Dave Chappelle, ‘Squid Game,’ and the Problem of Popularity

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

It’s a question one can ask at any time, but perhaps this week more than most: What is happening at Netflix? After months of losing cultural ground to rivals like HBO Max and Disney+, the streaming giant currently has two shows—Squid Game and Dave Chappelle’s comedy special, The Closer—dominating the zeitgeist. It should be on top of the world. Yet it can’t manage to stay out of the mess.

The bulk of it started last week when the service launched The Closer. Like previous Chappelle stand-up specials, it immediately shot to the top of the streamer’s charts. Also like some of his previous specials, it did not arrive without blowback—this time, for the comedian’s lengthy commentary on trans people. (We won’t repeat it here, but suffice to say many in the trans community found his comments hurtful and harmful.) After the show launched, several folks—including Netflix employees—decried the streaming service’s choice to offer the special. In response, company co-CEO Ted Sarandos sent a memo, obtained by Variety, to the staff stating that “you should be aware that some talent may join third parties in asking us to remove the show in the coming days, which we are not going to do.”

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This response is not wholly surprising—Netflix has stood by controversial content and creators before—but what’s interesting was Sarandos’ reasoning. “Chappelle is one of the most popular stand-up comedians today, and we have a long-standing deal with him,” he wrote. “As with our other talent, we work hard to support their creative freedom—even though this means there will always be content on Netflix some people believe is harmful.” He cited movies like Cuties and shows like 13 Reasons Why as examples.

Popularity, of course, is the company’s whole deal. But sometimes it’s specials like The Closer that are popular, and sometimes its shows like Squid Game, which just this week hit 111 million viewers in 17 days, making it Netflix’s “biggest ever series at launch.” One, Squid Game, is, yes, bleak, but also fiction—if anything, its dystopian view is a counter-intuitive escape. The other, Chappelle’s special, is about real people living real lives—and it illustrates what can happen in the pursuit of crowd-pleasing. These are, perhaps, some of the best and worst outcomes of Netflix’s quest to retain as many viewers as possible.

The reason a show like The Closer can grab as much attention as a show like Squid Game is simple: People sometimes like content that is harmful to others. Thousands, if not millions, will vote for anti-LGBTQ candidates, and the same amount of them will watch content with similar viewpoints. (And enjoy it—The Closer currently has a 96 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes while also holding a 43 percent score from critics.) The problem, then, isn’t just that Chapelle is telling jokes about trans people, but that those marginalized people (and their friends, family, and allies) are now in the position of watching so many others laugh at them—and wondering whether that laughter comes with empathy or malice. Sarandos isn’t wrong when he says “distinguishing between commentary and harm is hard, especially with stand-up comedy which exists to push boundaries.” But does a situation have to lead to violence to be harmful, or is contributing to a chorus of anti-trans rhetoric bad enough? Regardless, the fact that those statements are so popular remains unsettling.

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