Dave Chappelle on Sunday took home the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album, over other nominees including Ellen DeGeneres and Trevor Noah. But not everyone is celebrating the win, which nets Chappelle his third Grammy in the category in three years.
That’s because Sticks and Stones, the album version of his 2019 Netflix comedy special, challenges its audience right from the title. And though it suggests that Chappelle will brush off criticism before the special even begins, it has sparked debate over the limits of shock humor, cancel culture, left-wing political rhetoric, and Chappelle himself.
The one-hour show includes a hidden Q&A session (accessible only after watching through the end credits of the special) and is themed around Chappelle’s reaction to what he calls “celebrity hunting season.” As a part of his argument that society has gone too far in naming and shaming those with offensive pasts, the comedy legend takes aim at everyone from queer and transgender activists and the #MeToo movement to critics of R. Kelly, Kevin Hart, and Louis C.K. In the most high-profile attack, he mocks the men who accused Michael Jackson of child sex abuse in the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland — which he calls “gross” and urges his audience not to watch.
The special has divided Chappelle’s fans and peers, with some prominent voices rushing to Chappelle’s defense as others express their reservations about the limits of comedy that targets the vulnerable. The debate over his incendiary humor has played out before, but the topical relevancy of Chappelle’s latest Netflix special makes it especially tricky — perhaps more than usual.
In Sticks and Stones, Chappelle flatly disbelieves, and then mocks, Michael Jackson’s accusers
“I’m gonna say something that I’m not allowed to say,” Chappelle says onstage fairly early into his set, which was filmed in Atlanta. From that setup, Chappelle launches into a bit about being a “victim blamer,” and states that he doesn’t believe the molestation allegations against Jackson. With a grand pause, Chappelle declares, “Even if he did do it ... you know what I mean?” It’s unclear, however, what exactly Chappelle does mean here. Is the joke supposed to be that Michael Jackson’s stature makes his behavior okay? Is the joke that his behavior doesn’t change his status as a pop legend? Something else? He eventually concludes, after letting the audience fill in their own ideas, “It’s Michael Jackson!”
The Michael Jackson routine is a variant of one Chappelle has performed before, as early as 2004. In that version, he goes further with the joke, saying that the kids probably enjoyed the experience and should have felt empowered by it because of Jackson’s stature. In the new special, Chappelle goes even further: “I know more than half the people in this room have been molested in their lives, but it wasn’t no goddamn Michael Jackson, was it?” he says. “This kid got his dick sucked by the king of pop. All we get is awkward Thanksgivings for the rest of our lives.”
“I know it’s harsh,” he says, “but somebody’s gotta teach these kids there’s no such thing as a free trip to Hawaii,” referencing the frequent trips and other perks that Jackson gave his accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, as children.
In statements to TMZ on August 27, both Robson and Safechuck responded to Chappelle’s routine. “I’m heartbroken for all those children who look to see how they will be received when they finally find the courage to speak out about their sexual abuse,” Safechuck said. “I just want to reach out to other survivors and let them know that we can’t let this type of behavior silence us. Together we are strong.”
Robson’s lawyer added that “it’s unfortunate that [Chappelle] has chosen to use his platform to shame sexual abuse victims, and spread his ignorance of sexual abuse and the way it is perpetrated upon children.” He contrasted Chappelle’s comedy with that of Hannibal Buress, who used his platform to call out Bill Cosby’s long history of abuse instead of shaming victims.
But Chappelle had more on his mind than Jackson. He built his set around a number of other recent controversies, including R. Kelly’s alleged history of sexual grooming and abuse of young women, and Kevin Hart’s withdrawal from hosting the 2019 Oscars. But whether he framed those events fairly or not in order to mine them for comedy has become a contentious talking point.
Chappelle criticized Surviving R. Kelly director Dream Hampton in the special, but came in for criticism himself
Throughout the special, Chappelle cites the media’s response to Kelly, Hart, and Jackson as examples of “overreactions.” Though he contrasted Jackson with R. Kelly by claiming Kelly “probably did” what he was accused of, he focused his routine on the recent documentary Surviving R. Kelly, a look into the serious abuse allegedly committed by the singer. Discussing how Surviving R. Kelly’s director Dream Hampton name-dropped him in several interviews as someone who refused to appear in the documentary, Chappelle portrayed her request as random and odd. “I don’t know [R. Kelly] at all ... I don’t know anything that they don’t tell me about him,” he said.
But Hampton’s reason for wanting Chappelle to appear in the documentary was due to Chappelle’s long history of jokes made about R. Kelly in the past, including a sketch from his Comedy Central series Chappelle’s Show in 2003 that mocked R. Kelly’s sex tape. When TMZ confronted him about his previous R. Kelly comedy earlier this year, Chappelle responded that he’d have to rewatch the skit to be able to comment on it.
Hampton responded to Chappelle’s special on Tuesday by saying she never actually discussed the documentary with him at all.
