Netflix’s Ted Sarandos defends ‘thoughtful and smart’ Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais

Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos on the red carpet

Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos has defended Ricky Gervais and Dave Chappelle’s anti-trans comedy sets, saying comedians have to “cross the line”.

Sarandos, 57, said the streaming service didn’t flinch when it came to supporting Chappelle, who referred to himself as being on “Team TERF” during his October 2021 special.

He also defended JK Rowling and DaBaby, the rapper who made a derogatory rant about people living with HIV and gay men.

British comic Gervais, meanwhile, made countless punch-downs against trans women – “the ones with beards and c**ks” – and made light of the AIDS epidemic.

But Sarandos once again defended the comedians. He told The New York Times in an interview published Saturday (28 May) that performers have to “cross the line once in a while” to work out where the line is.

“Nobody would say that what he does isn’t thoughtful or smart,” he said of Chappelle, “you just don’t agree with him.”

“Nobody” is doing a lot of work here.

Sarandos continued: “I think it’s very important to the American culture generally to have free expression.

“We’re programming for a lot of diverse people who have different opinions and different tastes and different styles, and yet we’re not making everything for everybody.

“We want something for everybody but everything’s not going to be for everybody.”

Dave Chappelle in The Closer. (Netflix)

Chappelle’s Netflix show, The Closer, touched off such furious backlash that Netflix staff staged a walkout in protest. Sarandos, however, repeatedly refused to condemn the special and said it did not amount to “hate speech”.

This wasn’t a tough decision for Sarandos, he said. “And rarely do you get the opportunity to put your principles to the test,” he said.

“It was an opportunity to take somebody, like in Dave’s case, who is, by all measure, the comedian of our generation, the most popular comedian on Netflix for sure.”

Chappelle was knocked down during his performance for the Netflix is a Joke festival in Los Angeles on 3 May. Isaiah Lee, 23, said he had been “triggered” by the comedian’s jokes ridiculing the LGBTQ+ community.

After the incident, Chappelle suggested to the audience that Lee “was a trans man”.

In response, Netflix updated its workplace culture guidelines that doubled down on support for comedians like Chappelle. “If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth,” the document read, “Netflix may not be the best place for you.”

Conservative news outlets celebrated the move. “It used to be a very liberal issue, so it’s an interesting time that we live in,” Sarandos said.

He added: “I always said if we censor in the US, how are we going to defend our content in the Middle East?”

Asked if his remarks also apply to Gervais, Sarandos said yes.

Gervais’ special, Ricky Gervais: Supernature, was met with widespread condemnation by LGBTQ+ advocates.

“We watched the Ricky Gervais ‘comedy’ special on Netflix so you don’t have to,” queer media watchdog GLAAD said in a statement.

“It’s full of graphic, dangerous, anti-trans rants masquerading as jokes. He also spouts anti-gay rhetoric and spreads inaccurate information about HIV.”