Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix special has caused controversy leading to a protest and walkout by the company’s employees. Critics of Chappelle say his special is transphobic. Portland-based comedian Dahlia Belle wrote a letter to Chappelle in The Guardian. She joins us along with fellow comedians Mona Jones and Julia Corral to talk about how comedy has evolved through the years and who should be making jokes about what.

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The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. A few weeks ago Netflix released Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special called “The Closer.” It was immediately criticized for being transphobic and not funny. The fallout continues; on Wednesday hundreds of Netflix employees walked out of their jobs. Organizers said they did it to quote, “underscore the importance of responsible content offerings that prioritize the safety and dignity of all marginalized communities.” A lot has been written about the Chappelle special itself and we don’t really need to dwell more on that one hour in particular. But we did want to hear how comedy is evolving and how comedians in the Pacific Northwest think about representation and boundaries about what’s funny and what goes too far. I’m joined now by three comedians: Mona Jones is based in Seattle, Dahlia Belle and Julia Corral are based in Portland. It’s great to have all three of you on Think Out Loud.

Guests: Thank you so much.

Miller: Dahlia Belle first, one of the phrases that we hear a lot when people talk about comedy, how comedy works, what the point of comedy is, is that comedians push boundaries. I’m curious what that phrase even means to you.

Dahlia Belle: Yeah, so I am kind of a nerd and art school kid. The history of comedy is rhetoric really; that’s where we come from. It’s Greek debate; we come to the forum and we challenge authority through humor so that we hopefully don’t get executed as a result.

Miller: Or make fun of the king and say things that other people can’t, but it’s coming from somebody with a red nose.

Belle: Exactly.

Miller: Okay, so that’s the history and it’s good to.. I guess we can start with the art school nerd take, but zooming to now, what does it mean to you to have a boundary that you’re pushing? Is that the way you think about yourself as a comedian?

Belle: It is. For me personally, I don’t know that the discipline has necessarily changed. I do think that, for me personally, I don’t like politics. So I prefer to use comedy as a group catharsis, an opportunity to laugh at and take pride in things that we would otherwise be embarrassed to admit in front of others.

Miller: Julia Corral, what about you? How do you think about this idea that one of your jobs as a comedian is to say stuff that, say, I can’t, or that I would be uncomfortable to, or just people in the grocery store would be embarrassed to say, that that’s a key part of your job, to push the line?

Julia Corral: I guess it just also depends on the comedian and the circumstance. I came from a family that didn’t have the same standards of what social norms were. So I feel like most of the things I say push boundaries, but sometimes it’s because I don’t even realize it.

Miller: Wait so what what? I don’t have a sense, in your family, if there were more boundaries or fewer. I’m guessing..

Corral: There were fewer.

Miller: Okay so..

Corral: There were fewer. I think I just came like my family is Mexican and they would say whatever was on their mind. I’m sure this is probably culturally, but my Mexican family was loud and so it wasn’t until I was in a work meeting where they’re like, “Well you can’t talk like that.” So I don’t personally know that I am pushing boundaries, I just talk about who I am. And then when I get the groans or when people look at me then I realize, “Oh, I could have pushed the boundary.”

Miller: Do you like the groans? I imagine you want the laugh. But is a groan also good?

Corral: I do. Because I feel like if it’s not bad, they need to hear it. That is my reality and we are in a bar, we’re here to laugh, also [to] think. And I think the different perspectives, they may groan -- and I guess it depends what groan you want -- but yeah, if I can elicit a response from them, yeah, I like that. And then some of those people, afterwards they come up and I had somebody saying, “I didn’t know it was okay to laugh at that” and then when they do, you start a conversation.

Miller: You’d said earlier that, “if it’s not bad, they need to hear it.” So, what do you mean by that? What’s the bad?

Corral: I think I do have boundaries, like for me personally, just in my life, there are certain subjects I don’t feel like I need to be the one to address, such as special needs. I don’t want to take it for something that’s not my reality. But like I said, I guess it’s the term bad in my head. What wouldn’t I say as a person. What are my boundaries that I don’t want to cross and I don’t cross those. But then anything else, I don’t know. Comedy is a learning experience as well; I put my foot in my mouth all the time. And so I’m growing and learning, “Oh. What are social norms? How do they change?” Does that make sense?

