Early in his new Netflix special, Sticks & Stones, comedy giant Dave Chappelle begins a joke by saying “I’m gonna say something that I’m not allowed to say.” That thing is that he doesn’t believe Michael Jackson’s accusers, who claimed in a documentary earlier this year that Jackson molested him.
Chappelle is wrong. He is, in fact, “allowed” to say that. He just said it, and the live stand-up performance continued without incident. Netflix did not cut that joke out of the special. Meanwhile, Chappelle is far from the first person to cast doubt on the accusations of the Jackson accusers, and doing so hasn’t, so far, been something that leads to any type of consequences.
…we get to once again act out an irritating, tiresome cultural two-step, one marked by bad faith, straw-manning, and a complete misunderstanding of social media outrage…
Sticks & Stones, and the cultural discussion around it, has been notably marked by that very contradiction. It also means that we get to once again act out an irritating, tiresome cultural two-step, one marked by bad faith, straw-manning, and a complete misunderstanding of social media outrage, how it works, and its ultimate effects.
In Sticks & Stones, which is Chappelle’s fifth special of his extremely lucrative deal with Netflix, the comedian says some controversial things. In addition to expressing doubt that Michael Jackson’s accusers are telling the truth. He defends Louis C.K. He talks about the “cancellations” of Jackson, Louis, and Kevin Hart, calling it “celebrity hunting season.” And, for the third straight special, he spends a long section talking about transgender people in a dismissive tone, in this special laying out a narrative that “the alphabet people” – of the LGBTQ community – are out to get himself and other celebrities.
My personal view is that Chappelle is still a talented comic, and I laughed a lot at the special. But on the other hand, the 46-year-old Chappelle is showing clear signs of lapsing into Angry Old Man mode, if not showing signs of going fully reactionary. As for the trans jokes, the problem isn’t so much that they’re offensive, it’s that they’re hacky. Plus, the next time a comedian succeeds at trying to wring material out of his fights with “the Twitter mob,” it will be the first.
What’s happened with this Chappelle special is the same thing that’s happened with his last couple of specials, as well as with material by various comedians and even artists working in other media in recent years: There’s been much criticism, by both journalists and general social media users, of the trans jokes, as well as the #MeToo material. Others have taken a more centrist position, which basically comes down to “I like Chappelle, he’s still funny, but those trans jokes were unfunny and somewhat ill-advised.”
As a result, there has also been a consistent backlash in defense of Chappelle, full of phrases like “but he’s a comedian,” “can’t you take a joke?,” comparisons to Lenny Bruce, and references to snowflakes and millennials and even worse words.
But here’s what hasn’t happened: Dave Chappelle has not been cancelled. He has not been threatened with cancellation. There is no path towards him being cancelled, censored or silenced that exists, based on the current set of facts and circumstances. If there’s any type of active petition drive or boycott effort aimed at pressuring Netflix to get out of business with Chappelle, I am yet to hear of it.
Chappelle’s last couple of specials also drew similar controversy, over the trans jokes and other topics, and the result was… that Chappelle continued to make specials.
Liberal groups are currently directing their boycotts at white supremacist-adjacent Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, but aside from negative tweets, they’re leaving Chappelle alone. Even if they did put forth an effort to get Chappelle taken off of Netflix, which has no advertisers, they would almost certainly not succeed.
Chappelle’s last couple of specials also drew similar controversy, over the trans jokes and other topics, and the result was… that Chappelle continued to make specials. Netflix reportedly agreed to pay Chappelle $60 million in 2016, and that was just for the first three specials; he’s presumably since been re-upped for additional hours, on similarly if not more lucrative terms.
And also, like most stupid cultural arguments these days, there’s a Rotten Tomatoes component. On the movie review aggregator, conservative websites have noticed that Sticks & Stones has a 0% rating. Even though that’s based on… six reviews, while that site is not commonly used to review stand-up comedy specials. I’ve been on RT for 11 years, and it’s never once occurred to me to post a review of a comedy special. At any rate, it’s now up to 30 percent.
The Fake Woke Wars
Many, many people are seeking to position the Chappelle controversy as a battle over freedom of speech, the First Amendment, and “cancel culture,” between the honorable conservative free speech warriors and the woke leftist scolds out to destroy anything good and funny.
But that’s not really what’s going on here at all. Chappelle is not in any danger whatsoever of losing his career, his livelihood, or his public profile. If anything, the serial controversies have probably been good for him, his bank account, and his cultural stature.
It’s one of the stupider aspects of the woke era – every time there’s a complaint about jokes or comments, the instant assumption from the opposite side is that criticism is a simple step away from from the censorship and personal destruction that’s undoubtedly right around the corner.
But it hasn’t usually gone that way, especially not with comedians. Because for all of the hand-wringing in that world in recent years, the list of comedians who have had their careers ended by objections to their jokes is very short, if not nonexistent. Even Kevin Hart, whose old gay-bashing tweets led to him losing a gig hosting the Oscars, is still a movie star and the controversy had minimal impact on his career.
…for all of the hand-wringing in that world in recent years, the list of comedians who have had their careers ended by objections to their jokes is very short…
The political journalist Adam Serwer, one of the most astute cultural observers of the Trump era, was right last week about Chappelle: “People now seem to apply the term ‘cancel culture’ not as ‘attempting to drive someone from public life’ but ‘negative cultural criticism I disagree with.'”
A lot of comedians, and fans of comedy, seem to believe that comedians are entitled to nothing less than a criticism-free environment at all times, but that same free speech absolutism goes out the window once anyone who feels the urge to criticize those comedians.
The One True Cancellation
What’s most ironic about this whole thing is that Chappelle… once cancelled himself. He famously walked away from his hit Comedy Central series, Chappelle’s Show, back in 2005 once he began to feel that some of the show’s edgy racial humor wasn’t landing with some audiences the way he hoped.
This led, naturally, to arguments that “Chappelle’s Show could never be made today!” But I feel like if Dave Chappelle decided, right now, to revive Chappelle’s Show in its original format with all of the same people, it not only would be made today, but every major network would most likely engage in a bidding war over who got to make it… but people might complain about it on Twitter.