‘You Can Definitely Skip Dave Chappelle’s New Netflix Special,’ says VICE. And if that’s not recommendation enough, here’s one from me: Sticks & Stones is the most, offensive, foul-mouthed, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic comedy set you’re likely to see on TV this year.
Chappelle, I must confess, was new to me. Yes, I know, I know, all you American readers: he’s a comedy institution, ranked no. 9 in Rolling Stone‘s ’50 Best Stand Up Comics of All Time’ with numerous awards and a career going right back to his 1993 movie debut in Mel Brooks’s Robin Hood: Men In Tights. But when you’re English and you get to a certain age, you find yourself taking a certain perverse pride in not knowing anything whatsoever about icons who are really huge in the US. You needn’t worry, though. I’m definitely a convert now.
What hooked me, apart from his extraordinary stage presence and that slow, gravelly-voiced, thoughtful, sublimely confident delivery, is his obvious willingness to plumb depths of tastelessness at least five fathoms lower than anyone else in the business.
This was most especially the case during his riff on the ‘did he or didn’t he?’ child sex allegations about Michael Jackson. Chappelle declared that he was in the ‘didn’t’ camp. The clincher, he decided, was that Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin had once stated in an interview that Jackson never did anything inappropriate with him.
‘…Or even around him. Think about that shit,’ says Chappelle, a mischievous glint in his eye.
Is he going to go there? Is he really? He most surely is….
‘You know – I’m not a pedophile. But if I was…Macaulay Culkin’s the first kid I’m fucking, I’ll tell you that right now.’
He pauses to milk the laughter. But he’s not done yet.
‘I’d be a goddamn hero. “Hey, that guy over there fucked the kid from Home Alone. And you know how hard he is to catch!”‘
From this point on, Chappelle could do no wrong in my eyes. All right, you could argue: he only gets away with this stuff because he’s black; because he’s now so bankable that he commands $20 million per show from Netflix; because being tasteless is his schtick. Even so, in these hypersensitive times, when pedophile sex is probably the ne plus ultra of social taboos, I’d say it takes balls of steel to fantasize in public – even in jest – about having sex with a blond child (just 10 in the first Home Alone movie); and then, to double down by inviting your audience to agree about what amazing kudos such a feat would earn you.
This for me is why Chappelle has definitely earned his place among the greats. Outside, say, Mao’s China or Stalin’s Soviet Union, there can’t be many places or periods in history where it has been quite so hard for stand-up comics to do their job. It’s why most of them don’t. They go for the applause which comes from reaffirming their audience’s woke prejudices rather than the laughter that comes – if they’re lucky – from bravely confronting them. Chappelle’s set is a high wire act. You know he could die horribly at any moment. So, you can tell, does he: most especially when he celebrates a particularly risqué joke by turning his back on the audience and heading back stage as if walking off set, his career over…
Behind those shock tactics, though, are some very serious points being made, often very well – such as his superb riff on how all the letters of the alphabet in the LGBTQ bloc actually loathe one another. Everything from the utter pettiness and vindictiveness of Hollywood’s blacklisting of his fellow comic and friend Kevin Hart on the basis of four ‘homophobic’ tweets from years back to #MeToo, gun control, and the opioid crisis.
What I appreciated was that none of his takes on these subjects was remotely worthy or PC – unless, perhaps, you’re a self-hating white liberal getting off on the fact that Chappelle thinks the opioid epidemic is payback for all those years whites didn’t give a shit about the crack cocaine crisis afflicting blacks in the Eighties – or indeed party political.
Apart from a sly dig at Kanye in his MAGA hat, Chappelle mostly resisted the urge to have a go at Trump – perhaps recognizing that it’s beneath his talents to attack so easy and lazy a target; perhaps even because he understands that half the country – and therefore, by extension, half the audience – voted for him.
Obviously, you should give this show a miss if you don’t find the idea of chasing after the child star of Home Alone and trying to have sex with him funny. But what kind of weird, censorious, humor-bypassed freak would that make you?