Here's why Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix special, Sticks & Stones, has courted such controversy. In his latest stand-up set for the streaming service, the famous American comedian takes aim at cancel culture, taboo subjects, and politically correct language.
Now, controversy is nothing new for Chappelle. He emerged during the '90s as a stand-up comedian and film actor, but made his name from 2003 to 2006 with the provocative Comedy Central series Chappelle's Show established its titular star as a well-known figure in American pop culture. But then Chappelle abruptly quit and essentially disappeared from television and movies for several years. His resurgence has been prominent on Netflix, with Sticks & Stones being Chappelle’s fifth special since 2017.
In the comedy world, Dave Chappelle is mostly well-respected for his authentic approach and performative style, with his past Netflix specials earning marked praise. But his latest set has once sparked a serious online backlash. This is rooted in both the sensitive topics he attacks, and the unforgiving approach he uniformly takes with them.
What Dave Chappelle Targets In Sticks & Stones
At one point in Sticks & Stones, Chappelle says "I don’t think I did anything wrong… but we’ll see." This is the core of the show, which steadily references what’s know as "Cancel Culture" and argues that celebrities, especially comedians, need to be extra careful about offending anybody. During an early bit, Chappelle performs an "impression," stating "If you do anything wrong in your life, and I find out about it, I’m gonna try and take everything away from you… if I find out, you’re f**king finished." He then informs the audience that he’s indeed talking about them, which sets the comedic tone for Sticks & Stones.
Chappelle goes on to describe the LGBTQ community as the “alphabet people.” During an extended bit, he discusses lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender individuals, noting that the latter group “hate my f**king guts.” For a comedic premise, Chappelle describes a car ride, and how the various LGBTQ groups would theoretically interact with each other. The joke sequence ends with Chappelle saying that it would be funny if he was actually a Chinese person born inside a black man’s body, and sarcastically states “This is how I feel inside!” while delivering an impression of an Asian individual. Throughout the special, Chappelle repeatedly uses language that may be offensive to some viewers. That is, irrespective of effectiveness, the underlying premise for Sticks & Stones.
During Sticks & Stones, Chappelle discusses numerous celebrities and uses edgy language for jokes about taboo topics. He opens with a bit about suicide and questions why the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain would want to kill himself. Chappelle says “That man, with that job, hung himself from a luxury suite in France,” and then tells a story about an old friend who, despite living under difficult circumstances, never conceived of ending his life.
Chappelle also discusses HBO’s controversial Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland and reveals that he doesn’t believe the accusations made by the singer's alleged victims. Chappelle also defends fellow comedian Kevin Hart, who was scheduled to host the 2019 Academy Awards but dropped out due to backlash about past Twitter jokes. Chappelle also comments about disgraced comedian Louis C.K., and that the accusations against him don’t necessarily equate to a legal crime.
Chappelle ends Sticks & Stones with a commentary about the Jussie Smollett controversy, closing with a comedic bit that correlates his poor, or “broke,” upbringing with school shootings.
The Backlash Against Dave Chappelle's Sticks & Stones
The innate shock and awe factor to Chappelle's standup should be obvious to anybody reading a description of the Netflix special, as should why it has offended so many. Sticks & Stones is designed to enrage those it targets while delighting the many who agree with the comedian. That it's created such a controversy isn't just unsurprising, it's the desired reaction. Indeed, it's fair to say Chappelle isn't so much targeting the groups mentioned as it is those who sympathize with them.
All of this avoids the question of how much Chappelle truly buys into what he's saying, and how much is rooted in the frustrations that are common among many comedians with historically risqué material. Indeed, at one point the comedian appears to show humility: "If you’re in a group that I made fun of, then just know that I probably only make fun of you because I see myself in you." It's up to the audience if they believe him.