If I hadn’t known better, I might have thought Dave Chappelle penned a controversial op-ed in the New York Times on Monday, or maybe he appeared on CNN where he launched into a misogyny laden, transphobic rant to the horror of panelists and viewers at home. Nope, he released a Netflix comedy special Monday, and while the special was generally well received by the public and most media outlets, predictably, the wokest of woke media went wokeshit.
Vice tried to get out ahead of the special by confidently announcing, “You Can Definitely Skip Dave Chappelle’s New Netflix Special ‘Sticks & Stones.’” If Vice thought their “nothing to see here, folks, move along” review was going to limit viewership, my guess is they’re sorely disappointed. It would be interesting to know the ratio of people who heeded Vice’s warning versus those who tuned in because of it. You can definitely put me in the latter camp.
For the woke millennial crowd who may never have heard of comedy, or who aren’t all that familiar with comedy or Dave Chappelle, Vox weighs in with its explainer piece, delivering fact-checks and unimportant backstory to many of Chappelle’s bits. “Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special targets Michael Jackson’s accusers, #MeToo, and cancel culture” by Aja Romano reads like a critique of some author or intellect who’s on tour promoting a serious work of social commentary. Referring to Chappelle’s bits about Michael Jackson, R. Kelly and Kevin Hart, Romano says, “whether he framed those events fairly or not in order to mine them for comedy has become a contentious talking point.” Why is Chappelle expected to frame events fairly for a stand-up comedy routine? Why does Romano take Chappelle’s hour-long monologue so literally and so seriously? People who enjoy comedy don’t care if the work has been thoroughly fact-checked, and don’t expect to get the comedians true convictions and most deeply held beliefs. Comedians talk shit, they embellish and they make shit up. That’s what makes it funny. Who gives a fuck if Chappelle’s account of his interactions with the director of Surviving R. Kelly differ slightly from hers? A humorless writer for Vox, I guess.
The consistent criticism levelled by the Vox piece and pieces in Slate and Buzzfeed is that Chappelle is punching down. Okay, so I’ve never read the stand-up comedy handbook. I don’t know what the rules are when it comes to putting together a stand-up routine. All I can go by are my decades of watching stand-up comedians, starting with George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and moving through to the present. If there is a rule against punching down in stand-up, this is the first I’m hearing of it. I thought comedians could punch whatever the hell direction they wanted. Sure, comedians often go after celebrities, politicians and the rich and powerful because we’re all familiar with these folks, so they make good targets. But comedians also caricature ordinary people: a pimp, a drug dealer, a strict father, a strict grandmother, a sweet grandmother, bratty children, a classmate, a redneck, a convenience store clerk, a taxi driver, a co-worker, a person in line at Starbucks, a stoner, a fitness freak, a church lady, security guards… There is almost no limit to the number and kind of individuals who have been caricatured over the years in sketch comedies, movies and stand-up routines.
In Tomi Obaro’s piece for Buzzfeed entitled “Dave Chappelle Doesn’t Need To Punch Down,” the author takes particular offense at Chappelle’s characterization of “the alphabet people.” Frustrated at Chappelle’s lack of thoughtfulness, the author at one point suggests, “It’s enough to make you want to tie Chappelle to a chair and force him to binge-watch episodes of Pose.” Whatever that might accomplish, I seriously doubt it would improve Chappelle’s comedy, at least not in the way Obaro thinks it would. Towards the end of the piece, Obaro complains about Chappelle’s lack of maturity and asks, “why not strive to be more interesting, more original, more thoughtful?” It should go without saying that Chappelle is not submitting an essay on LGBTQ culture for publication in The New Yorker. That Chappelle is “not a little boy. He’s a grown-ass man.” is true enough. However, my understanding of comedy is that many comedians, to a degree, suffer from a form of permanent adolescence. It’s kind of what makes them funny. Comedians say the things many in society are thinking, but don’t say, because they’re too busy being respectful and acting like mature adults. Which isn’t to say everyone is privately a bigot and a phobe, it’s to say that we are all flawed and we like to laugh at how ignorant and irrational and immature we can all be sometimes. And no one should get a pass. Because the minute we start handing out Comedy Exemptions is the minute we start taking ourselves way too seriously and cease to be able to joke about anything at all.