The Art of Trolling with Dave Chappelle: Sticks & Stones
Dave's controversial new special has great momentum
The new Chappelle special feels more trolling in its tone than anything else but it’s also more consistently funny than half of the other 4 recent specials. I’m probably thinking about Equanimity and the Bird Revelation which were almost better as just pieces of art than they were as comedy at times though still ultimately brilliant as both. Anyway, in a meta-sense this is less trolly than his other recent specials in which he was basically improvising and having bitter funny cigarette barstool talks in intimate settings.
This new special doesn’t feel like that- it feels like he actually wrote and rehearsed this material which is showing us more respect than he apparently thinks we deserve so hey. In one of the first of the 2017 Netflix specials, Chappelle made this brilliant point about how it hurt as a black man to see how quickly transgender men were gaining acceptance in America due to their ranks having rich white guys like Bruce Jenner amongs them. He pondered, ‘since when did America give a fuck how people feel inside?’
That was cutting, vulnerable, human, powerfully insightful and still deeply, darkly funny. No one can take away this kind of virtuosity. No one can deny when he is on. No one can take away his achievements, how funny he is and how over-all good his work is despite the desire of many to do so. Conversely however, this doesn’t mean that not-good jokes from him are good or that he is a noble free speech warrior under attack by the mainstream press. The way people have been talking about the reaction to this special you’d think he’d lost a gig and was physically assaulted on the way out of a hotel or something but no I’m pretty sure he’s just getting huge checks from Netflix, chilling back maxin’.
In Sticks and Stones, Chappelle tells a story where he asked a gay man why he could say “nigger” with impunity but not “faggot”. The gay man said because he was not a gay man and Dave said “well I’m not a nigger either”. The crowd was uproarious: it’s wild to me how many regular Americans want to stick it to gays, like they’re the big bad evil oppressing the working poor of the world. He goes on a 5 minute plus riff about the stringent policing of language by the “alphabet people” in what feels like a truly devolved tired version of Eddie Murphy’s 80’s riffs about gay guys reacting negatively to his homosexuality jokes in “Delirious”. It never seems to occur to Dave that just like he is in fact, not a “nigger”, gay men are also not “faggots” but he and the audience don’t care, as long as they get to bash those uptight gays making everyone’s language so policed…
Making Chappelle's Show season 3, the wrong laughter from the wrong kind of people played a role in Dave's decision to leave the show this is referenced in the paragraphs above and below
I saw a Twitter commenter speak on this phenomena thusly and I’m paraphrasing: Chappelle quit his own show in the mid-2000s because he started to feel like his racial comedy was getting so ambiguous that racists were un-ironically enjoying it. Dave doesn’t care if the transphobes laugh the same way he did about racists laughing. He, as a comedian, has no regard for the struggle of anyone who has out-group struggle outside of race. The above anecdote is the perfect illustration of this for me….it didn’t occur to him that gays are not “faggots” in the exact same way black men are not “niggers”. And that’s okay! Comedians are NOT necessarily role models BUT he does fail by his own mid-2000s standards so maybe people should stop acting like he was such a hero for walking away from Chappelle’s show.
Anyway, the special has more momentum than the first two in 2017 despite the Morgan Freeman intros getting more tired as they go on in my opinion. The Anthony Bourdain riffs and duck fat joke stand out for their brilliance. The stuff about gun rights and the opiate crisis is brilliant in its humor and its commentary. The Prince Charles stuff had me rolling.
He is playing interestingly with bright imagery: his cartoonish Chinese man, the pancake butter / cum on fatman belly simile, and other instances where it seems like he’s pushing his own physicality and presentation just to experiment, just to be an animated comedian. Even with his “36 year old pussy joke”, one of the few great trolls he tossed out for women in this special, I was reminded of his olden days when he sprinted to the back of the stage. He’s bragged about his virtuosity on some of his other specials but I believe him here more than ever.
Chappelle is not a particularly evil right-winger broseph or whatever but he is definitely part of a larger trend of straight male comedians who don’t realize how tacky it is that they present themselves as victims of P.C. culture in an age of 1920’s-style inequality. I’m actually okay with his un-P.C.-bashing of non-racial minorities as long as the content is funny which it is upwards of 60% of the time but what grates is when Chappelle presents himself and other rich comedians as cowed victims. In the epilogue he comes off as particularly defensive and even goes out of his way to show that he has befriended a trans person.
My partner was saying that while she found it funny, she found him choosing to troll non-black minorities for an hour to reveal a limit to Chappelle’s imagination like, “yeah you can do this pretty funnily but this is what you’re choosing to talk about?” Ultimately, when it comes to the angles, I agree. The man who wrote the real-life-internet sketch probably has interesting commentary about lots of stuff in our late-capitalist world but you have to be true to yourself and Dave has always explicitly been obsessed with race and oppression in America. A secondary obsession for Mr. Chappelle has been saying things you’re not supposed to say, what you’re now allowed to say and being a black man and marveling at how he’s done it all anyway. Furthermore, I genuinely think he's getting into the art of Trolling and to be honest I don't know if I've ever seen such a long troll before. The Bird Revelation and the other specials had his normal provocative impish, even, moments of fucking-with-you but Sticks & Stones really is trolling us for the first 40 minutes of the hour plus, another level he is working his craft on and I think this is a new and worthy achievement in this internet age.
He’s a great artist and I look forward to the next entry in this series. It’s amazing and awesome that we went from 3 Chappelle specials to 8 in the last 2 years. It’s okay to criticize the rich and powerful as long as we’re not unduly attacking artists I think and part of the fun of getting new art like this and in general is to pick it apart- it’s not disrespectful to him for us to use it and experience it in every way. It’s even fun to write about! He is neither a despicable oppressor nor a noble champion of the underdog and he’s definitely the fuck not some kind of censorship victim. What he is is a troll, and a damn good one. Laugh on.
Tristan "Tanjint Wiggy" Acker is a staff writer for Zus Entertainment, a Jooseboxx and Untapped Hip-Hop contributor, and member of the Inland Empire, California based nerdcore hip-hop group the West Coast Avengers.