I don't write much about Bill Maher because at this point, the only purpose of his HBO series is to give the nation's hot take commentariat something to complain about on Saturdays. The entire process is predictable to the point of being soul-sucking. Maher says some unimaginatively stupid thing, people write about him and then he follows up by mocking his critics as being thin-skinned and clueless. He's television's answer to a guy standing on a street corner calling people names until someone finally punches him. Then he complains and calls the cops. Maher is a professional troll and while I admire his career ingenuity, I'm in no mood to help him by highlighting his latest trollness.
I have come to the point where I feel the same way about Dave Chappelle. Yes, Chappelle is a comedy genius. Although I don't think anyone is as funny as he is convinced he is. But in recent years, Chappelle has embraced his inner old guy and cranked out a series of comedy specials that are an uneasy mix of lazy joke telling and purposefully provocative bits that he knows will enrage some segment of his viewers. It often feels as if Chappelle realizes on some level that the current comedy scene has passed him by. So his answer is to become this generation's Don Rickles: a tired, predictable crank who alternates between repeating insulting characterizations and shrugging off criticism with a half-hearted "I kid, but I love everyone!"
I frankly don't have the patience to recount the varied levels of criticism being leveled at Chappelle following the release of his latest Netflix special. In this case, Google was invented so I don't have to wade into all of the stupidity.
But the criticism over the special has been persistent enough to have warranted a response from Netflix, and recently Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos sent out an internal email to employees laying out the company's stance on the controversy. And while it certainly reads as if it was assembled by a crack team of PR crisis management types, it is also one of the most tone-deaf emails you'll read this week.
Here is the complete email, annotated with my comments in bold:
<Given the subject matter, this email was guaranteed to quickly be shared outside Netflix. So maybe it would have been better to just post this as a press release, instead of adding a secondary layer of confusion? Plus, officially releasing it makes the comments feel less secretive>
I wanted to follow up on The Closer - Dave Chappelle’s latest special - as several of you have reached out following QBR asking what to say to your teams. It never feels good when people are hurting, especially our colleagues, so I wanted to give you some additional context. You should also 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.
<It sounds as if they expect some Netflix talent to release statements, and/or had already been contacted internally by talent. And at least one did say something pubicly. If this was a press conference, this would be a good spot for a follow-up question>
Chappelle is one of the most popular stand-up comedians today, and we have a long standing deal with him. His last special, Sticks & Stones, also controversial, is our most watched, stickiest, and most award winning stand-up special to date. 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, like Cuties, 365 Days, 13 Reasons Why, or My Unorthodox Life.
<There is an old trope about people saying the quiet thing out loud. And this falls into that category. It's one thing to argue Netflix supports creative freedom. But leading with "hey, his specials are super popular" makes the decision to support him sound more about the money than the moral stand. I am not a PR expert, but I would advise a potential client not to use any argument that is a variation of "he makes us a lot of money.">
Several of you have also asked where we draw the line on hate. We don’t allow titles on Netflix that are designed to incite hate or violence, and we don’t believe The Closer crosses that line. I recognize, however, that distinguishing between commentary and harm is hard, especially with stand-up comedy which exists to push boundaries. Some people find the art of stand-up to be mean-spirited but our members enjoy it, and it’s an important part of our content offering.
<Once again, "sure, some people think it's insulting, but lots of people stream it" is an awkward hill to die on, but it is consistent. I would love to ask Ted whether Netflix had any qualms about the special's content before it premiered>
In terms of our commitment to inclusion, we’re working hard to ensure more people see their lives reflected on screen and that under-represented communities are not defined by the single story. So we’re proud of titles like Sex Education, Young Royals, Control Z and Disclosure. Externally, particularly in stand-up comedy, artistic freedom is obviously a very different standard of speech than we allow internally as the goals are different: entertaining people versus maintaining a respectful, productive workplace.
<The artistic freedom vs business workplace comparison makes sense on the face of it. But I'm still not sure how a company balances "a respectful, productive workplace" with Chappelle comparing a trans woman's genitalia to plant-based meat substitutes. "Those p—ies that they got… I’m not saying it’s not p—y, but that’s like Beyond P—y or Impossible P—y, you know what I mean? It tastes like p—y, but that’s not quite what it is, is it? That’s not blood, it’s beet juice.">
Today’s conversation on Entertain the World was timely. These are hard and uncomfortable issues. We all bring different values and perspectives so thank you for being part of the conversation as it’s important we’re clear about our operating principles.
<Don't worry. We're clear about your operating principles>
I do feel a small bit of sympathy for Sarandos, because he can't quite admit publicly the truth that is evident to everyone on all sides of this issue. Chappelle is a moneymaker for Netflix and the company is not going to do anything to annoy a star who is hoping to provoke a negative response.
It's not as if Netflix won't censor or remove content if forced to by a local government entity. It famously removed an episode of the talk show Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj after complaints from the government of Saudi Arabia. And when asked about the decision, Netflix head Reed Hastings said he was more than fine with the decision:
"We’re not in the news business,” Hastings said. “We’re not trying to do ‘truth to power.’ We’re trying to entertain… We don’t feel bad about [pulling the ‘Patriot Act’ episode in Saudi Arabia] at all."
On the other hand.....
That said, if the Saudi government came to Netflix “and said, ‘you can’t do gay content,’ we wouldn’t do that, we would not comply with that,” the CEO said. He noted that the Saudi regime allows Netflix to stream shows like "Sex Education," which portrays "a very liberal lifestyle and very provocative and important topics."
And when it comes to editing shows, it's not as Netflix won't do it. It agreed to edit a controversial suicide scene out of the show 13 Reasons Why in 2019. Granted, that was two years after the show premiered.
So what can we learn from all of this? Well, the reason why the email above has to twist itself in knots is that Netflix executives are in a position where they can't admit the truth about this situation. They might not agree with Chappelle's comments. But he makes the company a lot of money. And no one at Netflix is willing to go to war with a comic whose dream would be to find himself censored by Netflix.