Dave Chappelle’s New Netflix Special Reminds Us that the Most Successful Comedians Are Also the Most SensitivePhoto by Mathieu Bitton, courtesy of Netflix Comedy Reviews dave chappelle
Among the long list of people Dave Chappelle doesn’t give a fuck about are the people who paid between $70 and $90 (before fees and charges) to see him live. The multimillionaire starts off his latest special on the largest streaming platform by belittling everybody who’s ever criticized any celebrity for insulting or offending people, using the audience at Atlanta’s Tabernacle as a stand-in for all of society. There’s not a joke or any kind of humor behind it—it’s just him venting about people being held accountable for their own words and actions. I guess it’s a brave way to start off a show, if you equate bravery with just acting like an asshole.
Sticks & Stones—which I assume is called that because Triggered was already taken—is less a comedy special than an hourlong exposé of Chappelle’s fragile ego. It’s one fantastically wealthy man revealing how thoroughly gotten to he is by criticism, while desperately trying to seem above it all. It’s remarkably similar to Ricky Gervais’s miserable special from last year, straight down to a “well, what if I identify as this” transphobic joke; instead of Gervais’s chimpanzee, though, Chappelle whips out an Asian stereotype worthy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, adding just that extra little jolt of racism that nobody anywhere asked for.
Somehow he’s incapable of understanding the difference between criticism and censorship. Although he’s not as confrontational or direct about it as Gervais, Chappelle still seems to believe that saying a comic’s jokes aren’t funny is somehow the same as squashing that comic’s career. This is in a special he’s being paid eight figures for and that’s getting the full promotional push of the biggest outlet in the world today. He makes an off-hand joke about Louis C.K. dying in a “masturbation accident” and acting like his friend’s career is over, despite fellow millionaire C.K. regularly getting booked in clubs within months of that scandal breaking. I don’t know how the richest and most successful comedians became the most entitled people alive, but it’s not a good look. It’s the kind of hypocrisy that you would hope a comedian like Chappelle would call out and rip apart, but instead it’s become a defining part of his brand.
Chappelle spends almost the entire hour arguing that rich and famous people shouldn’t have to face consequences for the fucked-up things they do. He dismisses and mocks Michael Jackson’s accusers, defends C.K., and even jokes that trans people need to take responsibility for Chappelle’s own transphobic jokes. An extended bit about who he calls “the alphabet people”—the LGBTQ community—packs in as many queer stereotypes as Chappelle can fit, while reserving special scorn and derision for trans people. It’s hard to see how any of this is even meant to be funny, and watching it feels like overhearing retirees and Fox News watchers complain about a world that has thoroughly passed them by.
Chappelle’s not the only major comedian who acts like comedy itself is somehow imperiled by today’s audiences. These complaints come during a time when comedy is flourishing like never before. Comics with actual bravery have redefined what can be considered stand-up, while the internet has let exciting and hilarious new comedians establish themselves through podcasts, social media, and video sites like YouTube. Comedy’s so big right now that superstars like Chappelle and Jerry Seinfeld are being paid more for stand-up specials than anybody ever could’ve imagined. And yet it’s those same comics profiting the most off the current comedy boom who hypocritically act like comedy is dying because not everybody likes their outdated material. Chappelle’s special is terrible not because audiences have changed, but because Chappelle himself is so thoroughly out of touch with today. Maybe all that money has something to do with it?
The only stuff that works here is the one section where Chappelle drops the contempt and actually talks about life outside of comedy. It comes at the very end of the special, when he discusses his own personal experiences growing up poor and his dad’s attempts to save money. It’s the only part of the hour that isn’t devoted to Chappelle’s total lack of empathy and understanding, and to get to it you have to sit through almost an hour of boring, thoughtless junk that could come straight from any morning drive shock jock. Sticks & Stones is terrible, and Chappelle can only blame himself for that.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.