Dwelling on self-inflicted wounds, the Chappelle show still delights Bangkok

Photo: Coconuts
Photo: Coconuts

You know how people are their first time in Bangkok. They marvel at how many 7-Elevens there are, gripe about the heat and, if they visit certain sois, gush about ping-pong shows and transgender women.

Those last two subjects preoccupied American comedians Dave Chappelle and Michelle Wolf on Sunday night at the benighted GMM Live House, where the headlining superstar unpacked his issues on stage in an entertaining set at times freighted with his own baggage.

That both comedians were impressed by whatever they saw in sois Patpong or Cowboy – sights likely to cue yawns or eyerolls from many Bangkokians – was evident from the start.

For Wolf that meant comparing her vagina’s capabilities to the feats she’d witnessed, while Chappelle wove his ardor for transgender wonders into his ample material on the subject. He then devoted most of his set to the topic.

How they use the toilet, how they fight, how they speak.

While tropes about transgender women may feel threadbare to a Bangkok audience, Chappelle’s fixation on the topic – alongside staples on marriage, mysogny and masturbation – came salted by his own very public reckoning. Being labeled transphobic upon his return to the limelight via Netflix still stings a man who earned his place by lancing injustice and hypocrisy.

At some point, after explaining why he prefers “the old gays” to “the new gays,” he denied having any “problem” with trans people.

“My problem was always with white people,” who he said “changed the rules” of what could and could not be said.

I felt he half meant it. But it didn’t make less wobbly his attempt to hold his comedic ground as unapologetic exploder of bullshit while also walking it back. Is it possible for Chappelle to repudiate the Cancel Culture while giving ground on the issue?

Contrition and soul-searching don’t really kill on stage, so the audience got a bit of both. Chappelle, a corporate entity generating a lot of wealth (more on that later when I talk about getting dragged off by security) didn’t come to Thailand to shatter any new walls.

Yes, he succeeded in connecting to the audience with his talent, humanity and intellect. Yes, he delivered a fully entertaining, Dave Chappelle-like experience for tickets only affordable to the 0.1%. But no, he brought nothing new to the stage, despite how many can-you-believe-I-just-said-that, trademark grins were flashed.

I get that you don’t do a Bangkok show to work on new material, but dropping Caitlynn Jenner jokes certainly ain’t pushing boundaries.

“I find it funny!” he declared repeatedly in what seemed a summary of his defense.

Sure, Dave, I’m cool with you finding the humor in people swapping genders. But they’re not the outrageous flashes of greater truth you seem to think they are – the kind that made us infatuated with you in the first place.

Chappelle wants to have it both ways. Though he made a show of doubling-down on what got him in trouble, he also made clear that he wanted to explain himself. To be better understood. To show that he swings both ways, such as in a bit on the stupidity of bathroom gender laws (He doesn’t want a woman whipping out her dick next to him).

On Sunday, that effort to apologize without apologizing relied heavily on an anecdote about a transgender friend. But as he recounted their frank exchanges, how she laughed hardest at his trans jokes, and her recent death – by suicide, he left unsaid – one could see the joke coming as he turned to what he would tell the daughter she left behind: “Your father was a great woman.”

A cynic could say Chappelle invoked Daphne Dorman to inoculate against criticism in the same feeble stroke of “some of my best friends are” black, or gay, or Trump supporters. But I thought his heart was in the sincere thing, with the joke tacked on out of necessity. It is supposed to be a comedy show, after all.

Some of Chappelle’s funniest moments came after he’d worked out the sort-of stage apology and played to the room.

Quizzing a Rhode Islander seated near the front on what he was doing in Thailand, Chappelle was quick to seize on the absurdity of someone teaching English to people whose language he can’t speak.

How the hell do you do that, he asked. “CAN YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT I’M SAYING?” he shouted, waving his arms in pantomime of frustration.

His marriage grievances worked well in a room where many, like him, married Asian. Being Thailand, the racially charged Asian stuff didn’t bother anyone, though jokes about Asians being good at math (he was stumping for candidate Andrew Yang) might throw some Thais. A long segment about jerking off to a Chuck Berry sex tape was the only part that felt canned. He made many jokes about his ridiculous wealth.

He ended the whole thing with a callback to the opening ping-pong ball references after a woman in the front row described how popular she was as an exchange student in Texas. Adequate, but ping-pong jokes in Bangkok feel a bit like mime jokes in Paris or Nazi jokes in Berlin.

Dystopia Inc.

