Opinion: Chris D’Elia wasn’t just pretending to be creepy

My first exposure to Chris D’Elia was through YouTube and his Gotham Comedy Club stand-up sets. The impression he left on me was rooted in a stage presence, spontaneity, and ability to take the inane and make it insane. Immediately, he was a comic hero to me. Vine was a popular short-video platform in the mid-2010’s, and D’Elia made a killing by masterfully playing a goofy, long-haired eccentric. Even the difficulty in pronouncing his last name (duh-leeuh) was something I personally identified with. Eventually, as many young men do, I started watching and listening to the Joe Rogan Experience, which opened me up to Rogan’s comedy scene, of which D’Elia was a momentous part. More than this, D’Elia guested on an innumerable amount of associated podcasts before starting his own: Congratulations. This is where my fandom experience took off, watching a jilted narcissist go off on tangents, making criticisms, and chiefly stringing together bits of humor.

Uniquely, the podcast was hosted for one hour by D’Elia alone. At the time, he had one producer on-site with the alias Juan Fire. When Juan appeased D’Elia, he became Juan Hire. The premise of his show positions him as “Daddy,” and followers of his podcast are “babies.” Those who mail in art, gifts, or even get tattoos can become an “elder” by executive appointment. Often blinded by vanity and indoor-sunglasses, D’Elia thought it clever to promise his cult a real log cabin, where they all presumably live together, and transcend? Invoking shades of Jonestown—an innocuous joke. Other podcasts depend on informed or skilled guests, but D’Elia seems to have gotten by alone for the most part. I listened to the first 100 episodes of Congratulations, often while doing something else. It was hysterical at times, and repetitive at others. Later, my listenership fell off, but I remained a strident believer in the theory that despite being a self-obsessed, rude and impulsive comedian, D’Elia excelled at comedy. His prowess coupled with a meteoric rise created a magnetic personality.

On June 20, the LA Times reported that five women recently came forward detailing D’Elia’s past sexual advances via social media and email. Their allegations are corroborated by screenshots of his messages to teenage girls. In the first report, D’Elia emailed an underage Simone Rossi on Jan. 1, 2015 after getting her address via Twitter, asking her for pictures of herself and to meet up and make out. She tweeted these screenshots publicly on June 16, 2020. At the time of their primary interaction, she was 16. LA Times staff writer Amy Kaufman retold the aftermath in her article,

“Her mother, Brooke Askew-Rossi, said she was also aware of the interactions her daughter had with the comedian. ‘She very casually told me that Chris D’Elia asked her for nudes,’ said Askew-Rossi. ‘I was disgusted. I was incredibly proud of how she handled him, and I’m proud of her years later for sharing her story. If this had to happen, she’s on the right side of the fence, trying to pull women like her up and be a sherpa.’”

Following these posts, four more girls came forward with similar stories. One Julia Holtzmann was contacted by D’Elia through a photo she posted which was taken in a high school classroom. She was 17 at the time, and an apparent high school student.

Many of the girls were clearly underage, not yet having graduated high school. This revelation is not uncharacteristic of D’Elia, whose comedic shtick is rooted in narcissism and egomania. Now, although it is his persona I am describing, and a stage persona is distinct from the performer, the two are inextricably linked. Before I consider the allegations, it is notable to point out that D’Elia, once a pop culture critic, has portrayed predators and perverts on screen. There is a widespread normalization of sexual predation and rape which D’Elia embodies not only in his comedy but in his other artistic pursuits. He was known to be a Casanova, but nobody close to D’Elia suspected seriously that he would solicit sex from minors.

At the Comedy Central Roast of Justin Bieber in 2015, fellow comedian Kevin Hart introduced Chris D’Elia: “He is Justin Bieber’s favorite comic, which is why he has ‘duh’ in the middle of his name, please welcome future rapist Chris D’Elia.” This quotation is significant to me because it speaks to two dimensions of D’Elia, the rabid fandom among young people and his more than sleazy caricature. This roast is how Simone Rossi became a fan of the comedian.

