Watch out, snowflakes! There’s a new anti-cancel culture rebel in town and he’s here to shake things up. Our newest hero fighting against the unrelenting tyranny of ‘wokeness’ is none other than noted comedian Dave Chappelle, leading the charge on behalf of suppressed celebrity voices everywhere, on his newest one-hour stand-up special, airing on an obscure streaming platform called Netflix. And if you haven’t heard by now, Chappelle’s Sticks & Stones is “Edgy” with a capital E, “controversial,” and “boundary-pushing.” Where one brave man is reclaiming the battle-scarred territory of comedy that had been ceded to hawkish online social justice warriors, one forbidden joke at a time. Or at least that’s what Chappelle and his newest enthusiastic Neocon proponents need people to believe, to inspire social media engagement and to participate in their favorite pastime of persecution cosplay.
“Dave Chappelle Might Have Just Saved America,” gushed the far-right site Breitbart. “Dave Chappelle’s Stand Up Is Hilarious (and subversively pro-life)” exclaimed right-wing site The Federalist, while other fans on social media lashed out at sensitive SJWs for having the audacity to be offended by jokes that Dave seems to have gone out of his way to make offensive. Chappelle’s reception included praise from even more strange, white nationalist bedfellows, ranging from Ben Shapiro to unemployed former NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch. One can argue that indicting someone as being guilty by association is unfair, but what’s more important is not who is identifying with Dave’s stand-up but why? The answer to that is clear — Chapelle and all the fans, pundits and fellow entertainers who defend and relate to his sentiments are joined together in a kinship of imagined victimhood, one that essentially depends on a divorce from reality to function.
It’s challenging to accept Dave Chappelle as some intrepid rebel, using comedy as his weapon of choice to combat the absurdity of the status quo. Especially after he appeared on SNL and sheepishly asked Donald Trump to give Black people a “chance” with all the fiery gumption of a high school freshman asking the most popular girl in school to be his date to the Sadie Hawkins dance. This disconnect between the real world and perception is a common theme throughout Chappelle’s stand up and it’s a disconnect you have to ignore if you want to be able to find his social commentary biting, witty, or funny.
“It’s hunting season for celebrities!” “You can’t upset the alphabet people!” “I hope I don’t get canceled!” Chappelle remarks with no threat of irony or self awareness, while standing in a full house filming the second installment of his multimillion-dollar stand up special, where he both A) has already upset “the alphabet people” and made doing so a cornerstone of his brand and B) hasn’t really gotten the vitriolic blowback or anti-Chapelle demonstrations to make this schtick believable. While there have been critiques and condemnation of his jokes written in a few reviews, and in many conversations on social media, to date – the most demonstrative incident of outrage was when a white audience member threw a banana peel at him during one of his sets and subsequently sued him for assault.
The routine of contrived provocateur continues as Dave often dramatically pauses after telling “edgy” jokes and coyishly smirks and runs away from center stage, so as to signal “Imma get in trouble for this one,” prompting the audience to graciously respond with half-hearted gasps and “uh-oh” chuckles. He peppers all 60 or so underwhelming minutes of the special with defiant use of the f-word like a toddler who just learned a new expletive and often has to introduce the audience to his own recent brushes with online “backlash” to set up jokes, because even in an alleged age of outrage, none of these instances really garnered much attention. His most shock-jockish punchlines–the ones about victim-blaming rape and abuse victims or how children were lucky to have been allegedly sexually abused by Michael Jackson–while competently offensive, seem like retreads anyone can view by simply scrolling on their social media feeds, lurking on 8chan or playing an online round of Call Of Duty.
He spends an inordinate amount of time discussing and cracking jokes on the LGBTQ community, displaying an understanding of the queer community that had to have come from binge-watching several seasons of Will & Grace. Often describing an alternate universe where trans women are begrudgingly respected, unwitting prima donnas in both the LGTBQ community and the world at large–a universe that only works when all the “alphabet people” are white and/or rich.
That’s not to say that the rest of the hour isn’t filled with other mediocre material. There’s a bizarre linking of #MeToo to anti-abortion laws, where Dave scolds women for their harsh tones in calling out sexual abuse that apparently resulted in an attack on reproductive rights.“I told y’all this would happen,” he chides. He then goes on to defend his friend, Louis C.K., who recently returned to stand up after his own controversial #MeToo reckoning, but is still tasked with the burden of criticism and objections from people who find his return disturbing.
Then there’s a forgettable bit on mass school shootings, and portions regarding the opioid epidemic where the jokes arguably land better –largely because Dave is discussing his life as a rich Black man in rural Ohio who came from humble beginnings and is adapting to the sight of a white community plagued with addiction. This is a world that he actually occupies much more convincingly than his pining for the title of snowflakes’ ‘Public Enemy #1.’
The issue with the brand of edgelord comedy Chappelle seems to believe to be forbidden frontier is that so much of it is predisposed to the idea that the most vulnerable members of society are now it’s most sacred cows. A perception born out of resentment of the influential members of these communities have in online spaces, where they have fewer barriers to access and more room to launch fervent defenses, grievances and protections. Sure, social attitudes are gradually and nominally changing, however generally, queer and trans people are routinely discriminated against, assaulted or violently murdered, and what little legal protections afforded to them are tenuous and often under siege by the current administration.
Abuse victims are often ignored or undergo extreme scrutiny and celebrities like him who face occasional backlash are often given multiple chances to get back into the public’s good graces, maintain their social status and enjoy a faithful following of zealous fans who defend their every action. That’s not to say there is no room for humor or exploration of taboo in current times, but Dave’s execution is beleaguered and uninspired and falls short of any claims to be searing observations of the world around us. Chappelle and his cohorts–and their exhaustion with an “increasingly sensitive” world, with all these new letters and identities and groups to offend — ultimately share a status quo opinion. They aren’t the counter-culture he and they desperately want to be, they are the culture. And the people who echo these sentiments usually enjoy high positions of influence.
In what is probably the most-telling moment of the special, Dave begins a joke about abortions with “Look, I’m not for abortion…….. or against it.” That grey area of cowardice, where he purses the titillation of provocateur but stops just shy of embracing any discernible conviction, is emblematic of the failures in Chapelle’s special and newfound branding.
Even after a second special where he spends the majority of the time lambasting a stifling PC climate, he can also be found as recently as last year claiming to understand the need for cultural sensitivity in comedy. What we see in Chapelle, then, is not an embattled comedian at the top of his game, drawing a bold line in the sand, but instead an ornery, middle-aged millionaire who lives in Ohio, contemptuous and unsure of the now, with a dispassionate, passing interest in current events.
Stumbling through what was once an intuitive stomping ground and attempting to find footing in unfamiliar territory, Chappelle finds himself in this new, irrational millennial world where people get offended at jokes that were…meant to be offensive. In Sticks & Stones, Chappelle has solidified his place as a lauded and wildly successful comedian who made the choice to pursue being ‘canceled,’ when being funny became too elusive.