How the Dave Chappelle Sticks and Stones Special Kills the Critics
Before the Chappelle Show skyrocketed him to the top tier of comedians, and just after the cult classic Half Baked made everybody yearn for a friend like Abba-Zaba, Dave Chappelle was Killin’ Them Softly. The uproariously funny set featured completely inappropriate jokes: an imitation of Sesame Street’s The Count as a pimp, somehow making a room of women who had no sympathy for Monica Lewinsky change their minds in two minutes, and the hardest working toddler of all-time. Every single one of those jokes is over the line. But they are all jokes. In 2000 they were hilarious. 19 years later, apparently Chappelle is no longer funny. If you were to read the plethora of reviews on Dave Chappelle: Sticks and Stones, you would think Chappelle lost his fastball. But no. Dave Chappelle is still funny. Still unimaginably funny. It is the masses who have lost their sense of humor.
This is something I care about deeply. That our complete and utter lack of humor today is adulterating how we look at past comedies and will alter how we view modern comedy. For those that think this may be an overreaction, look no further than The Ringer’s Alison Herman’s pathetic review of Dave Chappelle: Sticks and Stones. Normally I would not go so far as to call a review pathetic. A review is by nature subjective; you can disagree with it, but the whole point is someone is proferring their opinion. Opinions can almost never be wrong (unless they begin with “this is why Tom Brady is not the GOAT”). This review is both pathetic and wrong.
Take the very first paragraph:
Anybody who watched the special knows the jokes and the set were anything from predictable. Unless you call suspense and expected unpredictability predictable. Chappelle’s cadence and punchlines were perfectly on point and his true genius–still on display in Sticks & Stones–is in his ability to prep the audience for a joke; letting them think they know where the joke is going, and taking it in a completely unpredictable direction. Those aforementioned jokes about Kevin Hart, #MeToo, and especially Michael Jackson, were hilarious and, yes, unpredictable.
Where Critics of “Sticks & Stones” Miss the Point… and the Point of Comedy
Even if you were to say the general theme of a comedian like Chappelle taking aim at Cancel Culture is predictable, the jokes themselves were not. But beyond that, what many of these reviewers–remember, reviewers of comedy–like Alison Herman miss, is only the entire point of comedy. “Like most of Chappelle’s recent output, Sticks and Stones is designed to generate inflammatory coverage, which will in turn generate a chance for Chappelle to dismiss said coverage as reductive, opportunistic, and generally out to get him.”
Ummmm no. Swing and miss. Go sit down and think about what you just wrote.
The Sticks and Stones comedy special is designed to–stick with me here–make people laugh. Comedy… is designed to make people laugh. Jokes and comedians construct their sets and design their jokes… to make people laugh. This is not a terribly complicated system to wrap your head around. Comedians want to elicit laughter. They do so by creating jokes, and skits, and movies. That is the entire point of comedy.
But we live in a day and age where we expect more from comedy and jokes. Because everything is stupid. And not stupid funny like The Three Stooges and Chris Farley, but stupid stupid like a comedy reviewer not realizing the point of a standup special is to get people laughing. The end result is something intrinsically stupid; someone watching a comedy special with the explicitly written desire that Chappelle understands and make people feet better about societal issues like trans people and the #MeToo movement. But he is a comedian. If he brings up a societal issue, it is not to make you feel better about the issue, but to laugh at it. And to do so in a way that hopefully makes you laugh.
No topic is out of bounds. The best comedians push the limits, and make you uncomfortable. The great ones then take that uncomfortable sensation and get you to laugh at your unease. I don’t want to laugh at a dig against Michael Jackson accusers. Whoops. A joke about abortion, which I think is a sin? I don’t want to hear it… and I really don’t want to laugh about it… and yet, because I know I’m watching a comedy special, I cannot help myself. I cannot help myself because the joke was funny. Chappelle is a comedic genius who is making jokes for people that want to laugh, who want to enjoy life, and who want to experience the sensation of doing something a little wrong. A little edgy.
Comedy finds the edges and angles of our world and shines a light on them. It makes us realize how absurd some things are and how absurd some of us are. We laugh at others and we laugh at ourselves. Or at least we used to laugh at others and could laugh at ourselves. Chappelle was the funniest thing on television from 2000-2006. Did he stop being funny? Of course not. 13 years later he is still as funny as he was when the Chappelle show went off the air. But we are no longer funny.
Actually, that is not true at all. The world of 2019 is hilarious. Sadly hilarious. Chappelle knows it. And Chappelle proves it by poking fun at our utterly sensitive 2019 selves. It is why he titled the special Dave Chappelle: Sticks and Stones. His comedy special cannot hurt you; he is not using sticks and stones, he is using words. As the old playground ditty goes, “Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” In 2019 people think words hurt. If you’re one of those people that believe that, that’s kinda funny, cause you are the joke.