‛If you at home watching this sh** on Netflix,” says Dave Chappelle in Sticks & Stones, his latest standup special, “remember b****, you clicked on my face.”
It’s a fair warning: In the new one-hour special, Chappelle defends Michael Jackson against charges of child molestation and says state-level abortion restrictions are a misogynist reaction to the #MeToo movement.
The set mostly misses the mark. And what is that mark? The truth. Chappelle remains one of the most vital, and certainly among the most daring, of standups, but we count on him to say unsayable truths, or to bring us closer to truths most of us hadn’t consciously considered, or at least to restate the truth in a clever way. Chappelle doesn’t often strike a facetious pose or hide behind a character; mostly what he says is what he really thinks, as an especially astute observer of the American carnival. Or at least that’s his brand. Preach, Dave.
His bit on the Michael Jackson HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, though, is a clunker. He first says he doesn’t believe the two men who tell their stories in the four-hour documentary. But then he drops that pose and says the molestation was not really a big deal. Lots of people get molested, he says, estimating that half his audience suffered that sad fate. But how many people have the honor of being molested by a superstar? In graphic language, he imagines a kid excitedly sharing this news with classmates. And besides, “I know it seems harsh, but somebody’s gotta teach these kids there’s no such thing as a free trip to Hawaii.” Well, as kids, they didn’t know that. Kids don’t know a lot of things.
The truth, it seems to me, is that being molested by your idol probably hurts even more than being molested by a stranger. What can it do to a kid to find himself befriended by the world’s most famous entertainer, and then to be sexually assaulted by him? What must it be like to be on the receiving end of much abuse merely for speaking out about that experience decades later? Jackson shattered these kids. Believing all of his accusers were lying is just about impossible.
In Sticks & Stones, Chappelle also does a long, mediocre bit about the “alphabet people” who ‘took 20 percent of the alphabet for themselves,” which turns out to mean the “LGBTQ community.” This leads him to an extended metaphor about a car trip that doesn’t work and at least one witty observation about people who think they’re born in the wrong body. “What if I was Chinese but born in this n***** body, and for the rest of my life I had to go around making that face, ‘Hey, everybody, I’m Chinese’?” he asks, breaking into a stereotypical Asian voice for the line like a 1960s Vegas act. Would people get mad, he wonders? “Stop making that face, it’s offensive!” he imagines people saying. “What, this is how I feel inside!” he’d reply. Funny.
If there weren’t an audience primed to laugh at everything Chappelle says in his new set — people even chuckle at his mention of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide — the act would probably be better described as a monologue than a standup routine. Chappelle is a thoughtful guy and he no longer has to worry about whether there’s a laugh every 30 seconds. Even so, he comes across as more aggrieved than funny in a bit on how Kevin Hart was dumped as an Oscar host for having written homophobic tweets many years previously. I expected Chappelle to deliver more on the subject, especially given the thunderous denunciation he gives his audience near the start of the show: “Y’all n*****s is the worst motherf*****s I’ve ever tried to entertain in my f***ing life. Goddamn sick of it. This is the worst time ever to be a celebrity.”
Even in his best bits, as when he mocks Jussie Smollett’s ludicrous hate-crime story, the material isn’t as strong as you’d have expected. Chappelle says that when Smollett first reported his claims, “African Americans, we were like oddly quiet. . . . The gay community started accusing the African American community of being homophobic for not supporting him. What they didn’t understand is that we were supporting him with our silence. Because we understood that this n***** was clearly lying.” That seems a bit off; Al Sharpton and many other prominent black Americans publicly backed Smollett. The dividing line was between the crusading social-justice types and those who dismiss identity politics as a power play.
Chappelle’s strangest bit takes him from his “very good friend” Louis C.K. to the new abortion restrictions in Georgia. He says that C.K.’s habit of masturbating in front of women made him “the least threatening motherf***** the Earth has ever seen.” He “didn’t do anything that you can call the police for,” Chappelle argues, although just because behavior isn’t illegal doesn’t mean it isn’t revolting. “They ruined this n*****’s life and now he’s coming back playing comedy clubs and they’re acting like if he’s able to do that, that’s gonna hurt women. What the f*** is your agenda, ladies?” Chappelle says he warned us that the #MeToo movement was going to make sexism worse, “and they said I was tone deaf. But eight states including your state [Georgia] have passed the most stringent anti-abortion laws this nation has seen since Roe V Wade. I told you. I told you.” This is a bizarre take. Georgia legislators are out to punish women because they got fed up with liberal Hollywood women exposing the sexual misbehavior of liberal Hollywood men? Chappelle frames the pro-life movement as men telling women what to do, but this is far from the truth: Abortion is a rare issue in that polls show hardly any daylight between men’s and women’s views on the matter.
Comics are a notoriously angry group, and Chappelle seems to have more anger with which to grapple than most. His contrarian instincts sometimes take him to strange places, but normally his instinct for the truth is the most striking aspect of his act, as in his superb and probing previous Netflix specials, Equanimity and The Bird Revelation. His latest hour is a setback. When he imagined a white heroin addict slipping into his kitchen to steal spare change, I thought: Netflix just paid you $60 million; you probably have a pretty good security system. Stick to talking about something real.