Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said Tuesday that he “screwed up” when he attempted to calm employees who were outraged by Dave Chappelle’s transphobic remarks in his latest comedy special for the streamer, “The Closer.”
“What I should have led with in those emails was humanity,” Sarandos told the Wall Street Journal Tuesday. “I should have recognized the fact that a group of our employees was really hurting.”
Clarifying his earlier remarks that content does not cause real-world harm, Sarandos said his comment was oversimplified and lacked humanity. “To be clear, storytelling has an impact in the real world…sometimes quite negative,” he told the Journal. “We have articulated to our employees that there are going to be things you don’t like,” he added. “There are going to be things that you might feel are harmful. But we are trying to entertain a world with varying tastes and varying sensibilities and various beliefs, and I think this special was consistent with that.”
Still, Sarandos stood by his decision not to pull “The Closer” from the streaming service. “I’m firmly committed to continue to support artistic freedom for the creators who work with Netflix and increase representation behind the screen and on camera, noting these goals may at times be in conflict with each other,” he told the Journal. “We have to figure out how to navigate those challenges.”
Sarandos spoke out just after Netflix reported its third-quarter earnings and posted an executive interview session where the Chappelle controversy was not addressed. He also spoke just before a planned walkout on Wednesday by Netflix employees protesting its handling of the Chappelle matter that is expected to amount to up to 10% of the streamer’s workforce.
Netflix and Chappelle came under fire from prominent social justice organizations earlier this month for jokes targeting trans and other LGBTQ+ people in his new special. “Gender is a fact,” he says at one point in the half-hour set. “Every human being in this room, every human being on Earth, had to pass through the legs of a woman to be on Earth.” Chappelle then joked about the genitalia of trans women, which he described as “not what it is.”
Although Sarandos felt the heat, he said on Oct. 11 in a memo to employees that he would not take down Chappelle’s special, writing, “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.” He went on to say that artistic freedom” is different for stand-up comedy than it is for other forms of expression.
GLAAD immediately released a statement, saying in part, “While Netflix is home to groundbreaking LGBTQ stories, now is the time for Netflix execs to listen to LGBTQ employees, industry leaders, and audiences and commit to living up to their own standards.”
Later the same day, three employees — including one trans person — who crashed a quarterly directors’ meeting to speak out against Chappelle’s stand-up special were suspended the same day. However, a Netflix spokesperson told TheWrap that “it is absolutely untrue to say that we have suspended any employees for tweeting about this show. Our employees are encouraged to disagree openly and we support their right to do so.”
With the dust not coming close to settling, a group of Netflix employees announced they were planning a company-wide walkout on Oct. 20 to protest the company’s handling of concerns over “The Closer,” according to reports from The Los Angeles Times. The group includes both transgender employees and allies.