What’s the most embarrassing public statement you’ve ever made that you’ve had to walk back? As a Sagittarius and a former conservative evangelical Christian — and quite a zealous one — I have plenty.
I won’t regale you with all of them, but certainly one of my top 10 is when I logged on to Facebook dot com in the year of our Lord, 2009. Michael Jackson had just died, and my Facebook feed was disturbingly lacking in sympathetic words of sorrow. One girl whom I went to high school with posted a status about how she didn’t understand why people were so upset about his death — he was "a gross pedophile."
I was in a vulnerable place. The high school I went to was full of white people who liked to listen to Dave Matthews Band and ask me whether I tanned. I had spent hours in a fugue state watching videos of Jackson when he was a lanky teenager, wiggling his sequined hips in the “Rock With You” music video, his skin still the color of a coconut husk. He still had that wide, broad, and beautiful nose that looked like my nose (and that I too had once hated).
I don’t remember exactly what I wrote under that girl’s status. It was something mean and cutting, and I definitely went on about how he had been acquitted. She responded by saying that swooping in to comment on the post of a random classmate I wasn’t even friends with in real life to defend Jackson was proof of how ridiculous I was being. Touché. I promptly unfriended her and reminded myself to never get into Facebook arguments; they were a black hole.
I thought of that time, and that current of righteous anger, as I watched Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix stand-up special, Sticks & Stones, which came out this week and has been predictably pilloried for its dismissal of sexual assault victims and anti-trans jokes. Chappelle proudly confesses as much early on in the special: “I’m what’s known on the streets as a victim-blamer.”
He defends Jackson, conceding that even if the two men who came forward in HBO’s documentary special Leaving Neverland earlier this year were telling the truth, it would be an honor to be molested by a musical legend: “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? This kid got his dick sucked by the King of Pop! All we get is awkward Thanksgivings for the rest of our lives.”
It’s the kind of purposefully ludicrous statement that’s designed to provoke, of course — it's not even funny so much as shocking. You hear the audience gasp. (But the loudest boos of the whole night are reserved for when Chappelle jokes about how there’s no such thing as good 36-year-old pussy, which is the punchline to an R. Kelly bit. It’s telling that you can hear an audible exhale when Chappelle concedes that Kelly probably did rape his alleged teenage victims, even though he throws Surviving R. Kelly documentary filmmaker Dream Hampton under the bus to make that point.)
“I’m sorry, ladies, I’ve got a fucking #MeToo headache,” Chappelle complains. “This is the worst time ever to be a celebrity. Everyone’s doomed,” He defends Louis C.K., freely admitting that he’s biased as he’s friends with the guy. “They even got poor Kevin Hart,” Chappelle says. He describes Hart’s 2011 tweet about smashing his hypothetically gay son’s head with a dollhouse as “obviously” a joke. That’s before he launches into a whole spiel about “the unspoken rule of show business,” which “is that you are never, ever allowed to upset the alphabet people” — those people being “the Ls and the Gs and the Bs and the Ts.”
At this point, we’re reentering a familiar cycle: Chappelle releases a special on Netflix, he says something incendiary, it’s quoted back to him in a headline, and Chappelle reacts to the criticism in another Netflix special.
But Sticks & Stones feels distinct in that it encapsulates Chappelle’s paradoxical urges. You could say he’s doubling down, as some critics have written, but that's not quite right. It’s a low, low bar, but some of the more truly vile anti-trans stuff has been excised from this recorded special. (It was filmed in Atlanta in 2019, two years after his sold-out run at Radio City Music Hall so maybe he's had time to rethink the "man-pussy" jokes he made then).
But Chappelle still wants it both ways. He is willing to address criticisms of his earlier sets that were more flagrantly, lazily anti-trans, but not actually apologize or admit to changing his mind or express any meaningful empathy. In his 2017 special, Equanimity, he talks about receiving a letter from a white trans fan who criticized his transphobia, using the remark to essentially make more tired anti-trans jokes (and it turns out some of the details of the bit were highly embellished). And in a surprise epilogue to Sticks & Stones, he tells another story about Daphne, a trans woman who attended several of his sets in San Francisco and laughed hard at every joke. Afterward, according to Chappelle, they chatted at the bar and Daphne thanked him for “normalizing transgenders.” The audience at the Broadway theater, where Chappelle told this story, applauds loudly. It’s cringe-inducing — such a blatantly cynical, familiar move out of the old “I have a marginalized friend, so I can make this joke” playbook. (When Louis C.K. joked about his black friends who have stood by him, I imagine he must have been talking about Chappelle.)
What is especially frustrating about Chappelle’s trans jokes is how he essentially acts as if black trans people don’t exist, and as if black trans women in particular aren’t more likely to be victims of violence. His truth-to-power comedy only works if he acts as though trans people and black people are wholly separate entities. It’s enough to make you want to tie Chappelle to a chair and force him to binge-watch episodes of Pose.
Even if you ignored all the offensive jokes — which is a big ask, so I understand if you can’t — you’re still left with comedy specials that aren’t even particularly funny.
And it grates, of course, because he has been shattering the mythos constructed around him ever since he famously walked away from a reported $50 million deal with Comedy Central in 2005. Dave Chappelle! The funniest man in America! If he had lived in Midwestern bliss for the rest of his life, his legend as one of our most hilarious, biting, silly, essential stand-up comics alive would have stayed intact — even if he did always have a few sets and sketches that were stupid and sexist and racist. But now he’s just like any other rich, middle-aged has-been, bravely taking on "cancel culture," even as he continues to nab $60 million deals with Netflix.
As Vulture music critic Craig Jenkins recently tweeted, this cycle of jokes, outrage, jokes, repeat doesn’t actually affect Chappelle’s bottom line. He’s still a millionaire — and one who’s still getting booked, at that. So what’s really to be gained from punching down on the most vulnerable? Despite his fearmongering about celebrities falling victim to "cancel culture," it’s not like Chappelle has actually been shunned. It has merely become less cool to say that you’re a Dave Chappelle fan at certain parties in Brooklyn.
As a beleaguered fan (like "I once spent more money than I had in my checking account to split a cab ride with a girl I didn't know to watch him perform in a suburb of Chicago and then got stranded in said suburb because there were no cabs going back to the city"–level fan); I want to believe that Chapelle is more thoughtful than he’s been acting lately. And even in Sticks & Stones, which is better than the last two specials, there are kernels of funniness. He still makes me laugh out loud. He can still tell a story with surreal, spellbinding relish — his bit on buying a gun is hilarious. His face is so expressive; his eyes twinkle with impish glee. The way he holds his cigarette and leans forward, looking like a mischievous little boy, shocked that he can get away with it.
But he’s not a little boy. He’s a grown-ass man. And it feels like he keeps making anti-trans and victim-blaming jokes just because he can, which, sure. But why not strive to be more interesting, more original, more thoughtful?
Toward the end of the special, before the epilogue, Chappelle appears to make a conciliatory gesture: “If you’re in a group that I make fun of, just know that I see myself in you. I make fun of poor white people because I was once poor.” I waited for him to say what he saw in trans people, in victims of sexual assault, or in gay men. But he never said anything. ●
Kevin Hart’s tweet about breaking a dollhouse over his son’s head was in 2011. An earlier version of this post misstated the year. An earlier of this post misstated the year this special was filmed and the theater where Chappelle filmed his epilogue.