Dave Chappelle’s ‘Sticks & Stones’ Won’t Break Bones, Or Any New Ground Either

Few comedians are as enduring or headline-worthy as Dave Chappelle. Many can nab themselves TV or movie deals thus prolonging their shelf-life i.e. Kevin Hart, Kumail Nanjiani, Michelle Wolf, Bo Burnham. But the return to the mic isn’t always seamless i.e. Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Daniel Tosh (and, depending on who you ask, Ricky Gervais). Dave Chappelle is the rare comedian who came back with a renewed comic lens and a welcome socio-political incisiveness that made his return such a sigh of relief. But if his last two standups Age of Spin and Equanimity suggested a pseudo-renaissance, then Sticks & Stones is an unfortunate stumbling block that otherwise slows the breakneck pace of his resurgence.

Sticks & Stones starts out with a suicide joke. Those in his crosshairs: Anthony Bourdain, and a failed lawyer friend who got divorced and moved back in with his mother. We know what happens to Bourdain, the punchline being that it never occurred to the down-on-his-luck friend to commit suicide. Five minutes in and I could already see the headlines for Vice, Buzzfeed, and Vox: “Chappelle Mocks Anthony Bourdain,” “Chappelle’s New Standup Makes Light of Suicide.”

This, of course, is by the comic’s design. Chappelle knows this is provocative to say as he slyly drops bombs and walks away from the explosion. He knows it will be taken out of context with cries on social media to “cancel” him. Chappelle concludes the bit by saying, “Nobody’s life is perfect. No matter what it looks like from the outside, you don’t know what the fuck’s going on inside.” If you’re inflamed before he even gets there, then the rest of Sticks & Stones definitely isn’t for you.

Next, Chappelle airs his grievances with HBO’s Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland: “I don’t believe these motherfuckers,” Chappelle says (cue the headlines and backlash) and he only leans harder. He wonders why Macaulay Culkin wasn’t molested, the Home Alone star whom Jackson was friends with. “I’m not a pedophile,” Chappelle says leadingly, “but if I was…” and I’m sure you know where the joke is headed. The shocking thing isn’t that he flat-out says it, but that he’s saying it because it’s shocking to say and nothing more. (Compare this to his 2004 special For What It’s Worth, where the King of Pop served as a hilarious play on Chappelle’s ego as he grapples with a pop culture phenomenon and a serious moral conundrum.)

Nothing has ever been holy to Dave and that’s clearly still the case. Some will groan, others will find Chappelle’s irreverence refreshing in a high-and-mighty culture that wraps itself in a bind as far as what is and isn’t okay to say. Who the hell would want to regulate that shit anyway; the mental gymnastics is exhausting, Chappelle laments, using Kevin Hart’s Oscars controversy as indicative of this echo chamber. Joking about something and advocating a belief system are two different things, but we live in a time where the two are conflated as one in the same as we gun it for the moral high ground. Woke and PC culture is certainly on Chappelle’s mind. Unfortunately, it’s the only thing on his mind, and it’s exhausting too.

The first half treads from R. Kelly to Louis CK. Chappelle’s R. Kelly digs remain funny as ever, but it’s his kinda-sorta defense of Louis CK that will infuriate the woke masses, where Dave questions the perceived danger of the misconduct. If it reads like victim-blaming, that’s precisely the point— which he manages to get ahead of. His trump card, so to speak. He can call out the audience and the culture and do so with impunity so long as he calls himself out first.

“Y’all giving me a MeToo headache,” Chappelle says, and he antiquates getting swept up in the court of public opinion as THE reason we were blindsided by the newly passed abortion laws in 8 states. I understand what he’s saying, but it sounds an awful lot like Bill Maher’s tirade on how comic book movies attributed to the dumbing down of America which led to Trump’s presidency – over-the-top conjecture.

If you didn’t like Chappelle’s trans jokes before then you’ve probably checked out by now. He sneaks another trans joke explaining why he finds their predicament funny: “What if I was Chinese, but I was born black?” He then squints and adopts a Fu Manchu demeanor. I love a funny Asian stereotype as much as anybody, but for a guy like Chappelle that impression is plain lazy. The man has a take-your-pick catalogue of sublime Asian jokes and impressions. He begins Sticks & Stones by ironically saying he’s not very good at impressions. (His white guy voice, Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton and OJ Simpson impersonations are all killer tbh.) This Asian one in particular, he’s not kidding.

