Does Dave Chappelle actually believe in what he’s selling?
Can a provocateur, by nature, ever go too far?
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot since Dave Chappelle’s new special, “Sticks & Stones,” premiered on Netflix this week and swiftly generated one headline: Dave Chappelle says Michael Jackson’s accusers are lying.
Does Chappelle actually believe that? Or is he baiting us into a larger conversation, one he addresses in the special, about cancellation culture, groupthink and reflexive outrage? The swiftness of our news cycle coupled with the toxicity of social media, which generates instantaneous moral outrage that brooks no dissent? Trigger warnings, safe spaces, the softening of public debate — what are we becoming? What are these things costing us?
It’s a conversation we’re not yet having, because — as Chappelle predicted in the introduction to his set — fury would be the immediate response to his special, among both mainstream media and online scourges.
Chappelle begins by quoting one of our other great and rare provocateurs, Prince. “I was dreaming when I wrote this/Forgive me if it goes astray/But when I woke up this morning/Could have sworn it was Judgment Day/The sky was all purple/There were people running everywhere” — and here Chappelle stops to tell the audience that this is the most important line, in essence, the premise of Chappelle’s entire set:
“Trying to run from my destruction/You know I didn’t even care.”
Could Chappelle be clearer? He is telling us that he is willing to not just destroy but be destroyed. In a culture that is otherwise full of cheap provocations, from the White House to reality TV, Chappelle is a rarity: A true comic provocateur.
Yes, he is complicated. He has been criticized for jokes dismissive of the transgender community and the #MeToo movement. But, he is asking us, is the answer to cancel him?
The best of the breed, like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, double as public intellectuals, reframing and refocusing our otherwise set ideas and beliefs about religion, profanity, racism, sex, the role of government, wealth, poverty, drugs, materialism, hypocrisy, inequality, crime, terrorism, patriotism. In pursuit of larger truths, nothing can be off-limits.
Carlin was once a pariah, but he died an elder statesman, a singular and beloved figure in American life. So we should value someone like Chappelle — who is due to receive the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize this October — and give him the consideration he’s earned.
Further proof of Chappelle’s premise: His insightful thoughts on other urgent matters, in this very same special, have been unremarked upon.
There’s Chappelle’s comparison of today’s opioid crisis to the devastation crack wrought in the ’80s, with one important distinction: This epidemic gets much more attention because these addicts are white. “’Just say no,’” Chappelle says, wryly quoting Nancy Reagan’s decades-old anti-drug slogan. “How easy is that?”
And why, Chappelle asks, are our children subjected to dry runs for mass school shootings? Aren’t those just tipping off future shooters — inevitably fellow students — to know where everyone else is hiding?
And what about those shooters, who are overwhelmingly white? How about every black person in America goes and registers for a gun? Maybe then we’ll get some meaningful gun control on the books.
Offensive? Maybe. True? Yes.
Back to the question at hand: Has Chappelle gone too far in not just defending Michael Jackson, but calling his accusers liars? Yes. That was hard to hear and hard to watch. Did Chappelle go too far in not just defending Louis C.K. but in blaming his female victims for not simply walking out? To my mind, definitely.
Yet am I glad this special exists? One hundred percent yes. We need transgressors. We need people who will dare to speak the unspeakable, defend the indefensible, to be brave and force us to question, question, question. We can take it.
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