About a quarter of the way through his fifth Netflix special, Sticks & Stones, Dave Chappelle, dancing through a cultural minefield of his own design, looks at the camera and says:
“It doesn’t matter what I say. And if you at home watching this shit on Netflix, remember, bitch, you clicked on my face!”
And it’s true. I did. Which means it’s already too late for me, because Netflix already got me and my data, and has already registered that I watched Sticks & Stones in its entirety.
But upon finishing the special, I looked down at my notes, and a single question was written down, and underlined, and circled:
Who is this special for?
To answer this, we’ll have to look at the most likely suspects.
Is it for… fans of comedy?
The short answer is no, because Sticks & Stones, while still structured like a comedy special, complete with setups and punchlines and clever pivots and callbacks, isn’t especially funny.
Much of this stems from the topics that Chappelle covers, particularly in the first half of the special, as he talks about (among other things) cancel culture, Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Louis C.K., and Chappelle’s own problematic jokes about the LGBTQ community. This is nothing new for Chappelle, of course, but tackling such emotionally charged, sensitive topics means that only the best jokes will actually generate laughter.
Turns out, the jokes Chappelle brings are… well, fine. But they rarely reach a level of insight or surprise or humor that exceeds the shock of the topic, which means we’re mostly just left with, well, a bunch of uncomfortable topics that didn’t make us laugh.
Is it for… fans of Chappelle?
You’d think so, but the answer here is also no.
Each of Chappelle’s earlier Netflix specials (yes, even Equanimity and The Bird Revelation) has more to offer the Chappelle fan — more jokes, more experimentation, and of course, more laughs. That’s to say nothing of his earlier stand-up or Half Baked or Chappelle’s Show or whatever else you happen to enjoy. In a career that’s reaching the end of its third decade, Chappelle feels a little like he’s lost the ability to surprise, a feeling that’s evident in the room for Sticks & Stones, which features far too much nervous laughter for a crowd that should be full of his fans.
Is it for… Netflix?
Since Netflix doesn’t release their data (except when they want to brag), it’s hard to say, although technically, of course, it is — and while Netflix has slowed down their comedy output somewhat, Chappelle remains the biggest name, and probably, the biggest draw — so even if they’re still paying him $20 million a special, that’s still a relatively cheap investment, compared to a movie or TV show.
Is it for… Dave Chappelle?
This, most likely, is the real (and possibly only) answer.
Between his financial drawing power and his stature as one of the greats, Chappelle has reached that rarefied level, that FUCK YOU level, where nobody can tell you no.
It’s that level of accomplishment that every artist craves, that point where you can have total, pure creative freedom. While that dream is ever enticing, it’s dangerous for an artist, because that’s how you end up with abuses of power or Star Wars prequels.
For Chappelle, indulging in his status as a FUCK YOU artist means using his powers for himself, instead of the world. It means taking his finely honed superpower to co-opt language, a power that he once used to subvert, say, racism, and uses it in defense of himself, such as when he sets up a series of shocking-for-shock’s-sake jokes by preemptively reminding the audience that he’s “what’s known on the streets as a victim-blamer.” Chappelle uses this to acknowledge his own status as controversial figure, and wink at the audience, as if to say don’t worry, I’m in on the joke, only to then deliver a series of jokes that are less about the world around us and more about the world around Dave Chappelle.
Another aspect of Chappelle’s FUCK YOU status is evident in the structure of Sticks & Stones itself. In Equanimity, Chappelle talks about writing jokes punchline first, just to see if he could do it. Here, everything, from the topics to the hot takes to the title of the special itself, are designed for Chappelle to dig himself into a hole at the outset, not just as a defense, but as a challenge, to see if he can get himself out by the end of the show.
The most frustrating part is that there are moments in the second half of the show where it feels like Chappelle just might do it, that he could manage to climb his way out. But between the aggressive, defiant first half and the odd rhythm of the last fifteen minutes of the show, where the closing joke feels tacked on, and not the culmination of an entire hour’s work, Sticks & Stones leaves the audience with the sense that there was more work to be done before the special was filmed.
In the end, Chappelle is right. It doesn’t matter what he says. It doesn’t matter that the material isn’t as strong as his previous work, or that his ability to surprise is diminished. It doesn’t matter if people are upset, or disappointed, or that MY FATHER herself is defending him. It doesn’t matter if we love it or hate it or even if we watch. Because Sticks & Stones isn’t for you or me. It isn’t for his fans or for Netflix. It’s for Dave. And for better or worse, Dave seems just fine in his hole.
Header Image Source: Netflix