Five Netflix specials into his career resurgence, Dave Chappelle has a lot of problems with the way his jokes are being received in the #MeToo era. In the old days, comedians could punch down and tell tired jokes about the LGBTQ community, “alphabet people,” and nobody cared. Similarly, if you were a successful older man, there was a time when you could get away with making a younger woman watch you pleasure yourself.
Hearing Chappelle lament the dawning of the #MeToo era, you might get the impression that life is pretty hard for him. Sticks & Stones is largely centered around the reasons why he feels this way. Trouble is, the whole foundation of his routine is centered around faulty logic.
Chappelle is upset that people can’t make gay jokes anymore, seeming to forget that he can in fact, make those jokes. Sticks & Stones is full of humor directed at the LGBTQ community. He’s afraid of being “cancelled” while ignoring the fact that he’s currently being paid tens of millions of dollars to perform for one of the biggest outlets in show business. Paranoia aside, Dave Chappelle is far from canceled.
There is a fair amount of revisionist history about gay jokes present in Chappelle’s routine. He’s still upset about a time when Comedy Central objected to the use of a well-known anti-gay slur, wondering why he as a straight man wasn’t allowed to use it on television. Chappelle goes on to suggest that you can’t offend the “alphabet people” at all, putting aside the decades where it was considered taboo on television to portray an LGBTQ individual in a positive light. It’s kind of odd to see a comedian who’s been around as long as Chappelle try and act like gay jokes weren’t mainstream for a very long time.
Chappelle does seem to understand that there’s a reason why the transgender community isn’t collectively a huge fan of his. He’s also right that there is a fair degree in humor in the basic plight of the transgender identity. As a transgender woman, I laugh about the various ironies of transition all the time.
There are plenty of funny jokes to be told about the transgender community. Dave Chappelle just isn’t very good at that kind of humor. It’s not particularly original to compare transgender people to figures like Rachel Dolezal. The joke is certainly not all that funny in the year 2019.
Chappelle is hardly alone as a cisgender man in not really understanding the transgender identity. He takes that a step further in deciding that things he can’t understand must not be real, or the same as a person wanting to go around shouting racist Asian stereotypes. The theme of Sticks & Stones seems to be that Dave Chappelle doesn’t care about things that don’t directly affect him.
Lacking empathy can certainly be amusing, but Sticks & Stones is a tired routine by a man who forgot to layer jokes into his act, too often sounding like a pundit on Fox News. Chappelle used to be a master at making people laugh at inherently uncomfortable topics. He’s still willing to wade into controversial territory like pedophilia, but his bits just aren’t that funny. Chappelle allows the very notion that he shouldn’t be saying things to serve as the humor instead of actual jokes.
There are bits and pieces that prove Chappelle is still capable of understanding nuance. He uses a fairly amusing allegory about LGBTQ people riding in a car to describe the differences among the various groups within our community. Listening to him describe the ways that gay white men live have better opportunities transgender people sends a very different message than the special’s broader out of touch opinions of this changing world.
Dave Chappelle hasn’t lost anything because women now feel more comfortable speaking out against sexual harassment. Gay jokes aren’t as mainstream as they used to be, but Chappelle isn’t going to have his career ruined because he still thinks certain slurs are funny to say out loud. Dave Chappelle is doing fine.
The only potential hindrance to Dave Chappelle’s career is the fact that his edgy humor isn’t as funny as it used to be. The jokes in Sticks & Stones lack the complexity of his earlier work, sounding less contrarian than simply out of touch. Dave Chappelle shouldn’t worry about being “cancelled.” The far bigger threat to his career is the fact that he’s becoming quite a bore.