Dave Chappelle’s new standup special, Sticks & Stones, has been getting attention for setting out to be provocative in the #MeToo era.
“If you say anything, you risk everything,” Morgan Freeman says in the Netflix trailer.
Chappelle says he is sick of PC scrutiny: “That’s why I don’t be coming out and doing comedy all the time, cause y’all n—- is the worst mother—- I ever tried to entertain in my f—- life… This is the worst time ever to be a celebrity.” He looks deeply unhappy—or worse, emptied—in a photo with his smiling family in the credits.
So when he doubles-down, in this special, with rehashed jokes about transgender people (and a racially-loaded impression of a Chinese man); says he does not believe Michael Jackson’s accusers (and jokes that if Jackson did molest children, “so what?”); and insults the WNBA for not being the NBA, he seems to just want his confrontation with the audience over with. Before he walked out on his own TV series in 2005, he told a standup audience, “You know why my show is good? Because the network officials say you’re not smart enough to get what I’m doing, and every day I fight for you. I tell them how smart you are. Turns out, I was wrong. You people are stupid.” “Ta-ta” is one of his favorite comic sayings.
Sticks & Stones will be insulting to some and uneven to many. There is a long allegorical set-piece in the middle about “the alphabet people” (LGBTQ+) riding in the same car, for example, that he performs with a frozen smile, as if even he knows it is not funny but cannot stop.
Yet Chappelle does some things better than almost any other working comedian. He is our most literary stand-up and often dares to turn serious. In this special he is angry, funny, and tender all at once when describing his father’s wisdom in hard times. He still uses physical comedy to help tell why he bought guns, despite being anti-gun, and how a Kmart employee in a “poor whites” region of the country educated him in lethality.
Chappelle’s standup persona has long been that of a limited but sane character in a crazy world, who is at first shocked but then often acts badly himself. In that, he is very Twain-like. (He will receive the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor next month.) Chappelle told CBS’ Gayle King, “I was talkin’ to a guy … he basically said to me that comedy is a reconciliation of paradox.”
The best bits from this special are him trying to reconcile things that do not add up in his (and our) lives. These include how Anthony Bourdain seemed to have had it all but killed himself; the false account of “French actor Juicy Smooyay” (Jussie Smollett); and how, with drug addiction in white, rural America, he now knows what whites felt watching the “scourge of crack” in the black community—“I don’t care either!”
“Hang in there, whites,” he says enthusiastically. “Just say no! What’s so hard about that?” These jokes are also grounded in an awareness of addiction as illness and a desire for racial justice.
But it must be difficult to have an act in which you try to portray yourself as the sane commentator in a crazy time, when one symptom of the time is that few can agree on what is crazy, or even mean, irrational, or unreasonable. It does not help Chappelle, I think, that he has advertised his pleasure at being a millionaire (he tells a quick story about his $12,000 suit) and hanging out with other celebrities from Chris Tucker to Barack Obama. Now imagine using your considerable powers to punch down. This, I think, is what many commenters mean when they say they are not offended by Sticks & Stones, just disappointed.
Chappelle could instead be questioning his identity and beliefs among our time’s new circumstances. He could travel the world to listen to others—it would provide all the material he would ever need—and use his work to broaden our views. He could be revolutionary in his field, something bigger than Carlin was, more dangerous in the best sense. But his defiance in this special is more cynical. “It doesn’t matter what I say,” he says. “And if you’re at home watching this on Netflix, remember, bitch, you clicked on my face.”
The special ends (after a video epilogue of him doing the show on Broadway) with the song “Where is My Mind,” covered by Maxence Cyrin, over the credits. The elegiac song, combined with black-and-white still images of Dave with famous chums, feels like someone saying goodbye—again.