In the special, Chappelle barely touches on the specific allegations made against Kelly, though he makes more off-the-cuff jokes during his Q&A. Focusing on critiquing Hampton instead lets him continue building the theme of the evening — that leftist activists are overreacting and rushing to judgment.
Another case in point is comedian Kevin Hart, whose own divisive “jokes” Chappelle defends during the special. He calls Hart “four tweets shy of perfection” in reference to tweets that formed part of the history of homophobic humor that led to Hart’s decision not to host the 2019 Academy Awards.
“Clearly Kevin was joking,” Chappelle said, regarding one of Hart’s old homophobic jokes, which resurfaced on Twitter shortly after he agreed to host the awards show in December 2018. He uses his defense of Hart to speak derisively about a long-ago incident in which Comedy Central took him to task for using a homophobic slur.
“Why is it that I can say the word ni**er with impunity but I can’t say fa**ot?” Chappelle claims to have asked at the time. He describes himself and Hart as “breaking an unwritten and unspoken rule of show business ... you are never, ever allowed to upset the alphabet people,” he says, referring to the queer community.
And as he argues against the notion of “cancel culture” — of the collective aim to disempower those who abuse their privilege by committing sexist, racist, homophobic, or other offensive behavior — he throws in a screed against the #MeToo moment for good measure.
“What the fuck is your agenda, ladies?” Chappelle says, connecting the tone of the #MeToo movement with the stringency of recent abortion laws around the country, as if one is causing the other. He hints that the leftist political rhetoric that is considered the progenitor of cancel culture is to blame for our distraction from other big issues, like gun control.
To his credit, Chappelle has been active in efforts to create real-world progress on these issues; he recently hosted a benefit concert for victims of the Dayton, Ohio, mass shooting. But critics have described this brand of shock humor as “tired” and “regressive, exclusionary, and cruel.” Bits in which Chappelle painstakingly jokes about each of the letters in “LGBTQ” (bisexuals are “gross,” he says, while transgender people are “confusing”), uses homophobic slurs when talking about ex-Empire star Jussie Smollett, uses a racist Chinese stereotype, or muses that “if women were actually equal to men, there’d be no WNBA,” all feel like they’ve been imported from 1996 with little alteration.
Chappelle seems to know that the jokes are potentially offensive. But “it’s hard not to write these jokes,” he says. And indeed, he’s been drawing on this sort of comedy for a while.
Chappelle has a history of saying and doing controversial things in the name of comedy, but he remains unapologetic
Chappelle has been called out repeatedly for his comedy. The New York Times recently criticized his “tired” attempts to joke about the #MeToo movement in two 2018 Netflix specials, and other writers have found a disturbing pattern of homophobic and transphobic humor in his work. As Jason Zinoman, who reviewed Chappelle’s latest show for the New York Times in July, noted, “He’s still defending wealthy, famous peers and joking about transgender targets.” Many critics of the Netflix show have agreed, with Vice calling it skippable and BuzzFeed asking, “why can’t he be more thoughtful?”
Sticks and Stones has brought out detractors and defenders from all sides, however. Some prominent names in the entertainment industry are praising him, while others have panned the routine.
In a since-deleted Instagram post, Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che defended Chappelle by lashing out at the negative reviews, complaining that “all their criticism seems to be about the take, and very little about the actual art, and you can tell when half the review are verbatim quotes of the jokes.”
The Daily Beast argued that Chappelle’s provocative comedy was the entire point, and that his goal was to say “the things we’re not supposed to say, let alone think, and then making us consider what it says about us that we quiet those parts of ourselves.”
“I understand why it could hurt some people’s feelings,” Chappelle says about his brand of comedy in the secret epilogue to Sticks and Stones, which sees him answering Q&As from the audience in his Broadway engagement.
As an example, he mentions #MeToo jokes and delivers an anecdote about offending a rape victim who he says left an earlier performance of the show by declaring, “I’m sorry I was raped.” Chappelle tells the audience that he replied, “It’s not your fault you were raped. But it’s not my fault either. Ta-ta, bitch!”
In another anecdote, he bonds with a transgender fan because she loves his arguably transphobic humor, before adding the arguably transphobic coda that he then made out with her ... while inspecting her anatomy. (A Reddit user claiming to be the woman in question commented about the bit on Monday and described him as “awesome to work with and an incredible talent.”)
Chappelle defends his humor during the show by claiming, “If you’re in a group that I make fun of, just know that I probably only make fun of you because I see myself in you.”
But he also had words for anyone who chose to watch the Netflix special despite having some idea what kind of comedy he’s known for: “Remember bitch, you clicked on my face.”
Indeed, the debate over Chappelle’s comedy seems to be exactly what he wants — a way to keep his name in the public eye, draw lots of curiosity views, make his fans feel even more protective of him, and, in his own words, “victim blame” anyone feeling outraged. And it seems to be working; Netflix’s official comedy Twitter account has been promoting the special by referencing some of its most controversial moments, and retweeting praise from comedians. It all bodes well for more Chappelle specials in Netflix’s future — and more rounds of this debate.