Miller: Well it does. I mean and it gets to.. social norms is a good way to put it. We haven’t used that word yet, but I guess that’s another version of a boundary, right? Some kind of social boundary and it can be exciting and funny or scary when it’s crossed or it could lead to discomfort or other kinds of consequences. Mona Jones, what about you? Where is your line personally for what you want to explore and what goes too far?

Mona Jones: You know, I think it’s interesting. Actually, I have trouble with the word boundary because I feel like that has some kind of connotation about what I’m going to say is controversial. But at the same time none of my jokes, or at least my comedy or even my outlook on life is the kind of controversial where people would think, “What’s your most controversial opinion?” “Well, I believe this about people.” And everything that I talk about is, like Julia, I come from a loud family and so I didn’t learn what boundaries were and I’m also not embarrassed by anything. I think I should be more embarrassed, but I’m not. And the kind of comedy that I bring out is very observational, about being a mom of four kids and having to deal with what they call a blended family and all these other things that people, even if they’re not from my cultural background, that they can understand. Yeah, it’s gross to have four boys in the house. You understand that. If I say, “I have four boys,” no one’s applauding me. They’re all very.. sympathize.. and I might get a groan because they know that my house stinks. That’s all.

Miller: Julia, let’s listen to part of a show you did at Portland’s Helium Comedy Club in June of 2019, so 18 years ago.

“My favorite thing to do is eat Taco Bell. But I feel like it’s just been soured lately uh and it’s it’s not that I’m like embarrassed because it’s fast food. I’m just so sick of people saying, ‘Well Julia, that’s not real Mexican food.’ And it’s like, ‘No [expletive].’ Have you guys ever had real Mexican food? It’s [expletive] disgusting. Yeah. Have you? Yeah, I know it’s gross. Have you had menudo? Yeah, that is literally cow stomach soup. Have you had chorizo? Yeah, that’s the stuff that doesn’t even make it into the hot dog. Yeah, and you guys, that’s just breakfast.”

Miller: This brings up so much stuff. Among what it brings up, to me, is how you think about audiences and who’s in your audience. I’m wondering, for example, Julia, if you would make those jokes in front of a mostly Mexican or Mexican American audience, if it would feel the same to make those jokes within a culture?

Corral: Oh, well I used to make them all the time. When I was a little girl in my family, I remember opening the refrigerator and there’s a cow tongue in there.. and then I would pretend to put it in my mouth and talk with it and my grandma would be like, “Put dinner back.” I mean, I think we’re aware of it in general. I do tailor and change things. I think for a Mexican audience, I would throw in different dishes that maybe like most white people haven’t heard. But this joke actually stemmed from my cousin who was half white and half Mexican and we were in a fancy restaurant in Portland and she was like, “I’m a foodie” because we were eating intestines and I was like, “We’re not foodies, this is just our culture.” So I think it’s just to play. Yeah. Unfortunately, I haven’t done a large Mexican room in a while, being up here. So I don’t know if I would do that joke, necessarily. But I would think that I would because just in the Mexican culture itself, there’s so many levels of generations; I’m fourth generation. So, there’s probably a bunch of people who are Americanized who have the same qualms, you know. We didn’t get the Lunchables after school.

Miller: What do you imagine it would be like to hear a white comic making fun of Mexican food? Basically saying the same stuff, but not being a part of that culture; saying, “menudo is gross,” “Mexican people eat cow stomach.” I’m just wondering if there’s a way for that joke to work, in your mind, if you’re not yourself Mexican American?

Corral: Well, not if they say it the way you phrased that question.

Miller: Right, I guess what I said is just like a mean thing to say about somebody else’s culture I guess. But it’s more like, is there a way to, in your mind, to make good comedy that is somehow really not focused on the world that you come from?

Corral: There’s always a fine line forever and I think it would be like a misjudgment of me to assume somebody who doesn’t look like me wasn’t raised in my culture. You know? We don’t know where people live. I think people make assumptions with me all the time. They ask me, why don’t I speak Spanish? And it’s like, well my family has been here for four generations, we’re acclimated. So, when I hear a joke, I’m not necessarily even looking at the comic space sometimes. I’m looking at: Is it funny? Now, if they just came and it was like, is menudo gross, I’m like, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” You know, I might tease them afterwards. But if it’s not funny, no, they shouldn’t be making that joke. But, people are allowed to make all the jokes they want to. I don’t control that. But, I personally, I’ve been to Asia; I’m not making Asian food jokes. There’s so many foods I have that I can bring, so I guess, yes, I understand what you’re saying. But there could have been somebody who is white and grew up in Mexico and maybe they have a different representation. But if they’re just making the joke to make the joke and it’s tasteless.. Yeah, I don’t like it. And you’re going to have a harder time in Portland, too. Because there’s instances where people, the audience, might be harsher than me.

