Dave Chappelle's Sticks & Stones review: Controversial, insightful stand-up special offends and questions ‘cancel culture’

Pradeep Menon

Sep 04, 2019 09:00:43 IST

Language: English

In comedy, how far is too far? Does a comedian have an absolute right to offend? These are questions that comedians and audiences have grappled with for as long as one can remember, and they repeatedly raise their heads in Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix special Sticks & Stones.

Let us make one thing clear: Dave Chappelle offends. It is what he has been doing his entire career. At this opportune moment in time, when outrage-and-cancel culture is at its peak, Chappelle goes on the offensive, quite literally. So when he brings up Michael Jackson, he does not just express doubts about what now seems to be accepted as truth after HBO’s four-hour documentary, but he takes it many steps further.

 Dave Chappelles Sticks & Stones review: Controversial, insightful stand-up special offends and questions ‘cancel culture’

David Chappelle in a still from Sticks & Stones

Let us just say that there are pedophilia jokes involved, ones that might induce widened eyes and slack jaws. This includes one where he even takes a popular former child actor’s name, and goes on to slam an outrageous abuse-related punchline on him. This happens quite early on in the special. So really, this is the point at which you must stop streaming it, if you chanced upon it by mistake, and his jokes leave a bad taste in your mouth. He calls himself out as a victim blamer before he cracks jokes that blame victims for the sake of comedy, so we know he at least has some grasp of the issue that he is talking about. Yet, that does not make those jokes any easier to stomach.

In fact, I nearly stopped right there myself, because jokes about child abuse are where I draw the line. If I persisted, it is because I know that Chappelle tends to talk about multiple issues in one special, and that at least some of the time, he brings great insight delivered with a truly funny punchline. This particular special does eventually have a number of those as well, though his primary motto this time round seems to be, “Go on, I dare you to cancel me.”

He has an entire segment that pretty much comprises apologia for some notable names in comedy, who are or have been ‘cancelled’. Thus, Louis CK ‘died in a masturbation accident’, and Kevin Hart is ‘just four tweets shy of being perfect’. Now these are valid questions for a *comedian* to raise, for even the justice system in a democracy attempts to rehabilitate criminals, so why should that same courtesy not be given to members of his field — non-criminals — who once said or did something awful?

There is a spectrum there that Chappelle ignores though. In Kevin Hart’s case, decade-old homophobic tweets should perhaps not have cost him the chance to realise what Chappelle tells us was his lifelong dream - hosting the Oscars. On the other hand, Louis CK being called out for sexual misconduct, where he allegedly used a skewed power dynamic for his own sexual gratification, perhaps that episode is *not* a case of the outrage cycle used in an undue manner to bring someone down.

Powerful men who are repeat sexual offenders will perhaps only ever learn if a few of them are made an example of. After all, if you did not want your career ruined, you should not have been a serial sexual harasser. But should Chappelle, in his capacity as a comedian, have or not have the right to say that another comedian who lost out on a number of lucrative professional engagements should at least be allowed to attempt a comeback? Now that is an area as grey as it gets. Should he be allowed to use the phrase ‘MeToo headache’? Ooh...

David Chappelle in a promotional still of Sticks & Stones

David Chappelle in a promotional still of Sticks & Stones

And it gets greyer when Chappelle speaks about queer issues. In one extended bit about ‘the alphabet people’ — as he refers to the LGBTQ+ community — he talks a lot about the complex dynamic between various separate movements and communities within the definitely-not-homogenous queer community. It is a delicate issue for anyone to talk about, least of all a privileged straight man.

But then, consider this: He implies later, towards the end of his set, that he chooses to make jokes about and offend communities that he may not be a part of, because he relates to them; because growing up a poor Black kid in America, he knows a thing or two about being oppressed. So, are his jokes on queer people controversial? Indeed. Are they queer-phobic? Umm...

Obviously then, Chappelle is on firmest ground when he is talking about the issues of race, guns, opioids, and violence in the US. This is his playground, where the jokes roll out so much more organically, and where you begin to feel that this is a comedian using his craft for the right purpose. It also makes clear that like every artist or work of art has one core audience type that they/it will appeal to, his set is primarily aimed at the cis-het Black man. You know, what he is.

It follows then that not all of his jokes will land for everyone, and in the bits where he is talking out of his (or any man’s) depth, like a woman’s right to choose, or the ‘hilarious predicament’ that trans individuals are in, the jokes will not just not land, they’ll genuinely offend and upset.

It also then raises the question of who sets the moral standards for comedy? Everyone will have their own personal line they would not want humour to cross. Different things offend different people. And jokes, more often that not, come with social commentary in tow. Which means that the best way to ensure no one’s offended is to not say anything at all. Obviously, the latter option is not the one that Chappelle would choose.

Sticks & Stones thus often seems like Chappelle is walking the Grimpen Mire, without perhaps the knowledge of the marsh that Mr Stapleton had. Yet, he reminds us that for a comedian, humour is like a social contract between them and the audience — one where the receiver gets punchlines tinged with insight, in return for the comedian’s right to offend. It may be a simplistic way of looking at it, because outrage often serves an important purpose — it changes the behaviour of people, often for the better. Chappelle’s role in this, perhaps is to make even Outrage take a pause, and think for a minute.

All images from Netflix.

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Updated Date: Sep 04, 2019 12:25:04 IST