Today was a big day for Netflix, which reported strong quarterly earnings and “mind-boggling” 142 million households that have sampled runaway hit Squid Game. But the celebration was subdued in the streamer’s upper echelons as the company is still reeling from the internal — and external — backlash against transphobic statements in Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix special The Closer.
While Chappelle had included anti-trans jokes in his act before, including in the 2019 Netflix special Stick and Stones, The Closer, which was delivered to the streamer a week before its release, struck a chord.
The situation was exacerbated by two internal emails by Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos — sent out on the same day and leaked days apart — in which he defended Chappelle and argued that content like The Closer does not “directly translate to real-world harm.”
The special and Sarandos’ comments have been met with criticism by Netflix transgender employees, which are organizing a company walkout Wednesday in protest, and by LGBTQ+ Netflix talent, including another prominent standup comic, Emmy winner Hannah Gadsby. One employee has been fired over leaked information about The Closer while three others who had spoken up about it internally were suspended and then reinstated.
In a brief interview with Deadline, Sarandos addresses the reaction to The Closer; the decision not to pull, edit or put a content warning on it; the internal handling of the controversy; as well as the now-infamous no “real-world harm” comment.
DEADLINE: What do you make of the way the reaction to Dave Chappelle’s special was handled by Netflix and by you?
SARANDOS: First, right upfront, I screwed up the internal communication — and I don’t mean just mechanically. I feel I should’ve made sure to recognize that a group of our employees was hurting very badly from the decision made, and I should’ve recognized upfront before going into a rationalization of anything the pain they were going through. I say that because I respect them deeply, and I love the contribution they have at Netflix. They were hurting, and I should’ve recognized that first.
DEADLINE: What about the decision to address the issue in internal emails and the statement in the second one that content does not translate to real-world harm? Do you have second thoughts about how that came out and was perceived?
SARANDOS: We are in uncharted grounds here, we have never had internal emails leaked to the press before, and I would say that the issue with that is, they were a conversation in progress. That’s one email, and when you look at it and say, it was meant to ask a very specific question and landed like a big blanket statement.
And the big blanket statement should’ve been, of course storytelling has an impact on the real world — sometimes positive and sometimes negative. That is why I work here, that content actually can make the world a better place through our storytelling, through onscreen representation and all those things. So it was a gross simplification. And It didn’t land where it should have, which is, there was a conversation about the one-to-one impact of a certain piece of content. It came out with a very blanket statement that storytelling doesn’t have impact on the real world which is the opposite of everything I’ve ever said, thought or felt.
DEADLINE: Were you surprised by the strong reaction to the special?
SARANDOS: I think the only surprise was that this is a stated conflict in the business around freedom of speech and creative expression that I feel very passionate about and also understanding that if you put things on Netflix that please some people that some people will dislike it, members and employees. It’s impossible to please everybody but we are trying to please a world that is made of people of different tastes, sensibilities and beliefs, and it becomes very difficult to do that for everybody. We have stated it internally that we are going to have some things on Netflix that you don’t like. There are some things on Netflix that may be harmful to you, your colleagues and your friends but we are trying to entertain the world and make business decisions that are protective of creative freedom and artists and also respectful, safe workspace.
DEADLINE: Do you have regrets releasing the special, not editing it or putting on content warnings?
SARANDOS: Stand-up comedy is a pretty singular voice art form. The comedians will road test the material for some times two years before they record their special so we really don’t get involved and interfere with the material itself, and I think it’s
consistent with a brand of stand-up comedy and certainly consistent with Dave Chappelle’s comedy, so I don’t think a warning card or an edit would’ve been appropriate.