No comedy special had more cultural relevance in 2019 than did Dave Chappelle’s Sticks and Stones. Similar to so many other “flashpoint” topics throughout the year, this special was a clear example of how politically polarized our country is. To some, the special was unnecessarily insensitive and hurtful, and was cause for condemnation. To others, the special was a triumphant victory in the battle for “free speech”, and was cause for celebration. Like so many other controversial talking points, I got “polarization whiplash” alternating between left-leaning discussions and right-leaning discussions on the topic.
An issue that I had with so much of the buzz around this special was that not much of it had to do with the comedy itself. In other words, the quality of the special was judged not on the comedic value, but on the value of the political statement it was trying to make. Simply put, this is because, for a large part of the special, Chappelle tries to make a political statement over being funny.
The political-statement-over-humor trend has been one that has grown stronger in comedy over the years. This has seemed to grow in tandem with the increasing political polarization in our country, and has seemed to become especially prominent following Donald Trump’s election. While politics has always played a role in comedy, much more comedy now is serving the politics, and not the other way around.
At the current moment, the defining line in comedy seems to be around the ideas of “free speech” and “social justice”. These are two political ideas that one would expect to work together. Certainly, there are many examples around the world of a population using free speech (whether they have that right in their particular country or not) to speak out against social injustice. However, in the polarized arena of “first-world comedy” (for lack of a better term), these ideas have become pitted against each other, and many comedians/comedic performers find themselves becoming advocates for one side or the other.
This dynamic can be defined as follows: on the “free speech” side of the comedy divide, comedians have made it their cause to challenge perceived cultural oversensitivity by taking charged topics head-on and doubling down on edginess. On the “social justice” side of the comedy divide, comedians have made it their cause to speak out against perceived societal wrongs, and larger cultural insensitivity, by injecting social responsibility into their work. The “free speech” side sees itself as fighting against the rise of cancel culture, while the “social justice” side sees itself as fighting against bigotry.
Regardless of the merits of each perspective, the fact that a lot more comedians are going onstage with these agendas means that a lot fewer comedians are going onstage to make people laugh. This means that there are a lot fewer technical comedians, and a lot more technical social advocates and political pundits on both the right and the left. Funny social advocates and political pundits, but social advocates and political pundits nonetheless.
Sticks and Stones, or at least key parts of it, find Chappelle clearly speaking on behalf of “free speech”. During these moments, Chappelle’s persona moves from provocative comedian to (admittedly very funny) free speech advocate, whose goal is to challenge oversensitive audiences. He chooses topics that he knows are the hottest of hot button issues - this mainly being his discussion on “cancel culture” itself, the LBGTQ population, self-identification, and the Leaving Neverland documentary. In these moments, the underlying idea seems mainly to be the conceit that he is even touching upon these hot-button issues at all.
Even though these topics, and the underlying agenda of these topics, define a large part of the special, not all of the material is meant to provoke the easily provokable. The moments in which he covers less purposefully controversial topics build legitimate comedic momentum. His discussion of guns and how it wrapped into his discussion of the heroin epidemic are great examples. Through Chappelle’s discussion of guns, he makes comedic points such as: the only way to get gun reform is for all black people to try to buy a gun; and gun drills at school only serve to tell the school shooter where everyone will be. Through his discussion of heroin, he makes comedic points such as: nationwide drug problems are framed differently by the government, depending on which racial population is most affected (heroin now vs. crack in the ‘80s). He then creatively combines the two ideas, in a way that presents the points he is trying to make while also being satisfying comedically.
Compare this with the foundation of his “free speech” material. Unlike the creative comedic ideas that drive moments like his gun/drug material, the idea here can be summarized as: “Here is the well-defined line, and here I am crossing it.” Without any further depth than the act of being provocative, these parts of the special come across as distractingly one-note in their preachiness (see: his discussions on oversensitive audiences) and edginess (see: his discussion around “the alphabet people” and the Michael Jackson documentary). There are funny moments in these sections, but ultimately the underlying agenda proves too distracting for any comedy on top of it to have a real impact.
Chappelle’s ultimate comedic takes here are ones that political pundits could, and have, come up with already - “Audiences are too sensitive and we need to be able to joke about all taboo subjects”; “What if I wanted to self-identify as a different race?”; “The Michael Jackson accusations should not be taken simply at face value”; and “Transgender people are the outliers in the LGBTQ movement”. These are all talking points you hear when you turn on any relatively conservative news or talk radio show. Just as the pundit on these platforms has a political agenda, so too does Chappelle when he makes these points - the agenda in both cases is to challenge widely-accepted leftist views (AKA, the sources of “cancel culture”).
Certainly, Chappelle does express political perspectives in the less purposefully political parts of his special - in his discussion of the drug crisis and gun rights, he expresses these views among others: (1) the government is less concerned about problems in black communities, (2) the NRA and its supporters do not want black America owning guns, and (3) that there are legitimate reasons for owning a gun. However, much more than simply presenting a political perspective, these points of view are part of - and contribute to the strength of - a larger comedic idea. The political statements are there, and they are very serious political statements at that, but they are not so obvious that they become the point of focus.
Placing so much focus on this political statement restricts what Chappelle can do as a performer. For these parts of the special, he is speaking to a small, yet vocal, subsection of his audience, thinking about what would make them mad, and not thinking more generally/creatively about constructing funny material for his audience as a whole. Comedians should be able to joke about anything, but if it is not coming from that place of open-minded creativity, and is instead coming from an almost single-minded goal to take the low-hanging fruit of offending liberal bloggers, it is no longer that interesting to watch.
Ultimately, instead of watching the weaving together of comedy ideas in a seamless and intriguing way, we see a one-note crossing-of-line. Instead of watching a comedian, we see a social/political commentator. Admittedly, we do see a master comedian, and legitimately funny material, for parts of Sticks and Stones. However, ultimately, it is the agenda-driven and less comedic elements that form the unofficial thesis statement of the special. As such, the comedic elements are subsumed by the agenda-driven ones, and the overarching political goal is the lasting impression that the special leaves us with. It is no wonder that reviews of the special were so split along political lines, and why I heard so little about the parts of the special that actually deserved positive attention.