On one of his podcasts, D’Elia pushed back against popular right-wing Pizzagate conspiracies. “There’s no pizzagate, man… There’s a ring of pedophilia? That the top producers know about? And confide in each other in? And keep kids, and pass ‘em around, and f*** ‘em? People think Hollywood is bad? Hollywood is evil? Bro, whatever you think that is, that’s what I am. It’s so annoying when people say that something ‘extra’ is going on in Hollywood.”

This hypernormalisation of the abnormal is very concerning in hindsight. To joke on-stage is one thing, but to act abhorrently with artistic license is another. In 2011, D’Elia guest starred on “Workaholics” as a child molester. Later, in 2019, D’Elia made an appearance on “You,” this time portraying a stand-up comic who groomed and drugged young girls. These two on-screen appearances are distasteful in retrospect but went largely unnoticed.

Regarding the allegations, I will say that these improprieties are only somewhat out-of-step with D’Elia’s character. He’s got a short attention span, wholly devoted to self-aggrandizement and comedy, but to learn of his preying on young girls was a shock. The primary mistake D’Elia ought to learn from is his promiscuity and irresponsibility.

I’m hard pressed to say that D’Elia is guilty of something evil, or woefully unjust, but he did lose sight of a concrete principle, which is not to prey on the powerless, whether he would have gone through with it or not. However, it’s too much to ask for a comedian to be ousted as a rapist before we confidently speak out. Far too much. What we know now at this point is unacceptable and indefensible. I like underdogs, outcasts, weirdos even, but only to the extent that we can abide by most of the same rules. D’Elia is dumb, aloof, and immature by what I’ve absorbed through long-form conversations, but he’s also smart enough to know how to conduct himself as a 40-year-old comic with over a million Twitter followers—and not ask underage girls for nude photos.

If I’ve defended D’Elia, it’s because I used to be a fan. I believe he flew too close to the sun for far too long, going so far as to make hasty and unethical impromptus with females whose age he was unsure of at the time. Nothing came of it until this point. He was and is an egomaniac, but despite his entertainment value, we have a more important duty to examine the culture of comedy so that we can combat the vicious sexual harassment that plagues Hollywood. Moreover, we should recognize the widespread culture of toxic masculinity and paternalism across subgenres; see the recent outburst of sexual assault and rape allegations in the gaming industry, covered by the New York Times.

The cult of Chris D’Elia was rapidly expanding, and it allocated a real cultural power to the cult leader. The betrayal of trust and abuse of power involved in his solicitation of sex from minors, no matter how misguided, illustrates a highly toxic sexual behavior that I will not begin to apologize for. In short, the world is not running smoothly right now. The #MeToo movement still intersects with Black Lives Matter, Pride, feminism and other groups in opposition to structural and social forms of oppression.   

My only wishes are that D’Elia can get help if necessary, apologize fully, and find a renewed purpose in due time which serves to empower the powerless, and not flaunt his excess—his line of work is insignificant in this regard. D’Elia is not the first comedy star to be caught for gross sexual misconduct (Bill Cosby, Louis C.K.), and he’s unlikely to be the last. It is incumbent upon us to hold our sense of humor to a higher standard, but also to condemn any action or speech which normalizes rape and abuse. It’s been a problem, it’s still our problem, and it’ll be our problem. Worse still is that Bill Cosby jokes, while tongue-in-cheek, have invariably outlived his legacy of sexual abuse and predation by and large. The same goes for Michael Jackson, whose art and persona, as well as his checkered past, found a higher pedestal in pop-culture than the reality of his involvement with children. What D’Elia did was not of the same magnitude of the aforementioned, but there is no quibbling with the depths of moral depravity. Our failures should serve as reminders of a better nature we are all attune to. It is not impossible for D’Elia to change, but only time may tell.

A dead-tired line is, “Comedy is dying, it’s changing. There’s no more free speech. Too many woke mobs, virtue signalers, too much political correctness.” Woke culture is a problem, but “cancel culture” is a great tool for self-victimization. D’Elia was not cancelled by social justice warriors, his fans gave up on a cause they could no longer trust nor believe in—D’Elia will have plenty of time to sleep in a luxurious feather bed to reflect on his actions. Free speech has not been replaced by something else. We all make value judgments, regardless of political leaning. Peer-policing is a societal mechanism that has historically aimed down and not up. It begs the question, what can’t you say?