Dave Chappelle Returns in Netflix’s ‘The Dreamer’: “I Love Punching Down”

Hollywood Gossip
4 min readDec 31, 2023

The controversial comedian returned on Sunday with his seventh special for the streamer, in which he mocks his Hollywood Bowl attack and Will Smith slapping Chris Rock and makes trans and disabled jokes.

BY JAMES HIBBERD, DECEMBER 31, 2023

Dave Chappelle in ‘The Dreamer’ MATHIEU BITTON/NETFLIX

Dave Chappelle isn’t exactly toning it down, but his new stand-up special The Dreamer is arguably more reflective and tackles a broader array of topics than his last couple of Netflix efforts.

On Sunday, the controversial comedian returned to Netflix with The Dreamer, his first full-length stand-up special in two years.

The Dreamer plays more like a traditional comedy special than 2021’s ultra-controversial The Closer — which was criticized for being hyper-focused on the trans community and Chappelle defensively responding to his critics — yet the comedian still targets marginalized groups, such as the disabled. One lengthy bit in the new special is about paraplegic former North Carolina Republican representative Madison Cawthorn, who famously alleged he was invited to Washington sex parties. “I don’t doubt they do this shit in Washington [but] who the fuck invites a paraplegic to an orgy?” Chappelle wondered, and, at one point, declared: “I love punching down!”

After telling one anecdote that leads to a punchline about the trans community, Chappelle says, “Now if you guys came here to this show tonight thinking I’m gonna make fun of those people again, I’m not fucking with those people anymore. It wasn’t worth the trouble.” (Still, he took a couple shots anyway).

“It’s a funny thing if you feel you’re absolutely right; you can get drunk at the feeling of how right you are — it’s why gay people are so mean,” he says at one point.

Shifting into fresher territory, Chappelle weighed in on Will Smith’s infamous Oscar moment slapping Chris Rock onstage in 2022, and mocked Rock for declaring “I refuse to be a victim” in his Netflix special, joking, “Watch the tape!”

Chappelle also spent some time detailing his own onstage attack at the Hollywood Bowl that same year (“Everything’s funny until it happens to you”). Chappelle noted, “For a homeless guy, this n — a had incredible seats” and joked about his assailant getting pummeled by his security team on stage. “[If Will Smith attacked me] I do now know what Will Smith would not have done and that is enjoy the rest of his evening.”

The Dreamer was shot in Chappelle’s hometown of Washington, DC at the historic Lincoln Theatre. The special was directed by Emmy-winner Stan Lathan, who previously helmed Chappelle’s other Netflix specials.

Chappelle’s last two specials, 2019’s Sticks & Stones and The Closer, resulted in major critical blowback for Netflix, particularly due to the comedian’s comments about the transgender community. The Closer, in particular, was criticized for seeming almost obsessively focused on the issue (“The man now seems out-of-touch, another dull comedian obsessed with cancel culture, more concerned with being viewed as correct than cracking a clever joke,” wrote a Forbes critic). The Closer also resulted in a walkout among some Netflix employees who demanded their employer remove the content.

Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos repeatedly defended the specials, first in a couple of internal memos, where at one point he stated, “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.”

Later, Sarandos told The Hollywood Reporter that he “screwed up” by not first “[acknowledging] in those emails that a group of our employees were in pain” but nonetheless stood by the special. “You’ve got audiences with various taste, various sensibilities, various beliefs,” he said. “You really can’t please everybody or the content would be pretty dull … I do think that the inclusion of the special on Netflix is consistent with our comedy offering, it’s consistent with Dave Chappelle’s comedy brand and this is … one of those times when there’s something on Netflix that you’re not going to like.”

Chappelle’s fans also didn’t waver in their support of the comedian, with both specials earning Rotten Tomatoes audience scores in the high 90s despite critics scores running between 30 and 40 percent. Chappelle also won two Emmy awards for Sticks & Stones and was twice Emmy nominated — and won a Grammy for best comedy album — for The Closer.

The comedian has seemingly profited enormously from his culture war controversy, declaring on stage at the Hollywood Bowl in 2021, “If this is what being canceled is, I love it.” A recent Wall Street Journal profile of the comic reported that Chappelle sold more tickets in 2023 than any other comedy headliner, grossing $62 million across 31 shows.

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