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Dave Chappelle’s Provocations Have Turned Predictable

After his fifth Netflix stand-up special, ‘Sticks and Stones,’ the renowned comic is becoming harder and harder to romanticize

Netflix/Ringer illustration

To save everyone some time, here are a few of the headlines you can expect to see as the internet starts to metabolize Dave Chappelle’s latest stand-up special for Netflix, Sticks and Stones: “Dave Chappelle Doesn’t Believe Michael Jackson’s Accusers.” “‘What Is the Threat?’: Dave Chappelle Thinks Louis C.K. Backlash Overblown.” “Dave Chappelle Defends Kevin Hart.” “Dave Chappelle Blames #MeToo for Anti-Abortion Laws.” Like most of Chappelle’s recent output, Sticks and Stones is designed to generate inflammatory coverage, which will in turn generate a chance for Chappelle to dismiss said coverage as reductive, opportunistic, and generally out to get him. It’s a symbiotic cycle with no end in sight, and it’s become the last thing a beloved provocateur should ever want to be: predictable.

The playground taunt from which Sticks and Stones takes its name hints at some measure of self-awareness. Sticks and stones—and the buckshot Chappelle ponders shooting at a hypothetical heroin addict breaking into his Ohio home—may break his bones, but words can never hurt a many-times-over millionaire speaking his mind on the world’s most influential entertainment platform. Chappelle eventually exits the stage to Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA.,” and sources Sticks and Stones’ epigraph from its lyrics: “Tell me somethin’ / You mothafuckas can’t tell me nothin’ / I’d rather die than to listen to you.” By now, that much is clear—“you” meaning the audience, and also the poor stylist who may have cautioned against wearing a custom army-green jumpsuit onstage.

Sticks and Stones is the fifth entry in Chappelle’s Netflix era, a triumphant, frustrating, highly lucrative reentry into public life after more than a decade on self-imposed hiatus. The first four hours, recorded over the course of three years and released in a span of just nine months, encompassed a wide variety of styles and subjects: a raucous sermon at a music festival, held in Chappelle’s archive for years; a more meditative sit-down at an intimate Los Angeles club, handed over to the rest of the world in just over a month.

They also shared a set of common themes. In his middle age, Chappelle has developed an obsession with social issues that speak far more to his personal anxieties than the lived experience of those affected by them. Between the two paired releases that turned Chappelle from elusive prophet to regular presence in less than a year, the reaction to these unfashionable opinions curdled from a minor caveat to an otherwise much-welcomed return into a serious hang-up for fans who grew up on Chappelle’s Show and preserved it in cultural amber. This response also went from a consequence of Chappelle’s comedy to fuel for it, with much of the second special spent not rectifying the profound misunderstanding of transgender people demonstrated in the first, but defending its expression. During his absence, Chappelle was easy to lionize as a symbol of irreverence, integrity, or whatever other qualities we could project onto the negative space he used to occupy. During his resurgence, Chappelle is increasingly difficult to romanticize—though one gets the sense that being anyone’s romantic hero is the last thing Chappelle wants.

There are many fallacies contained in Sticks and Stones hour-plus of pop philosophizing, and few worth picking apart. Kevin Hart was “precisely four tweets short of being perfect” for the Oscar job, and no amount of apologizing could make up for it. (“But he never actually apologized!” a small voice inside you may object, until realizing Chappelle would never internalize a set of facts that counter either his aggrievement or the jokes he sources from it.) #MeToo went too far, and now several states, including the one where the Atlanta-shot special was filmed, have passed near-total abortion bans. (“Movement conservatism goes back a lot further than that!” the same voice will exclaim.) Show business has one unspoken, ironclad rule: “No matter what you do in your artistic expression, you are never, ever allowed to upset the alphabet people,” meaning members of the LGBTQ community. (“Doesn’t the very existence of this special prove otherw…” the voice will trail off, before falling silent forever.)

Underlying these convenient shortcuts—which are taken to set up some punch lines better and sharper (“My shit’s like an above-ground pool”) than others (“Somebody’s gotta teach these kids there’s no such thing as a free trip to Hawaii”)—is a much deeper contradiction. All this casual bomb-throwing, delivered with Chappelle’s signature smirk and walk-away-from-the-explosion shuffle, is conducted under the pretense that Chappelle is a truth-teller. Like so many other comics, Chappelle sees himself as countering conventional wisdom with hard realities the audience doesn’t want to hear, cushioned by a laugh. But Chappelle’s takes don’t defy establishment thinking at all; they simply channel it.

The more time Chappelle spends back in the spotlight, the less distance, and therefore exceptionalism, he maintains from other members of his generation. (Not that Chappelle himself is all that interested in drawing a distinction; he describes C.K. as “a very good friend of mine before he died in that terrible masturbation accident.”) As ever, Chappelle remains a cut above in terms of execution: “a long gander at the anus” is an objectively brilliant turn of phrase, however upsetting its use in the context of the Jackson abuse allegations; an extended analogy about a road trip shows a surprisingly savvy understanding of the internal politics of LGBTQ activism. But Chappelle’s stances on everything from the WNBA to “celebrity hunting season” are perfectly in line with the forces that keep the WNBA so undervalued in the first place or book Hart for a commiserating gripe session on Ellen. Chappelle shares a basic misunderstanding of power—as well as the resulting victim complex—with many other celebrities, and a set of deeply held assumptions with that one uncle you pray you don’t wind up next to on Thanksgiving.

In Aziz Ansari’s very different resumption of a public persona, Right Now, the comic gripped many of the same third rails as his colleague. Chief among them was the art-vs.-artist debate surrounding Jackson and R. Kelly, a subject that both men feel similarly ambivalent about in starkly contrasting tones. Ansari is circumspect and performatively torn, a more careful approach that may be informed by the comedian’s personal history with controversy, yet dovetails with his conscientious vibe. Chappelle, meanwhile, is openly combative, freely describing himself as a “victim blamer” after proudly declaring, “I do not believe these motherfuckers!” As with the 2017 specials, what jars isn’t the line itself, but the thunderous applause that greets it. Chappelle isn’t challenging anyone’s previously held point of view. He’s giving the many, many people who share it permission not to look much closer in the mirror.

Because this is a Dave Chappelle special in 2019, Chappelle includes a preemptive rejoinder to those who might take issue with some of his jokes. “If you at home watching this shit on Netflix,” he crows, “remember, bitch—YOU clicked on my face!” In one sense, he’s right; at this point, what are we supposed to expect? Gritting one’s teeth to get through a Dave Chappelle set is now, by apparent design, part of the experience of a Dave Chappelle set, which makes itemizing the reasons for doing so in a review as inevitable as it is futile. As Chappelle ossifies further into a set of recognizable tics, the mystery of what he was up to has been replaced by the obvious reality of what he’s become. Chappelle is adamantly opposed to change. Time will tell whether his audience is similarly committed.