Dave Chappelle's Netflix special 'Sticks and Stones' is as perceptive as ever. Here's why it's controversial.

There is tremendous value to intellectual discomfort, particularly intellectual discomfort as hilarious as “Sticks and Stones.”
Image: Dave Chappelle
Dave Chappelle performs in his Netflix special "Stick & Stones."Netflix
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By Steve Krakauer

Toward the end of Dave Chappelle’s controversial new Netflix comedy special “Sticks and Stones,” there’s an eight-minute section about guns. Specifically, Chappelle is riffing on a 12-gauge shotgun the comedian was planning to buy as his first firearm purchase after he moved to rural Ohio and saw a trespasser on his property. The salesman asked if he wanted “birdshot” or “buckshot.” The birdshot, he was explained, would hurt but wasn’t lethal, while the buckshot would “put a hole in the g----- truck if you want it to.”

It’s a good metaphor for Chappelle’s brand of comedy. Chappelle, from his celebrated, short-lived Comedy Central show to his recent run of comedy specials, is a birdshot sniper. He doesn’t go for the kill — he doesn’t need to. He’s a genius who leaves you just uncomfortable enough, laughing while you squirm. The problem now with Dave Chappelle is he’s a birdshot sniper in a buckshot society.

He’s a genius who leaves you just uncomfortable enough, laughing while you squirm. The problem now with Dave Chappelle is he’s a birdshot sniper in a buckshot society.

For many, spurred by a largely context-free Twitter culture, you’re either in or out. You’re either fighting President Donald Trump or you’re a MAGA apologist. You’re either totally pro-choice, or you’re stifling a woman’s right to make her own decision. You either believe all women, or you’re anti-#MeToo. And that black and white world is not one in which Dave Chappelle has ever operated — particularly now.

“Chappelle’s Show” was an iconic cultural milestone, recognized for its brave and perceptive commentary. This latest special has not been received so kindly. The Atlantic calls it a “temper tantrum.” The Root says it’s “lazy.” The Ringer says it’s “predictable.” Vice urges its readers to skip it altogether. This echoes the sentiment of a New York Times column from last month, critiquing a similar Chapelle comedy set, which declares his jokes are “getting old.” But did Chappelle change, or did we?

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Let’s dig into “Sticks and Stones.” As is often the case with Chappelle, the special deals heavily with celebrity-tinged current events. It kicks off with an anecdote about Anthony Bourdain’s suicide and closes with a riff on the Jussie Smollett “hate crime.”

Chappelle is best when he plays in the gray area. He delves into the Louis C.K. details, without assigning blame or taking sides. On abortion, he declares himself conflicted, equating the woman’s right to choose with a man’s right to choose not to support the baby after it’s born. "And if I’m wrong, then perhaps we’re wrong,” he says, as the birdshot sears into the skin.

Early in the special, he does an “imitation” for the audience, replete with ignorant-sounding stutters. “That’s you,” he tells his fans. “That’s what the audience sounds like to me.”

Chappelle thrives in this comedic uneasiness. It began with “Chappelle’s Show,” but extended beyond it. “Saturday Night Live” may no longer be the funniest thing on TV, but it remains a tremendously relevant cultural artifact; Chappelle’s monologue in 2016 is particularly memorable. After Donald Trump’s shocking victory, Chappelle stepped on the Studio 8H stage at 30 Rock and tried to put things into perspective. Noting how he was “proud to be an American,” after the last president, he said, “I’m wishing Donald Trump luck. And I’m going to give him a chance.”

“Chappelle’s Show” was on TV in a pre-Twitter era, from 2003-2005. It feels like an eternity ago. There were memorable sketches featuring Rick James (“cocaine’s a hell of a drug”) and a “Black White supremacist.” But how would the "reparations” sketch have gone over in today’s standards? (That sketch made the idea of reparations laughable, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates in a recent interview.)

To his critics, Chappelle is fully aware of perception and reality. One of the major reasons he quit his Comedy Central show was his frustration with the way sketches were being received, even positively. Which brings in the question of who gets to joke about certain things, and even who gets to laugh at certain jokes. Chappelle addresses this in the special. He describes a meeting he had with an executive at Comedy Central, who explained why it was ok to keep slurs about black people but not about gay people. As he told it, she said "'because, David you are not gay.' I said, 'well Renee, I’m not a n----r either.'”

So much of our culture now tells us that which makes us uncomfortable is bad. Good discomfort is in short supply.

This is ultimately what much of Chappelle’s comedy explores — how and when comedians are “allowed” to make certain jokes. So when he sets his comedic sights on “the alphabet people” (his term for the LGBT community), or the #MeToo movement, it’s a strategic step over the line. Sometimes these jokes seem almost separate from his comedic success or failure. (And not all of his jokes are funny.)

So much of our culture now tells us that which makes us uncomfortable is bad. Good discomfort is in short supply. But there is tremendous value to intellectual discomfort, particularly intellectual discomfort as hilarious as “Sticks and Stones.”

American culture changed, so Dave changed too, adapting to poke at our soft spots. And now, in 2019, it’s “Celebrity Hunting Season,” as he dubbed it, with so many elements looking for a single mistake in order to ruin and cancel. With “Sticks and Stones,” Chappelle takes his 12-gauge shotgun and is fighting back.

No killshot though. Just the birdshot, singeing the skin, leaving us laughing with discomfort, as only he can.