Dave Chappelle, in his 5th and final Netflix stand-up comedy special, “Sticks & Stones” says, at around the 15 minute mark: “And if you at home watching this shit on Netflix, remember bitch, you clicked on my face!”
It’s kind of a smart line because it’s a built-in, preemptive defense of what he knew.. and I knew… and anyone who’s seen his previous four Netflix stand-up sets should’ve damn sure known would be an hour long rant chock full of risque (I was looking for a polite word) content where he would unabashedly exhibit all manner of social-phobias, undoubtedly punch down at “the alphabet people” (which refers to LGBT folk even though I’m pretty sure that moniker was already reserved for the Feds and ‘nem) and just generally put the “pro” in “problematic” all while keeping an entire theater keeling over with laughter no matter how fucked up it all got. Anyone who watched it and got mad would have to admit they did it to themselves.
On the other side of that coin, though, we have a man who is very intentionally being provocative only to turn around and complain, at length, about the shit he provokes.
There’s a funny little irony in stand-up comedians lamenting the hypersensitivity of the SJW league while, at the same time, demanding that the stage be a “safe space” for them to say whatever they want without receiving any backlash for it. (SN: I’m not sure why people consider “Social Justice Warrior” to be an insult. It actually seems like some cool shit to be. Like they meet in a handi-accessible Batcave or some shit.)
To be clear, it is my opinion (which you’ll have to take for what it’s worth coming from a cisgender, heterosexual male) that Chappelle doesn’t actually harbor any contempt for trans people (or queer people in general); he just resents not being able to tell the same kind of fucked up jokes about them that he tells about everyone else. After all, in none of his five standup specials does he ever argue that homosexuality is wrong or that gender fluidity is bullshit. In fact, in his third special “Equanimity” (my personal favorite) while discussing the beacon of white nonsense, Rachel Dolezal, he makes it clear there is an undeniable difference between being “trans racial” and being transgender (he expounds on that idea in a characteristically crude way, but still). He’s given us plenty of human moments within these sets, where he expresses his empathy towards their plights and advocates for their right to equality and dignity; he just ain’t gon’ stop cracking jokes about the shit. He’s essentially lashing out after being told “no” (a behavior normally reserved for teenagers and… well… white people.)
He’s a student of Eddie Murphy’s “Delirious” and other comedians like Richard Prior, Rudy Ray Moore, Andrew Dice Clay, Joan Rivers and others who proved that, at least in their time, nothing was really off limits.
Early in his “Sticks & Stones” set, Chappelle does two impersonations that aren’t really impersonations (anyone who’s seen “Chappelle’s Show” and knows how Rick James, Prince and P Diddy actually sound knows that Dave don’t actually practice serious impersonations). For his first, he quoted the Founding Fathers while drafting the Constitution by saying, “Hurry up, nigger, and finish that Constitution, I’m trying to get some sleep!” I’m not going to lie, that one damn near made me spit vodka and cranberry juice all over my coffee table. But for his second impression, he makes the audience guess at who he’s doing: “Uhh duh… if you do anything wrong in your life.. durr.. and I find out about it, I’m going to try to take everything away from you! And I don’t care what I find out. Could be today, tomorrow, 20 years from now; if I find out about it, you’re fucking-derr-finished!” Then after the audience tries to guess who he was mocking (they thought it was Trump which was kinda hilarious) he says, “That’s YOU! That’s what the audience sounds like to me!” He goes on to say “You niggas are the worst motherfuckers I’ve ever tried to entertain in my fucking life!”
But here’s the thing: is any of that actually true?
Has Dave Chappelle actually ever suffered any real consequences for offending progressive America? After his first Netflix standup “The Age Of Spin” – arguably his most offensive set of the five and certainly the one that started all of the queer community push back against him – was he “canceled” figuratively or literally? Was he not still allowed to continue the series? Did he lose fans? Is he not still selling out theaters that seat in excess of 100 thousand people? In “Sticks & Stones” he begins his bit about Michael Jackson and how he doesn’t believe his accusers by saying, “I’m about to say something I’m not allowed to say…” But weren’t you allowed? My nigga, didn’t you just say it? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that not only was he allowed to say it, but he’s been paid eight figures to so? Shit, I wish I could get into Chappelle trouble after saying the wrong thing at my job!but
It seems to me that what he really wants (or is pretending to want) is the right to be as offensive as he desires to be without ever having to hear about how his detractors feel about it; and that just ain’t how it works.
There’s a question being asked about whether or not stand-up comedy, as a medium and as an art form, should be given a pass on its problematic-ness. This would be a fair question if it weren’t for people’s impractical and unrealistic expectations for it to come tethered to a one-size-fits-all answer.
I personally do give comedians the necessary leeway to speak their truths even if it means spouting ignorance and being fundamentally wrong. Like many artistic forms of expression, I don’t believe stand-up comedy needs to be about being right. These people aren’t sociologists crafting scholarly essays – subject to peer review – to be punished in collegiate journals; they’re just people with opinions who happen to be good at putting their shit in joke form. At the same time, though, stand-up is an art form and all art is subject to the interpretation and criticism of those it’s put on display for. No type of artist is exempt from that. Comedians don’t have any inherent right or expectation that their humor be received the way they intend for it to be. You don’t get to dictate that your audience laughs.
A big part of the reason Dave Chappelle quit “Chappelle’s Show”, leaving a 50 million dollar deal on the table, was because white people were laughing a little too hard at his display of blackness and because they were engaging in that laughter (and this included white show runners wanting to dictate the future direction of the show and that blackness) without the nuanced understanding of what blackness is, its struggle or what all it encompasses.
So its hard for me to believe that Dave and his fan base (which I’m certainly included in) don’t understand why some members of the queer community are not here for these kinds of jokes made by someone who is not of said community. I think you’d have to be pretty disingenuous to pretend not to understand why the Michael Jackson and R Kelly jokes as well as the “he rapes and he saves” bit from “The Age Of Spin” aren’t as funny to victims of sexual assault as they may be for others.
I’m not even saying you can’t laugh, I’m saying to write people off as simply unable to take a joke is to be clearly dismissive.
Don’t get me wrong y’all, Dave Chappelle is still hilarious! He’s still, in my opinion, one of the bests to ever do it. And his Netflix specials have been, at least some what a return to form. The man can still craft jokes and write a set beautifully. I personally think he’s had a tendency to sacrifice cleverness for shock value a little too often in his recent work, but his bits on guns and school shootings, the opioid vs crack epidemics, white entitlement, living in poverty and, of course, Jussie “Smooyay” (Smollett) are absolutely reminiscent of his work in his classic special “Killin’ Them Softly” from nearly 20 years ago.
All I’m saying is, neither he nor any other comedian are beyond reproach. And they don’t need your protection. And “brittle spirits” aside, Dave can’t rightfully go out of his way to start shit, then pretend he doesn’t understand why shit keeps getting started. He’d have to admit, he does it to himself.
Dave Chappelle can be funny and wrong – talented and trash at the same time. And, conversely, people can be overly sensitive as fuck, and still be right.