Why you should care
Because he goes where few comedians are willing to go.
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“If you say anything,” the sonorous voice of Morgan Freeman intones during the preview of Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix comedy special, “you risk everything.” It’s not meant for laughs, but it’s the kind of pseudo-profound, movie trailer pronouncement that only the gravitas of Freeman can save from being laughable.
Still, it’s a sentiment — as the show’s title Sticks & Stones also suggests — that Chappelle feels strongly about. And although he’s not a whistleblower, spy or anyone in a truly say-anything-risk-everything sort of situation, the provocative comedian demonstrates yet again he is willing to march through a wilderness of controversy and political correctness toward Calvary, even if it means his own public execution. And, in true rabble-rousing, self-referential Chappelle fashion, he is almost daring you to participate in that outcome with the other Pharisees and Romans streaming and tweeting the counter-insurgency.
Many critics feel that Chappelle’s aggressive transgressiveness may be tarnishing his legacy.
From the start, Chappelle demonstrates that no subject is sacred, from the recent suicide of Anthony Bourdain to his very own fans. “I want to see if you can guess who it is I’m doing an impression of,” he challenges his audience before whining, “Uh, duh. Hey! Durr! If you do anything wrong in your life — duh! — and I find out about it, I’m gonna try to take everything away from you!” Who’s the impression of? “That’s you!” the 46-year-old stand-up comic reveals, one of several preemptively contemptuous jokes he cracks in (correct) anticipation of the forthcoming deluge of criticism.
In the next hour, Chappelle rails against perceived sacred cows ranging from Michael Jackson’s accusers (“I don’t believe these motherfuckers”) to the LGBTQ community (“this idea that a person can be born in the wrong body … that’s a hilarious predicament”) to the #MeToo movement, which he says gives him a headache, while defending somewhat disgraced peers like Kevin Hart and Louis C.K., who Chappelle says was “a very good friend of mine before he died in that terrible masturbation accident.” And, as predicted, Chappelle’s riffs and rants have not been received well thus far, with The Atlantic referring to it as a “temper tantrum,” The Ringer calling it “predictable” and The Root “lazy.” (A representative for Chappelle did not respond to a request for comment.)
Chappelle is no stranger to courting controversy on the fringes of the comedic landscape. He quit his wildly popular Chappelle’s Show in 2005, which featured controversial sketches about everything from reparations to a Black White supremacist, in part because of pushback from Comedy Central about certain topics and terms like “faggot.” Chappelle thrives in the irreverent gray zones, but sometimes it feels like he’s being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian, such as when he took the stage on Saturday Night Live in the wake of Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the 2016 presidential election and issued his own shocking proclamation: “I’m wishing Donald Trump luck. And I’m going to give him a chance.”
Comedy may be about pushing boundaries, but many critics feel that Chappelle’s aggressive transgressiveness may well be tarnishing, rather than burnishing, his legacy. Amanda Kerri, an Oklahoma-based writer and comedian, argues in The Advocate, for example, that just like George Carlin in the late 20th century, Chappelle is devolving from an insightful and vulgar counterculture comedian into a darker and more mean-spirited social commentator. “Making fun of trans people is easy,” University of Texas professor Robert L. Reece similarly tweeted. “It’s not cutting edge. It’s not creative. It doesn’t push political or comedic boundaries. It’s stale, and it’s lazy.”
Gonna pull some expertise as somebody who has written and published about Dave Chappelle.
The problem with comedians like him now is that they think railing against "PC culture" puts them outside of the mainstream when it really doesn't. That's status quo behavior.
— Robert L. Reece, PhD (@PhuzzieSlippers) August 28, 2019
Others argue that Chappelle’s humor is refreshing in an era in which many comedians soft-step around political correctness. “I felt like he’s filling the long empty shoes of Richard Pryor,” says Rich Markey, author of A Million Laughs: The Funny History of American Comedy, of Chappelle’s latest offering. “He’s honest about what he believes, he’s looking at the big cultural picture and he doesn’t modulate his words to pander to the audience.”
And whether you love or hate Sticks & Stones — Chappelle’s fifth Netflix special, after earning a reported $60 million for the first three — it’s hard not to have an opinion on it. Ultimately, says Markey, Chappelle’s “saying something important and making us laugh. Only the very best comedians do that.” And while he may be saying more than anything and risking less than everything, Chappelle is undoubtedly sticking his neck out in the way that few established performers still do in a world where the wrong words seem to hurt just as much as sticks and stones.