In what many would consider questionable parenting, both of my parents saw fit to expose me to stand-up comedy when I was very young. In the 1980s, my father and I would watch routines from Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinison. When I was 15, my mother took me to see Chris Rock during his legendary Bring the Pain tour. For more than three decades, I’ve enjoyed profanity-laden, taboo-laced comedy. I was also inspired as a teenager by the efforts of shock jock Howard Stern and Hustler magnate Larry Flynt to dodge censorship in an effort to deliver their content.
As such, I’ve developed a callus of sorts toward touchy and divisive humor. But even I squinted like I was watching a bloody surgical procedure while watching Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix special Sticks and Stones. Unlike most of his previous stand-up routines, this seemed specifically designed to court controversy; I knew 10 minutes in that it would result in think-piece bukkake.
Chappelle leaned in on everything he wasn’t “supposed” to: the Me Too movement, the trans community, continued defense of his buddy Louis C.K. following his fall from grace, and – perhaps most shockingly, a focused attack on Michael Jackson’s sexual assault accusers and Surviving R. Kelly executive producer dream hampton.
Quick fact check: I didn’t personally (or casually) invite Chappelle to be interviewed for the doc. The producer responsible for celeb outreach officially asked him, more than once. I haven’t seen or talked to him in about 8 years. Weird he told his joke that way.
— dream hampton (@dreamhampton) August 27, 2019
His keen dedication toward welcoming criticism might have marred Sticks and Stones – he’s veering toward predictability, which every comedian should aim to avoid. But it’s still Dave Chappelle – one of the funniest people drawing breath, for my money – and I laughed throughout most of the routine.
Stand-up comedy has historically subverted social propriety in the name of a laugh or three, but our current zeitgeist has forced us to reconsider what topics should be tapped for laughs and what we should find funny. As such, the genre has become low-hanging fruit for critics who demand that certain material should no longer have a place in entertainment. Many comedians have openly complained about this new normal; Chappelle turned his aversion to it into an entire special.
However, there remains a place for transgressive comedy, just as there is a place for its critiques. I believe any topic can be mined for humor, but also that timing and delivery are essential. When, on the Comedy Central Roast of Joan Rivers, Whitney Cummings said, “Joan’s vagina is so old it has a separate entrance for Black c—,” I was on the ground in tears for three minutes wholly unconcerned with the fact that a white woman made a joke many would consider racist…the shit was funny.
I believe intention also matters in delivering certain jokes. I don’t know Chappelle personally, but as a longtime fan, I don’t gather that he’s, at his heart, LGBT-phobic. His ability to deliver jokes that make you wonder if he’s really telling his truth or if he’s trying to make you laugh is reflective of mastery of his craft. In contrast, no one anywhere thought Michael Richards was being “funny” during his 2006 stand-up debacle in which he angrily yelled “n—-r” at a Black heckler. He was clearly being wantonly racist, and it essentially killed his stand-up career.
That said, comedy is wildly subjective, and there hasn’t been a joke written that everyone finds funny. Comedians bitching about how they can’t make certain jokes anymore has a similar ring of absurdity as men complaining that they can’t speak to women at all, lest they get #MeToo’d. It’s also a patently d— move to tell a sexual assault survivor that they should “lighten up” if they’re triggered by a joke. I could never begrudge LGBT advocates for openly campaigning against Chappelle if they feel that his admittedly offensive jokes cause harm.
Dave Chappelle and his ilk need to understand that they’re operating in evolving times and adapt accordingly or deal with consequences that could serve as a detriment to their careers. Kevin Hart has openly acknowledged that he’s become one of the biggest (and richest) comedians on the planet in large part by avoiding risky topics. (The homophobic jokes he made on Twitter that lost him his Oscar hosting gig are almost a decade old). That Eddie Murphy, one of Hart’s inspirations, became the world’s biggest comedian 30 years ago using material that Hart could never get away with in 2019 is simply an indicator that times change, as they are wont to do.
It’s easy for critics to dismiss Chappelle as unfunny, but he’s earned $60 million for his three Netflix specials (and three Emmy nominations for one) for a reason: Dude has an audience. It’s essential that we consistently attempt to move the needle toward social progression and the widespread acceptance of marginalized populations, but transgressive humor will always have a place in a world where people enjoy things they believe they aren’t supposed to – like killing that bag of Reese’s Pieces while on a diet or watching that couple argue in public.
As long as that aspect of humanity exists, the Dave Chappelle types are here to stay in some capacity. And the cultural battle over comedy will continue.
Dustin J. Seibert is a native Detroiter living in Chicago. Miraculously, people have paid him to be aggressively light-skinned via a computer keyboard for nearly two decades. He loves his own mama slightly more than he loves music and exercises every day only so his French fry intake doesn’t catch up to him. Find him at his own site, wafflecolored.com.