Chappelle aside, the overall experience of attending his show in Bangkok at CentralWorld’s GMM Live House? A horrifying reminder of the joyless hell the world is sliding toward, in this reporter’s thoughtful and measured opinion.

I’m certainly guilty of overfiltering everything through the lens that sees a world marching toward totalitarianism with open arms.

My distaste for going to a show atop a mall – a nexus of Thailand’s worst monopolistic impulses – wasn’t helped by the welcome it offered. Instead of “Welcome to the show,” the menacing voice broadcasting an 8-minute loop of inane legal threats checked out with all the dystopian sci-fi I grew up with, from 1984 and Brazil to Half Life 2.

“Pilot Boy Productions Incorporation [sic] and/or Dave Chappelle own all rights in the contents and materials including any jokes and sketches – all materials delivered during the performance. The materials may not be copied, translated, transmitted, displayed, distributed or reproduced verbatim. The use in an whole or in part in any form, media or technology now known or later developed without the express prior written consents [sic] of Pilot Boy Productions Incorporation [sic]. Any use of the materials without express prior written consents [sic] of Pilot Boy Productions Incorporation [sic] is strictly prohibited and shall be subject to all available legal remedies whether in equity or at law at the cost of anyone who violates this prohibition,” went a portion of the gibberish.

Hear it yourself!

I loved the threats made over things that don’t exist but may be invented in the future. In fact, dear Pilot Boy Productions, I’m imagining all the material in my head expressly for use by a time-traveling, telepathic streaming media service from the future. Please call my lawyer – in 2120.

I understand that’s some standard, boilerplate legalese, but why assault people with it instead of just leaving it to the ticket small print?

Because tyranny is banal and incompetent.

Sure, social media and livestreaming have harmed the live entertainment industry, and that’s why we we’re OK with banishing our phones to locked plush bags for the duration of the show. Fine.

As we know in Thailand and Chappelle’s countrymen are learning back home, tyranny thrives on a lack of accountability. It depends on the absence of consensus and shared rules. Tyranny is receiving two sets of pre-recorded threats – the second detailing everything not allowed in the auditorium after people are already in the auditorium – only to be contradicted by a third set of threats by the DJ crowd-fluffer on stage.

This is what makes it a magnet for mouth-breathers and bullies.

Like the one who dragged me out of my chair (“I need to talk to you but you can return to your seat”) and follow him backstage.

I’d been seated about 10 minutes with the show still 10 minutes out when the big American dude made this demand.

What does he need to discuss? Won’t say. He keeps up the sphynx act until we get backstage and tells me the problem is my notepad. See, without a phone or friend to preoccupy me – a buddy unable to attend sold me his front-row ticket at the last minute – I’d pulled out my ever-present notepad and jotted down four things I needed to do at work in the morning. I’m a list guy.

You took my phone to protect your rights; I reserve the right to record my thoughts.

Backstage, he’s telling me something unintelligible about how he’s just trying to help me – another tell – because someone else might not understand. Understand what?

I tell him I wrote down tomorrow’s to-do list and have no intention of … of what, I’m not even sure. Transcribing the show as it happens? I assure him I don’t plan to. Is he worried about mentalists getting close enough to loot material from Chappelle’s mind?

There’s no recourse here. No choice but to submit and roll over like a cat showing its belly. At the mercy of someone operating not on logic but a poor understanding of half-understood rules.

Knowing my 4,300 baht evening is in this pigfucker’s idle hands, I choose humiliation. Tell him he can take my pen, therefore preventing me from any further writing.

Tyranny doesn’t accommodate when it smells weakness. He demanded I give him my notebook. “You can come get it back after the show.”

“I really doubt that will happen.”

Like trying to argue with a customer service thrall following a script in a Bangalore call center, resistance is futile. Fortunately someone higher up the food chain sensed a “situation” and intervened to let me return to my seat.

After Chappelle bounded off stage, I beelined to the curtain flap to retrieve my pen. Two other security bros told me to fuck along and on my way.

I wondered what Chappelle, an iconoclast who never hid his discomfort with the trappings of superstar status and corporatism, would think.

It’s what led him to walk away all those years ago. Not wanting to be a product, not wanting so much distance from real people that bullying them becomes inevitable.

Success “just didn’t feel right,” he famously said 15 years ago after leaving Chappelle Show at the height of its success. He was angry Comedy Central tried to make another season without him using recycled, old material without his consent.

“I feel like it’s kind of a bully move,” he said afterward in 2006.

That’s the Dave Chappelle who hopefully finds his voice again, because whether it’s trans people or any people, bully moves aren’t cool.

Related:

Dave Chappelle coming to Bangkok next month

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