Dave Chappelle is Just Kidding
Dave Chappelle opens his newest Netflix special, Sticks and Stones, with a bit about how Anthony Bourdain killed himself despite having “the best job that show business ever produced.” He compares Bourdain to an underemployed friend of Dave’s, who Dave believes should consider suicide. Chappelle then quickly moves on to the special’s theme: He says he feels like the world is not just changing but closing in on him, and threatening to take away his right to joke about whatever he likes. He tells the audience directly, “Y’all niggas is the WORST motherfuckers I’ve ever tried to entertain in my FUCKING life!”
The fact that Netflix has paid Chappelle close to $100 million to make four new comedy specials in one year for the world’s biggest streaming platform renders mute any question of comic oppression. In fact, it makes all of Chappelle’s grousing on the subject feel like…a joke! Imagine that.
Chappelle has a different, more serious, more ponderous flow now. He’s transformed into your favorite uncle, whose stories you love listening to even when his logic’s not all the way solid, and he says some shit you might really disagree with if you weren’t so sure unc was joking. In the special, he moves on to both roast and attempt to vindicate a host of “persecuted” celebrities, judging the guilt or innocence of Louis CK, R. Kelly, Kevin Hart, Jussie Smollett—a bunch of people and controversies that most people likely will not remember 20 years from now.
He ribs the latest Michael Jackson molestation documentary (“I felt like HBO was sticking baby dicks in my ears for two hours.”), and though even the joke’s premise (that kids should be honored to receive fellatio from the King of Pop) is groan-worthy, and though it’s very hard to hear Chappelle even jokingly say, “I do not believe these [accusers],” he does land a string of solid, tasteless pedo jokes, including: “Someone needed to teach these kids that’s there’s no such thing as a free trip to Hawaii.”
My laughing at that joke doesn’t diminish my disdain for pedophiles. It’s not the world’s smartest joke; Dave could stand to take his own advice and leave MJ buried. But it’s just a wild, wrong-ass thing for someone to say out loud. And because of that, I laughed.
Chappelle then proceeds to his second main course: making fun of everyone who has, in the past, asked him to stop making fun of them. Meaning, primarily, the LGBTQ communities. “The Ts hate my guts,” he announces. His new “alphabet people” bit, where he imagines the different sexual and gender preferences riding in the same car, all headed toward equality but all of them resenting the trans person in the back seat because of how much the trans plight complicates their collective situation—seemed pretty thoughtful and clever to me, and not an inaccurate portrait of trans people’s position within gay communities. But my trans friends hated it, thought it was lazy, fuck Dave Chappelle, etc.
In the course of teasing trans people, Chappelle also commits a horrible impersonation of a Chinese person. He obviously believes that, since Chinese people were never slaves in America, a black man can say whatever he wants and that by writing these jokes, he includes these groups in the normalcy of being teased, whether he’s right or not. In an extra Q&A attached to the end of Sticks and Stones, Chappelle wonders aloud why people have blamed him for “normalizing” R. Kelly by joking about him, yet don’t give him credit for normalizing “transgenders” by making jokes about them.
And while I don’t really agree with that logic (and most trans people don’t seem to, either), I do believe that Dave’s underlying intent is to bring the world together through laughter. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to realize that, especially in the case of trans people, mockery is often their default dilemma, and so more mockery doesn’t really help them. He’s so focused on those who are laughing that he can’t seem to hear the people who aren’t laughing.
Can We Talk Shit?
As long as he’s so mega popular, Chappelle will always face louder scrutiny, but none of this is new, much less revolutionary. Joan Rivers did all of this. And she was better at it. Far more extreme. At her best, she didn’t just troll audiences; she tried to set their brains on fire.
In New Orleans once, just a few years after Katrina, Rivers stepped on stage before a truly intersectional audience (heavy on the gays) and immediately launched into a giant fuck you to all of us Katrina “whiners” in the audience. To a room full of people who’d just lost their houses and, in many cases, their relatives, Joan Rivers acted out an elaborate prescription that we all shut the fuck up about the damned flood and our misfortunes. It was so intense. So cathartic. It felt like what I imagine a sweat lodge might be like, manic pounding heart and all.
Only a very specific type of person would feel “better” after what Rivers did to us that night. It was not an experience “for everybody.” I can only compare it to the way some people love to watch movies full of brutal fake murders, or people who like pain during sex. Does watching fake murders mean you condone real murders? No. But plenty of people seem to believe that making offensive jokes, or even laughing at them, makes you complicit in the world’s ills. Joan Rivers defied that rule because her fans let her be the jester in the grand tradition. We let her say what she wasn’t supposed to say to create that insane, singular feeling inside of us.
She subjected herself to the same treatment too, told deeply disrespectful jokes about her husband who’d killed himself, and other topics that no regular human would touch. She dragged us into a world we just otherwise wouldn’t have seen, because it didn’t exist unless she built it. Her comedy was evil, evil magic.
Not Punching At All
Chappelle might think he’s doing that with Sticks and Stones. But he’s not. His is a less daring version. Where Rivers created her own world with its own rules, Chappelle just joins the world of dude bros who find their own ignorance endlessly funny. I find it funny too, pretty much. But in this new offensive incarnation, Dave is no Joan Rivers.
Chappelle’s new flow is imperfect for one main reason. He was so wise and insightful on the topic of race in America that it seemed to make him feel the world needed his opinion on every important topic, even those topics with which he clearly has no special connection or knowledge. Dave today has two modes: His race jokes still come off especially smart and insightful, while the humor in his jokes about say, trans people, derives from his own comically amplified ignorance. He thinks it’s funny to make himself look bad. But if you believe the loudest reviews of Sticks and Stones, many people consider only smart Dave funny. And while I find myself laughing at both of his modes, I too find smart Dave a far more compelling artist.
But who am I to tell Dave Chappelle what makes good comedy? Think-piece writers criticizing the most popular comedian alive—a 46-year-old man who has honed his craft on stage since the age of 14—often come off like Sean Hannity trying to discredit climate scientists. Non-comedians who dictate that comedians must always “punch up” and never “punch down” miss the point that most comedians aren’t punching at all. They’re joking. And though jokes that invoke raw truth are maybe the best kinds of jokes, jokes themselves often do not represent “The Truth” at all! Joking is just a twisted way of making sense of the world. Sometimes it’s just a word game. Most comedians, maybe all of them except for Hannah Gadsby, care about the laugh far more than they care about the health of society, and in service of that laugh they will say anything.
And so I’m confused at the articles describing Sticks and Stones as Chappelle expressing his “anger” and “frustration” at a world that he is loath to see change because I hear no real anger or frustration in him. He doesn’t sound hateful at all, or really scared, and in fact, he’s always come off like a great lover of humanity. He does currently sound like he’s wrestling with his art form, rather than just making art. But most of all, he sounds like he’s joking.