, go back home to Singapore and see his mother for the first time in several years. “If you commit a crime, you go to jail. That’s not cancel culture, that’s a felony,” he told me earlier this year. “So when I did that bit, I was making fun of the ‘woke’ Twitter people who try to cancel everybody. And then I was making fun of the right-wing, who think that cancel culture is all-powerful.”

Taylor Tomlinson — Look at You

In her debut Netflix special Quarter-Life Crisis, Taylor Tomlinson broke through the noise and quickly established herself as one of the most confident young stand-up comedians in the game. Her 2022 follow-up Look at You proved it wasn’t a fluke. Now, at just 28 years old, she has already achieved her wildest comedy dreams, culminating with her first big theater tour this fall. The Emmys will presumably have many more opportunities to honor Tomlinson down the line, but they might as well start now. Her bit comparing imbalanced couples to chocolate-covered raisins alone deserves some sort of award.

Roy Wood Jr. — Imperfect Messenger

If you want to see what true stand-up comedy excellence looks like, few can top another Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr., who has been at it for more than two decades and just gets better with every special he puts out. For evidence of his mastery, look no further than the long run about how Leonardo DiCaprio’s role as an evil slaver in Django Unchained makes him an “underrated white ally.” But that joke is just one of many in Comedy Central’s Imperfect Messenger that intelligently takes on relevant issues in the culture without punching down or pissing off entire groups of marginalized people.

Bonus: Naomi Ekperigin on The Standups and River Butcher’s A Different Kind of Dude

So, these two are kind of a cheat because, as part of Netflix’s The Standups and Comedy Central’s Stand-Up Presenting series, respectively, the half-hour specials from Naomi Ekperigin and River Butcher don’t exactly qualify for this category at the Emmys. But I would put both sets up there with any of the hour-long specials released by more seasoned comics over the past year. Each comedian uses their 30 minutes to introduce themselves to the world in very different ways. By the time they inevitably land their own hours, they will no doubt both deserve to be in the Emmy conversation for real.

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