Miller: What do you mean by that?

Corral: I don’t know, do you remember that food cart of the girls who were white and they made the burrito truck?

Miller: Yes, like six years ago. It seems like a different age, but yeah.

Corral: I probably would have eaten that burrito and seen, “Is it good or not?” But, you know, the people of Portland spoke before that.

Miller: Oh, so you’re saying that, in your audience, there are white people who might be very eager to police other white people about what they see as racism or some kind of inappropriate behavior and they want to sort of out-woke their fellow white people. And you see that as a performer.

Corral: Yeah, and I don’t know so much as police with their words, but definitely police with their body languages when they’re on stage.

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Miller: Mona, let’s listen to part of a show that you did a few years ago talking about identity and some other things.

Jones: Sure.

“I am a Pacific Islander. No one knows what that is. Because they try to tell me what it is, right. In Seattle people are like, “I’m a Pacific Islander, I grew up on Vashon Island.” That doesn’t make you a Pacific Islander; that makes you an expert in candles. That’s different. I suffered. But, people don’t know, like they look at me and they don’t know. I blame Moana, you know, I blame that movie really for ruining the idea of what Pacific Islander life is. Because people ask like, “Mona, is that how you grew up?” Like, “Yeah, that’s exactly how I grew up, when I wanted to rebel.” No, I grew up just like you. Like when my parents pissed me off I didn’t go in a raft with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the back and like go find some deity. No, I just got in my Toyota Previa van, drove to my boyfriend’s house, just like you guys, same same. It really is the same there. But I get it. People don’t know what I look like. They always think I’m what ethnicity is the restaurant I’m in.”

Miller: Mona, I’m curious; in a lot of what we’ve been talking about, it reminds me of this phrase that people have talked about for years now. A kind of basic guideline for how to do comedy appropriately, that you’re supposed to punch up and not punch down. What do you make of that phrase? That basic guideline?

Jones: You know, when you talk about punching up or punching down, we’re really talking about power dynamics, right? I think, as a comedian, I’m really controlling exactly where the power is. Even if I am self-deprecating, I’m letting you know I’m giving an invitation: Here, we can laugh at me; I’m going to give you some power and here it is. But I think when I hear stuff... because I do talk about race a lot, I’m Pacific Islander, I say I’m Chamorro and no one knows what that is. I’m from a small island in the Pacific called SaiPan. I feel like, since becoming a comic here in the Pacific Northwest, people love to dissect me because they don’t know what I am. So they have to link me to something that is more familiar to them. They look at my face, I’m ethnically ambiguous, I could be anything. So yeah, it’s true, you look at me and if you’re hungry for Thai food, I’m sure you think you’d ask me, “What should I order?” So, I think a lot about that -- about punching up, punching down -- is, who is the target here, am I making fun of the system or am I making fun of the person? I’ve never come into comedy as like I want to make someone feel bad. I do just want to put a mirror to real things that have happened to me. And then if you see exactly how ridiculous that is, that someone would think that I am a walking menu for an Asian restaurant, even though I’m not Asian, there is that. So I look at it like that.

Miller: Dahlia, I’ve always been struck by that phrase, punching up or punching down, because on some level it seems really helpful; it’s so clear. Another way to put that is, don’t be a bully. And who wouldn’t like that idea? I shouldn’t say, I’m sure there are some people who love being bullies..

Belle: Unfortunately, yes.

Miller: But it seems like a good moral stance. But it’s also so binary and so simplified. And it seems like a lot of human life, and a lot of what’s interesting and potentially funny or worth exploring about human life, is a lot messier and it’s less clear. In other words, power is often more complicated than this binary up or down. How helpful is that phrase for you personally: punching up, not punching down?

Belle: To be honest, I don’t really like the term punching up or punching down. I use my hands for a different sort of work, so I don’t punch anyone. The standard I go by is, a joke should only be as offensive as it needs to be in order to be funny and it should be twice as funny as it is offensive.

