Comedian Dave Chappelle is far from perfect. No stand-up kills it every time he hits the stage.
The best comics will dazzle you with tales of early career defeats. It comes with the territory, a badge of comedy honor, if you will.
Chappelle’s previous Netflix specials, for example, meandered at times. Think Muhammad Ali dispatching journeymen toward the end of his career. He did it with machine-like efficiency, but it hardly matched his greatest ring moments. Still, the tools were all there, and nothing could blunt their impact.
The comic’s Netflix special, “Sticks & Stones,” already generated more press than most stand-up specials do combined, and most of it was negative.
Chappelle comes on stage reading the lyrics to the Prince classic “1999,” which puts us off balance immediately.
We know those words, but stripped of Prince’s funk we don’t place them right away. You’ll look back on the decision with wonder, if not awe.
“So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999,” he talk-sings. After viewing the special a second time, this critic has a new take on that line:
He’s telling jokes like it’s 1999, when a comedian could say whatever he wanted without being “canceled.” We no longer live in those times, and Chappelle isn’t happy about it.
The special starts with memories of an old Chappelle chum, a near genius whose promise splintered on the rocks of divorce. He quickly pivots to an impressions segment, even though it’s not his comic forte.
“I only got two,” he cracks.
The first strikes a woke blow against the Constitution’s founders. Pretty standard stuff by 2019 standards. It might be the last time Chappelle says something we’re expecting to hear.
“The second one’s a little harder,” he confesses before imitating someone trying to get a complete stranger fired for something they may have done years ago.
“That’s YOU!” he cries. “That’s what the audience sounds like to me!”
Awkward. Accurate. Deadly.
Only his fans lap it up. You have to wonder how many in the crowd enabled a Social Justice Warrior mob in the past.
Maybe they won’t the next time.
The rest of the special, alternately hilarious and though-provoking, riffs on that toxic theme. Chappelle name checks Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Louis CK and other troubled stars, past and present, offering fresh and clearly provocative takes.
“How come I can say [the n-word] with impunity, but I can’t say” that? Chappelle asks, and he tells of the network guy responding, “Because David, you are not gay.” Chappelle fires back, “I’m not a n****r either.” https://t.co/9McZkfiCCH
— Kevin McCashion 🇺🇸 (@Kevin_McCashion) August 27, 2019
Some of the gags are distasteful, to be clear. Before the 10 minute mark he’s questioning if being molested by the King of Pop was the worst thing one could imagine.
Who on earth would say such things? Chappelle. Why? Because he’s scratching and clawing on behalf of creative speech, the ability to say outrageous things to make us laugh, wince or both.
How else can we push past conventional thinking?
Oh, and let’s not forget the obvious. Chappelle isn’t running for public office. He’s a comic, and we’re not meant to seek the ultimate answers for him. It’s idiotic to expect that.
Does he believe everything he says in “Sticks & Stones?” Not sure. This critic hopes not.
He clearly thinks the jokes are important to say here and now. What’s the special’s title again? Why was that a golden rule for so long? Because it’s an unassailable truth, one that deserves a comeback, much like comedy in the 21st century.
Chappelle’s defense of fellow comic Kevin Hart, chased from his ultimate goal of hosting the Oscars, is one of many highlights.
“In fact, Kevin is exactly four tweets shy of being perfect,” he says, referencing the homophobic jokes that led the Oscars to go hostless for the first time in decades earlier this year. Only he isn’t above tweaking his ol’ chum.
Team Oscar threatened Hart -- “If you don’t apologize to that [gay] community then you can’t host the Oscars … [Hart] says, ‘Bleep it, I quit … and then he went on every talk show in America and apologized for six weeks.”
What. A. Line. And he’s probably the only comic alive willing to say it out loud.
He’s just warming up to the Cancel Cancel Culture task, and he clearly hit the bulls eye. Have you read the reviews yet?
The following bit alone probably drove progressives lunging for their safe spaces, crayons in hand.
“You’e never allowed to upset the Alphabet People,” to which he means the LBGTQ community, the very definition of “punching up” in our current culture. Only he doesn’t stop with the L, the B or the G.
“I can’t stop telling jokes about these n-words,” he says about the “Ts” -- the transgendered community.
Later, he tackles abortion in a way sure to rile both sides up. Game, set, match … Chappelle.
None of this is easy to accomplish. It takes discipline, finesse and talent to tip sacred cows with impunity. That Chappelle does it so successfully here is the comedy achievement of the year.
Maybe. We’ll see.
Dolts yelling out ‘Trump’ when Chappelle does an impression of cancel culture warriors. Delicious. 😆
— Rita Panahi (@RitaPanahi) August 28, 2019
Chappelle’s special isn’t a laugh-a-minute affair like your average Jim Gaffigan hour. The pace is different. He’s a storyteller who happens to crack us up every fourth line. And the barrage of “n-words” he uses, like Smurfette and co. say “smurf,” takes its toll.
Still, “Sticks & Stones” is the strongest counter-attack to date against Cancel Culture. The fact that it’s still available on streaming means Chappelle has already won.