The first half of Sticks & Stones is the hit-or-miss section you have to get through to enjoy the treat that is its second half. Believe it or not, school shootings serve as the transition and Chappelle miraculously pulls it off. He finds out that his son’s school has been running school shooter drills: “Son, I’ll be honest… you’re probably gonna get shot. You got a famous dad and I talk a lot of shit.” Concluding the bit, he offers a crowd-pleasing solution to reforming the nation’s gun laws.

He segues into gun culture with an epic home invasion anecdote intertwined with the heroin crisis in the midwest, showcasing all of Chappelle’s hilarious hallmarks as a storyteller. (This and an LGBT analogy are dynamite.) These instances, he’s just a few props away from creating a Chappelle’s Show skit. The way he commands the audience’s attention as he uses the length of the stage to tell the story demonstrates why we want to keep watching him even when he says he’s done for good this time.

Jussie Smollett doesn’t escape the shooting gallery of Chappelle’s ire either, fulfilling the delicious promise teased by Chris Rock at the NAACP Awards earlier this year. (I wasn’t a fan of Tambourine, but Rock’s brief adlib at the ceremony made me yearn for more material.) Chappelle does a better job of deconstructing Jussie Smollet than he does Louis CK or Michael Jackson.

With the right topic, Chappelle can be outrageous, provoking, and insightful all at once. Through his timing and cleverness, he can take all the rage and frustration towards hot-button issues and channel them into painfully funny punchlines. It’s a release only laughter can bring. Think his classic baby on a corner bit from Killin’ Them Softly, or the Bill Cosby “rapes, but he saves” retort from Age of Spin. Or how he uses the hat trick line, “So I kicked her in the pussy” as the cathartic final word on Emmett Till’s lying accuser in Equanimity.

He ends on a similar note, managing the impossible and getting us to laugh about a sensitive topic. It’s just a shame Chappelle doesn’t find his footing until halfway in. Otherwise, Sticks & Stones feels like half of what could’ve been a great standup.

I’m saying this as a fan. The first standup I ever watched was Killin’ Them Softly; I grew up to Chappelle’s Show and his ballsy brand of humor, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights remains a cherished movie that my siblings and I ritualistically quote. When Chappelle made his mainstream comeback in 2016, we sat down and watched him host SNL— and I haven’t watched an episode of SNL in YEARS. So I say this with nothing but love and admiration for the guy: Chappelle can do better.

I get Dave’s fixation on cancel culture, but being that this is the 2nd special in a row now that he’s talked about the heartaches of what he can and cannot say – Chappelle unduly comes off as whiny. The title Sticks & Stones is a deliberate jab at woke, PC, and callout culture— the same way his green jumpsuit is intended to color him guilty. He wants to justify why it’s okay for him to say shocking and offensive things, but it’s a lot more like he’s pleading his audience to continue laughing long after the applause has died down. It reads like overkill when Chappelle has mined surefire laughs without needing an abundance of slurs anyhow.

I don’t have a problem with what Chappelle is willing to say. Because laughing at something and identifying with it are two totally different matters. To conflate the two is in itself outlandish and offensive. The real problem is that some of what Chappelle says is not that clever or new. That used to come naturally to him, whether it was shining Bill Cosby as “the Steph Curry of rape,” or likening Trump’s crazy leadership of America to seeing a crack pipe in an Uber driver’s passenger seat.

The only offensive thing about Sticks & Stones is that it’s not as funny as it should be. Chappelle is using the stage to vent at this point, to provoke for the sanctity of offending rather than meaningfully (and comedically) expressing his frustrations with real-world social issues and anxieties. It merits saying, comedy is not a one-size fits all. It’s allowed to be imperfect, to have rough edges, make mistakes, ruffle some feathers. In an age where we like to pretend how we ought to like and laugh at the same things, comedy of all things has to be human; it needs to be. But first and foremost, it has to be funny.