by Valerie Morales
The observational comedy of Dave Chappelle has created disgust, while at the same time- and this is the Chappelle narrative- he is being praised and feted as a genius. In both there is power. The affection and adoration on one hand, and the animus on the other. The intra-outer balance shapes his relationship with his audience. He can make you feel a certain kind of way and then seconds later he pivots, presenting an astute observation that redeems his earlier contempt. Stylistically, his introverted intellectualism establishes him as an outlier but familiar, the clay we made that in return entertains us.
Chappelle ticks some white people off. They buy into the Chappelle fantasy that there exists in the world a non-threatening black man who is a lot like their middle-class oeuvre, someone they can have dinner and a beer with until he uses them as an explainable prop.
His latest Netflix special Sticks and Stones follows the Chappelle script of both wisdom and absurdity, lecture and poignance, insight, and risk-taking. The title feels passively aggressive as if to say to his critics you aren’t going to bother me. But that’s the irony of people who say I don’t care what you think. They really do. Those that have issues with Chappelle (and it’s a long list) bother him immensely. Otherwise, he would not waste his time writing jokes to even the score.
Chappelle’s talent at making his inner thoughts commodities is heady. A lot of what he says slips into the forbidden crevices, what you have been warned not to speak about because the consequences will damn you. Chappelle has no such worries and he admits to something that ordinary people won’t: he blames the victim. When something goes awry his first instinct is to blame the person who is suffering the wound. Like many comics, vulnerable people are pawns. The way Chapelle sees himself, victim-blaming isn’t a professional talent but rather a personality trait. I’m not quite sure I believe him, but if you take his words at face value, his outing himself as empathy-less gives him cover for the next 45 minutes in Sticks and Stones.
Chappelle is often called the greatest comic of his generation. When he walked away from $50 million, he instantly became a different kind of famous person, one who lacks a capitalistic anchor, a grand eccentric. But if you keep it all in context, Chappelle isn’t a social critic the way Richard Pryor was. He’s not politically searing like Chris Rock, nor is he a Bill Cosby crossover, or racially taunting like Dick Gregory.
Chappelle is the son of two professors and not of the hood. He is thought-provoking and pushes the envelope like a quasi-academic in a lecture of freshman students who spent the night partying. He brain-fucks just because. Waiting for the audience to get the punch line he is nervous in his skin and he often shifts his entire body inch by inch as he laughs at his own thoughts and it feels as if it is out of relief. He is middle class.
Because he is such a unique talent and is difficult to define, the audience is off-balance, laughing before there is even a joke. Sticks and Stones open with him talking about the suicide of Anthony Bourdain and the audience laughs as if they think he just said something funny about a man so wretchedly troubled he killed himself. He continues with the story speaking about a childhood friend, a brilliant mathematical mind working at Foot Locker. The punchline was “it never occurred to that n— -er to kill himself. I even suggested he try it out.” Suicide as transactional, in Chappelle’s mind, is a comedic concept. It bugs him that certain people reflect on what he just said, or more important, what was just normalized, and cry foul.
Like many black men I know, Chappelle resents being held accountable for what he organizes in his brain and spits out his mouth. He is an artist. He is being paid to express insight with a comedic twist. He gets the benefit of the doubt most often but that kind of privilege only goes so far. His complaining about celebrity feels divorced from these awful Trumpian times when so much worse is happening, and to so many. It’s as if Chappelle lives in rural Ohio purposefully. To escape what the rest of us are forced to absorb.
There are a lot of funny bits in Sticks and Stones and a lot of sociological messiness. The Alphabet People riff is his take on LGBTQ as he describes them in a car, each letter with its own habits, jealousies, and agenda. The elite white gays who are driving the car needle the lesbians. The bisexuals are the object of scorn. The transgenders and their pronouns are overtly annoying. Many people hate this bit but for the people who don’t, I understand 100 percent. We are a collection of groups that slide up against each other in competition and thirst and don’t really trust. He’s making fun of the hypocrisy and the eccentricities. But why we laugh is something altogether different.
I think it has something to do with the fact that trans are an invisible minority who don’t have champions in Americanized spaces. On the American scale, they rank lower than black women. Their isolation makes them raw meat for Chappelle, who needles them with a clever bit about if he was Chinese on the inside but on the outside had black skin. The audience responds the way he wants as if to agree that being trans is absurd too. You have to remind yourself Chapelle is being paid to write jokes about people on the margins.
Because his comedic brain lusts after polarizing subjects to eviscerate, school shooting drills were on the Sticks and Stones agenda. Chappelle repeated an interchange with his son: forget the drill. During a shooting, do not help anyone. The good ones get killed. Remember, Chappelle despises victims.
But then in a powerful moment, he observes that the drills have an unintended consequence. Would-be school shooters participate too. It gives them continuing education into planning and preparation. In his vexation, Chappelle accidentally reshapes the silhouette of a school shooter, not as a depressed loner, but as a smart and tactical adolescent who is given advantages from the training school districts employ.
Because he’s likable Chappelle gets away with things other comics like Katt Williams can’t. He defends accused abusers that are his friends, he conflates sexual attraction with statutory rape, he dismisses #MeToo. Michael Jackson should be excused, R. Kelly is a villain, and accusers are often liars. But when he looks in the camera and says seemingly to women like me, mansplaining “I told you”, he is that man my mother warned me about, patriarchally arrogant and needing to be right.
The Chappelle joke about abortion and #MeToo is just plain wrong. He shapes one as a newborn of the other to discredit women voicing their trauma. The fact is southern men have been trying to oppress fertile women for two hundred years. He gets zero points for being on the side of women and abortion. It’s just a bone he tosses to keep his set moving along. It’s my problem with Chapelle. Because of his intellect and age, there is this hope that he is a different kind of man. But he isn’t. He puts women in the same boxes as a lot of other men.
Like fire shatters glass, Sticks and Stones spews damage. Jussie Smollett is a Chappelle victim and low hanging fruit, and it’s not particularly funny. Jussie is just another gay man for Chappelle to pick on. But when Chappelle tattles on an executive who once chastised Chappelle for using the word “faggot” because it didn’t apply, Chappelle replied to the exec he’s not a “nigger” either (a word the executive used repeatedly). It’s Chappelle the multi-lingual interpreter making a searing point about prohibited language.
Dave Chappelle says he loves everyone. It’s hard to know what Chapelle really loves. He reminds me of someone I went to school with a long time ago who was smart and knew it. He wasn’t really arrogant but a vainglorious pride kept him at a distance from everyone else. Chapelle is so intoxicating that it’s hard to say no, to not watch and listen, or berate and applaud. He is on your side and we laugh. Then, in a brutal denouement, he is only on the side of the joke.