The Atlantic: The Fear in Dave Chappelle’s New Special
The Atlantic - August 28, 2019
***"...'***Sticks and Stones' is, of course, a production from a man long known for his provocative material—and it’s possible that barbs about difficult topics could serve as a balm for some people. But with the exception of a few jokes about his children participating in active-shooter drills, Chappelle doesn’t spend much of the special attempting to apply humor with the kind of incision he once did. He seems entirely uninterested in punching up— "
Thus continues a chapter of Chappellian comedy that whiffs most obviously of the celebrity’s deepening anxieties about the social movements shaping the country. It also underscores his preoccupation with how these changing norms have affected his most valued constituency: other celebrities. Chappelle spends much of the special’s run time wallowing in his apparent resentment toward audiences who have leveled critiques—of his recent comedy, but also of other famous people’s actions. He complains hyperbolically that it’s “celebrity hunting season.” He does so from the perch of his fifth lucrative Netflix special in three years. (The streamer reportedly agreed to pay him $60 million in the original three-special deal.) In Sticks and Stones, his solipsistic lamentations about how sensitive audiences have gotten exude not just irritation, but also fear.
The pitfalls of fame are familiar subject matter for Chappelle, who notoriously walked away from the third season of his successful Comedy Central series in 2005 and absconded to South Africa. But even if the public considered him foolish for having turned away from the series, the decade following Chappelle’s departure also saw him being heralded as a sociocultural savant. An oft-cited example during the Obama years was the comic’s prescient skit imagining then-President George W. Bush as a black man. Where, his fans seemed to wonder, is Dave?
Chappelle’s return—a series of sold-out shows in 2014 at New York City’s famed Radio City Music Hall—was largely well received by audiences. But his 2017 sets seemed to signal a shift in his repertoire. Though he was still boisterous and incisive when discussing race in America, Chappelle appeared, even two years ago, baffled by the idea that LGBTQ audiences might not respond well to an outsider’s jokes about their existence. Chappelle doubles down on this strain of comedy in the new special, along with references to the #MeToo movement, which he says has given him a headache.
Where his prior missives against the ills of political correctness were often contained to segments of his shows, Sticks and Stones is astonishing in its unrelenting clarity about where Chappelle’s sympathies lie. The special consists almost entirely of rants and one-liners seemingly designed to support Chappelle’s beleaguered peers and provoke ire from those who have questioned them. Of the indignantly homophobic Kevin Hart, Chappelle notes that the comedian was “precisely four tweets shy of being perfect.” He laments the perceived overreaction to misconduct committed by Louis C.K., who “was a very good friend of mine before he died in a tragic masturbation accident.” But of James Safechuck and Wade Robson, who have accused Michael Jackson of molestation, most recently in the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, the comic says brusquely, “I don’t believe these motherfuckers.”
Chappelle acknowledges that he is “what’s known on the streets as a victim-blamer,” noting that his first response to Chris Brown’s 2009 assault of Rihanna was to wonder what she had done. Chappelle then suggests that, if he were a pedophile, the child he’d most want to assault (he uses a four-letter word instead) is Macaulay Culkin. These hostile comments are often bookended with a smug reference to Chappelle’s own characteristic brazenness, as if to distance the comic from any standard of civil discourse and instead deflect that responsibility onto viewers. “If you’re at home watching this shit on Netflix,” he laughs at one point, “remember, bitch, you clicked on my face!”
Read full review at The Atlantic