Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix special, Sticks and Stones just dropped on Netflix and it’s provocative as a motherfucker. The hour is overshadowing almost everything else in comedy this week (except this), so if you want to be in the conversation, this is required watching. Before you read one word further, watch the special. There are spoilers ahead. Lots of them. And this debate won’t be any fun if you don’t form your own opinions before you read everyone else’s.
Before we get to the reaction, here’s what has social media and the media, buzzing, humming and rattling. Right from the top of the hour to its last second, Dave hits hard covering a big slice of the most controversial topics making the rounds in 2019. And he’s not on the safe side of any of them. For starters, he’s had enough of America looking through a microscope at the lives of celebrities and calling them out for any sign of incorrect behavior. He’s comfortable copping to being a victim blamer and he isn’t believing those Michael Jackson accusers. He takes shots at Anthony Bourdain’s suicide. He can’t stop writing jokes about the “T”‘s and he’s got a few about the L’s the G’s and the B’s too. The F word flies freely. There’s plenty of N words. He’s pretty unhappy about the attacks on Kevin Hart’s good name. He’s okay with dusting off that Chinese impression that most people stopping doing years ago. He’s got a “me too” headache. And as for Louis C.K., well, he’s loudly and proudly saying that America got it wrong.
There are progressive thoughts here too. Chappelle favors legalized abortion and women being the ones in charge of the decision, although there’s a footnote that will keep you from feeling too proud of it. And he talks about school shooters, with a pretty clever take on how to solve the gun problem.
The reactions to Sticks and Stones are fast, fierce and already polarized, and no doubt, Chappelle expected as much. It’s a fascinating look, because Chappelle’s position as the lead dog in stand up is almost incontrovertible on social media– as incontrovertible as the beliefs that Louis C.K. is evil, Michael Jackson is guilty, it’s wrong to make jokes about suicide, and you don’t victim blame. So what happens when the guy who can’t be criticized starts saying the things can’t be said? Does the world implode as we all imagine it would if Marty McFly runs into his past or future self in Back to the Future?
It’s a conundrum for those who don’t want to run afoul of the mob. Do you praise Chappelle or condemn him?
If you go by early reactions, Chappelle’s position at the head of Mount Comedy seems secure. But it isn’t all positive. Vice.com writer Taylor Hosking took Dave to task, proclaiming the king’s reign is dead, and advising readers to skip watching Sticks & Stones. He calls the hour a “slog” to get through, complains about the comedians’s anti-wokeness, and calls the hour repetitive and exhausting. Vulture writer Kathryn VanArendonk also takes a critical eye, although her review wasn’t exactly about his Netflix special. She reviewed Chappelle on Broadway, but since the material was largely the same, Vulture re-ran her review to coincide with the Netflix release. She accuses Chappelle of relying too heavily on shock value and calls that reliance ineffective. The Ringer calls Dave’s fifth hour special predictable.
Most outlets that reported on Monday night held back from attacking or praising the special, either because they aren’t sure how they feel about it yet or just don’t want to risk blowback. They referred to the controversies and called them controversial but stopped short of adulation or condemnation. And some of the other publications that champion progressive thinking and slam male bias have yet to comment, so we’ll have to wait and see.
Social media, so far, is overwhelmingly positive. Yes there are some comments on anti-wokeness, tone-deafness, and punching down. One tweeter who called the hour “awful” another cringy, and yet another “disappointing.”
But the attacks on twitter are overwhelmed by the praise. There’s a tidal wave of tweets thrilled and relieved that there’s someone with power willing to cross the lines that get others crucified. They see Chappelle as a hero who is finally calling out America for being too sensitive. For example, Comedian Avery Edison wrote “Thank God we have comedians like Dave Chappelle who aren’t afraid to speak the truth and come up with original takes on issues, like, uh [checks notes] “what if transgender but with another race???” Norm Macdonald wrote that in a world where most comedians are overpaid, Dave Chappelle might be the most underpaid comedian out there. Author Oliver Campbell called Chappelle the heir to “George Carlin’s job of telling people when they’re doing dumb shit on the societal level.” “God bless Dave Chappelle!” says Ali Alexander. Matt Rife calls the hour “brilliant.” Sam Roberts of SiriusXM’s Jim and Sam Show says “His new special is incredible. I’m in a room, next to my dog, laughing out loud for an hour. I’m going to wake the children, but this is worth it.”
He’s called a national treasure, and the greatest living comedian, absolutely brilliant, hilarious, must watch, at his best, the GOAT, raw, 100, outta pocket, greatest ever, dope, real ass, on point, wild, refreshing, insanely accurate, love love love, a legend who never disappoints, master craftsman, untouchable, valuable, fearless, top notch …you get the idea.
Of course both sides can be, and probably are, correct. Comedy is often about finding a deeper truth, but it isn’t always “true.” So you don’t have to believe everything Dave has to say in order to find some of that precious truth.
In Sticks & Stones, Chappelle is smart and fearless, and really funny. He’s right. He’s wrong. He’s incredibly provocative. Some things you can accuse him of: arrogance, punching down, failing to understand pain that others suffer or even try, set in his ways, privileged, un-woke. You can also accuse him of being too rant-y, too preachy, and even too sensitive, particularly for someone complaining about sensitivity. After decades of celebrities being exempt from so many rules, it’s a little difficult to relate to #famouspeopleproblems like “stop targeting celebrities for our opinions.” And it seems like the power of stand up comedy as a weapon for change could be used in better places than “leave us rich and famous people alone.”
But you can’t accuse him of being tone deaf, because that implies he isn’t aware of what he’s doing. He’s not only aware, he’s using his un-pc opinions to great effect. In Sticks & Stones, Chappelle is so contrarian, it seems as if he sat down and made a list of the most controversial opinions on the most controversial topics and said okay, I’ll take these sides just to prove that nobody will get hurt, thus the title, Stick & Stones. That’s not tone-deaf that’s tone defiant. Sticks & Stones takes on the entire idea that certain opinions are un-discussable- that certain thoughts are unspeakable- and throws it out the window. “Here’s everything you can’t say,” Chappelle seems to shout, “and I’m saying it.” And the point of Sticks & Stones seems to be that nobody will get hurt, or at least none of the words will break your bones.
If you believe that airing of opinions is a positive thing, an important thing, even an essential thing…and if you believe that the right to have opinions is pretty sacred, then Sticks & Stones is a revelation. Because whether it was his intention or not, Chappelle’s new hour reminds us that there’s no such thing as an incontrovertible opinion. And even if there is, it’s not so terrible if someone says it out loud. Feelings could get hurt, but, he suggests, maybe that’s a harm we can survive.
Sticks & Stones is going to start countless conversations about issues that belong being discussed and renew the idea that there’s still disagreement over what it all means. And perhaps the hour can re-invigorate the question of whether we, as a culture, are too damn sensitive and paying a price for that sensitivity, just as Hannah Gadsby alerted the culture to our failings in not being sensitive enough and the consequences of insensitivity.
And there’s real truth in both perspectives.
Watch Dave Chappelle’s fifth hour special, Sticks & Stones exclusively on Netflix, (and stick around when its over to get access to that secret Q&A track).