Words will never hurt me.

Dave Chapelle performs a set for military members at the Charleston Club at Joint Base in Charleston, South Carolina on February 3, 2017. A crowd containing more than 200 service members and civilians filed in to one of the salons to take pictures with Dave Chapelle. Photo taken by Tom Brading.

The day is August 26, 2019 and Dave Chapelle has released a new standup special. After a bit containing Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, the comedian tells the audience he doesn’t believe the sexual assualt and rape allegations made by Wade Robinson and James Safechuck against Michael Jackson. He goes on to call HBO’s Documentary Finding Neverland, which tells the story of how both boys met Michael Jackson and details the alleged sexual abuse, “F****** gross.” Dave Chapelle then says, “Even if it did happen,” he shrugs. “You know!” The crowd roars and Dave Chapelle goes back in, “I know more than half the people in this room have been molested in their lives. But it wasn’t no goddamn Michael Jackson, was it? This kid got his dick sucked by the King of Pop! All we get is awkward Thanksgivings for the rest of our lives.”

This is an example of what Dave Chapelle’s new standup special, Sticks and Stones, consists of. The comedy is intentionally offensive, anserine, and shocking. The title is a play on the famous saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” —which is the exact thing that has happened since its release. Almost every major news site has released opinion pieces on why Chappelle’s latest standup special is his worst, due to the offensive and crude nature of the jokes. I loved Sticks and Stones not because of Chappelle’s material, but because of the philosophical conundrums being debated in almost every article discussing it. 

One thing people need to understand is that humor is subjective. One person’s tumble down the stairs could make someone erupt in laughter while another walks past with a stern seriousness. It’s all a matter of preference or comedic taste. For example, I don’t necessarily find musical comedy funny. I have never liked musicals; I walked out of Mary Poppins when I was 8. Musical comedy just doesn’t make me laugh. However, Anti Comedy and Shock Humor always cracks me up. Something about the awkward and ridiculous nature of sketches like Eric Andre’s chaotic skydiving fall into the roof of a taste testers group leaves me on the brink of tears.

One example of Chappelle’s subjective comedy is making light of marginalized groups. This is no new territory for Dave Chapelle. Some of his most famous sketches and characters are based heavily on blaxploitation and racial stereotypes, including Tyrone Biggums, who is a white lipped, crack addicted homeless man; Clayton Bigsby, who is African-American but associates as a white supremicist; and “Black George Bush.” Dave Chapelle has been making fun of stereotypes about the black community since the very beginning of his career, similarly to how Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Redd Foxx have done. The outrage seemed to begin when Dave Chapelle started to make fun of communities out of his identity, specifically the LGBTQ community. It is obvious that Dave Chapelle will make fun of anyone; he does not limit his comedy to a certain audience. However, he tends to focus on the trivialization of racism by white mainstream America and how systematic oppression affects African Americans in the most ridiculous ways. 

Dave Chapelle does not offend me, but that does not mean I do not see how one could be troubled by his latest special. By now, Dave Chapelle has made it clear he is going to be himself no matter what and if you get offended, “Just remember you clicked on my face MotherF******.” The problem I see with this statement is one I hear all too often in our world. When we feel at peace with ourselves as a people, we tend to not see the importance of growth anymore. Dave Chapelle has made it clear that he is not going to limit his comedy by censoring himself because that is the new norm of society. Sounds pretty edgy and forthcoming right? It would be more disappointing to hear this from someone in a position of power or leadership instead of someone whose career is built off of using free speech creatively and cleverly.

Chapelle cleverly restates negative experiences as a black male that forces you to look in the mirror and question internal beliefs and stereotypes you might’ve held. With sketches like “Black George Bush” where his head of security is Mos Def dressed in early 90s gangster wear, sporting timbs, an extra large bubble jacket, and three gold chains, it is a ridiculous idea that the head of security at the White House would wear an outfit like that due to his race. Where Dave Chapelle’s comedy is lacking is in his stories of LGBTQ folks. Many are so ridiculous or offensive that it forces audiences to react. He lacks the same humanity that he gives to himself in his bits. Stereo Williams puts it perfectly, as he states in an opinion piece in The Daily that, “He needs reminding that the struggle of black Americans isn’t limited to the oppression of black men by the establishment—it’s inherent in the oppression of all black people and in how black people have been subjugated within our community.” 

I can understand how the LGBTQ, particularly the transgender community, feels unfairly portrayed by Dave Chapelle. In his newest special he ponders the idea of what it might be for a trans person to be born in the wrong body and if he could feel a different race than he was born. He goes on to slint his eyes and put on a cheap Asian accent and says, “Hey everybody, I’m Chinese!!” He does make light of the experiences the transgender community faces instead of pointing out the ridiculous connudrums and foolishnish that society portrays transgender humans as. Again hearing this at face value feels wrong, but I am taking every sentence in Chapelle’s special as an attempt to stammer laughter out of the audience, which in some cases did cause some guilty laughs for me. I did watch this special with the intent to laugh, which cannot be the same as the intent for every viewer.

Not all transgender people feel offended, such as Daphne Dorman, a local comedian of San Francisco and attendee of a Dave Chapelle set. He mentions in his standup that she told him after one of his sets “Thank you for normalizing transgender people.” I can understand those who feel disappointed. We’re beginning to make progress, in all areas of society; women’s rights, climate change, LGBTQ, people of color and to hear a beloved comedian make fun of a group in the very same way that the oppressors do is disheartening. Especially since Dave Chapelle is so far removed from the very communities that he’s speaking about, making $60 million with his Netflix deals. Perhaps Dave Chapelle doesn’t care to evolve. He does speak his reality so cleverly that it is almost convincing to me to believe we live in a world where jokes are only jokes. I can’t believe that though.

So, do I find Dave Chapelle’s latest special funny? I hesitate to answer this question linearly, because answering yes could subscribe me to ideologies and beliefs that I disagree with wholeheartedly and answering no could label me as a “snowflake” and “Sensitive Social Justice Warrior.” I won’t say I find this special funny but I won’t say I didn’t. I understand how listening to his jokes as only that could offer up some guilty laughs, but a larger part of myself is not as much disappointed but more concerned. A man to cause this much outrage is also able to stop a large amount of outrage. I think the varying opinions really just depend on how much freedom we believe should be given to entertainers in mainstream media to entertain. I believe a comedian’s job is to make you laugh and if Dave Chapelle made you laugh in this special, for whatever reason, that is your right. If he didn’t, that’s also your right. In the end what really matters is what you’ll do when someone who isn’t a famous comedian says seriously the very same jokes Dave Chapelle said in his special Sticks and Stones.

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