In ‘Sticks and Stones,’ Dave Chappelle takes an all too expected swing at a world rapidly leaving him behind

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There was a sort of inevitability to Dave Chappelle’s proudly divisive new Netflix special “Sticks and Stones,” which sees the comedian casually saunter around all the way from bits mocking the transgender community to bits belittling Michael Jackson’s sexual assault accusers. What makes watching the special so exhausting is that its inevitability is not just a product of Chappelle’s career arc. It’s evident that as Chappelle has reached the sterling wokeness of his 40s, his defiant, edgy brand of comedy has built up to the point where an attack on Jackson’s accusers seemed the logical — even understated — next step.

But Chappelle is not unique in taking this path. Instead, his turn toward increasingly confrontational outrage comedy is merely evidence of a common mindset that has corrupted comedy and much of American discourse in general: Progressive cultural criticism is somehow an existential threat. For artists who cling to this belief, inciting this “liberal rage” has turned into a game —and therefore offensiveness, calculated or not, is the inevitable game plan.

As a widely viewed A-list talent, Chappelle has become a sort of leading figure in comedy’s fight for this so called free speech. After a prolonged absence from television, Chappelle returned to release five stand-up specials for Netflix starting in 2017 — a deal that has brought him widespread attention and critical acclaim; it’s now difficult to point to a bigger name in stand-up comedy. But along with that fame has come a level of scrutiny that, just a decade ago, wouldn’t have manifested in the friendly confines of Comedy Central’s “Chappelle’s Show.”

Bluntly put, Chappelle, like so many other comedians, has refused to adapt. Repeatedly decried for his insensitive remarks, Chappelle has offered little more than jokes in the place of an apology and has found himself leaning into increasingly contentious material in self-defense. Naturally, the end result,“Sticks and Stones,” is a middle finger to Chappelle’s critics. The special is filled with jokes so culturally dated in tone, they’d feel more at home in an AOL chat room than coming from one of the bravest comedic voices of his generation.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that none of “Sticks and Stones” is funny. Chappelle is as dynamic and insightful as ever, expertly swerving through a variety of burningly relevant topics with the timing and wit of a master comedian — even when the jokes fall flat. And to say Chappelle’s entire comedic genius should be completely trashed because of these failings is dangerously naive. Chappelle correctly recognizes this notion in his criticism of “cancel culture”: While progressive outrage may be well-intentioned, when it goes too far and attempts to disqualify someone as an artist based off a few select flaws, or to “cancel” them, this creates an environment where artists are reluctant to vocalize views outside the mainstream, and renders them unable to learn from their mistakes. Though it’s disingenuous to say that true cancellation is as common as Chappelle believes, sometimes consumers, and in turn content producers, do get prematurely and unfairly jumpy.

It shouldn’t, however, be earth-shattering news to a 46-year-old man that just because you can say or do something, doesn’t mean you should. Through the very name of the special, Chappelle trumpets his ultimate claim: Jokes are nothing more than casual talk. If you don’t like it, just don’t listen — “Remember b—h, you clicked on my face,” he muses. Yet it is this belief — that the modern comedian is more akin to a laughable fool than a rousing orator — that Chappelle and so many of his fellow comedians get wrong. Netflix is quickly approaching 150 million subscribers, and Chappelle is one of their most viewed comedians (Netflix doesn’t release exact audience numbers). How many of those viewers will unequivocally listen to a trusted voice touting “What the f–k is your agenda, ladies?” in reference to the #MeToo movement? How many of the kids watching his YouTube clips will walk away unaffected? Jokes may not necessarily be physically abrasive, and comedy about tough subject matter may always lead to some people feeling sore, but what leads to actual “Sticks and Stones” if not repeated characterizations of the marginalized as being worthy of scorn? It shouldn’t be a hard concept to grasp: Words have power.

Progressive social critique is wide-ranging, and it’s admittedly hard to juggle all of it when considering the growing role of social media in cultural criticism. But this critique is built off a vision of a world based on equality and respect. So when Chappelle and his fellow comedians gag at those complaints, refusing to change and inevitably becoming more combative in response, it doesn’t make them free speech advocates. Is the endgame of Chappelle’s comedic career really to have Breitbart News, the far-right publication, as his biggest supporter? It’s not that Chappelle needs to renounce his comedic career or stop addressing difficult issues in his comedy, it’s just hard to understand why growing and adapting to positive change is such a horrifying concept to him.

Contact David Newman at [email protected].