Miller: Wow. Okay. So, a more mathematically complicated rule that you’ve given yourself. But, what’s interesting to me about that, among other things, is that you’re really privileging the funniness. The funniness has to be in front of the offensiveness. And the offensiveness, which is even a hard thing maybe to define anyway..

Belle: Yeah. It’s subjective.

Miller: If it’s there, it has to be there because it’s necessary to make something funny?

Belle: Correct.

Miller: Okay, but how do you.. I don’t imagine that you write a joke and then you actually start the equations and make sure that something is twice as funny. But is this really in your mind? When you have a joke, do you actually think about: how offensive might this be to various members of some audience tonight? Do you think about that?

Belle: I used to, because I stepped on a lot of toes when I started, but now..

Miller: What’s an example of a toe you stepped on that taught you some lesson? Or made you say, “I probably shouldn’t do that again” I guess is more what I’m thinking.

Belle: Oh.. can I say this on the radio?

Miller: Give it a try and we can..

Belle: Okay.

Miller: We happen to be pre-taping this an hour before it’s going to air, so we can bleep it if necessary.

Belle: Thank God. Okay, good.

Miller: I say that and then I cringe inside, but go ahead.

Belle: So, [this was] pretty early on in my career. I do spend a lot of time with sex workers; that’s kind of part of my community. And I lived in Chinatown here in Portland, which was definitely the ghetto, because I have no money. I had a joke that I used to do that compared and contrasted the parents of sorority girls on Thursday nights and my good neighborhood crack [expletive]. I love this joke because I hate sorority girls and I’m good friends with a lot of crack addicted prostitutes. But I did this joke one night and there were these two young women in the front row. The moment I dropped the punch line, one of them started to cry. Her friend immediately started comforting her and kind of glanced at me with a little bit of anger, but mostly disgust and discomfort. And that’s not why I do comedy.

Miller: If we have these two buckets that you’ve put these two categories of people in for the joke, where would you have put the woman who was crying?

Belle: I honestly don’t know. And that’s the thing; I don’t need to know why she was hurt. That’s not important to me.

Miller: Okay. That’s a, whew, that’s a great answer. But how did it make you feel to have made somebody cry, when they went there to laugh, and to have her friend look at you with disgust?

Belle: I felt like a failure and a monster. It honestly threw off the rest of my set. It was very difficult for me to recover from that. I can recover from hecklers. I can recover from people yelling slurs at me. But I don’t know, really, how to recover from causing someone actual emotional pain or distress.

Miller: Was that the night you retired that joke?

Belle: Absolutely. I’ve never told that joke on stage again.

Miller: Dahlia, you wrote a pretty scathing open letter to Dave Chappelle, but really to all of us, in The Guardian after his special came out. I’m curious if you think that anything helpful or positive has come from the response and the backlash you’ve seen to this comedy special.

Belle: Yeah, it’s a very complicated mixed bag for me because, on the one hand, it has given my community -- and by my community I mean queer and transgender comedians -- something to leverage. We don’t get as much press; we don’t get coverage for things we do. People don’t generally just Google us unless they’re already part of our community, if that makes sense. Comedy is still very much a cisgender, heterosexual men’s club. And this controversy being here and inflaming so many people’s emotions has given me something I can leverage to promote and increase visibility for the brilliant transgender comics who have been performing for years and no one’s been listening to our opinions on our own existence.

Miller: But it did that because you are responding to something that was hurtful.

Belle: Exactly. And now I receive constant hate mail and people posting on my Twitter and my Facebook and my Instagram about how I’m just trying to ride Dave Chappelle’s coattails or I’m coming from a position of jealousy or how I can’t build a name for myself. But the reason The Guardian asked me to write a piece for them is because of the work I’ve already done over the last seven years. I think that part gets missed. And I do question the sustainability of my own career as a result of this being what has finally gotten me national attention. But, for me, I do view my work as larger than my own personal gain. So it’s worth it to me; I offer myself as tribute [laughs] so that all the other trans comics can get stage time.

Miller: Dahlia Belle, Mona Jones and Julia Corral, thanks very much for joining us today. I really appreciate it. It was a fascinating conversation.

Belle: Thank you for having us.

Correl: Thank you.

Jones: Yeah, thanks.

Miller: That’s Julia Corral, Mona Jones and Dahlia Belle, three comedians, all living in the Pacific Northwest.

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