What on Earth is going on with Dave Chappelle?

 I’m not outraged, or shocked, or triggered. I’m bored

Clémence Michallon
New York
Friday 30 August 2019 17:04
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Dave Chappelle Standup Comedy trailer: Sticks & Stones

What’s going on with Dave Chappelle? This is the question I’ve been asking myself since watching his new Netflix special, Sticks & Stones, which came out on Monday.

In his one-hour comedy show, Chappelle touches on a number of topics, from LGBT+ rights to MeToo and feminism. In an especially bewildering moment, he takes aim at Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the two men who laid out detailed allegations of sexual abuse against Michael Jackson in the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland. “I’m going to say something that I’m not allowed to say,” he warns the audience (although such a warning might not be necessary, because Chappelle has built a career out of saying “things he’s not allowed to say”). “But I’ve got to be real. I don’t believe these motherf*****s. I do not believe them.”

Chappelle then describes himself as an avowed victim-blamer, which he conveys through a Chris Brown/Rihanna joke (of course).

“I don’t think he did it,” he adds about Jackson. “But you know what… even if he did do it… You know what I mean? I mean, it’s Michael Jackson! 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?” The bit escalates as Chappelle goes on: “This kid got his d*** sucked by the King of Pop! All we get is awkward Thanksgivings for the rest of our lives. You know how good it must have felt to go to school the next day after that s***?”

I’m so tired. I’m so tired of Chappelle’s jokes. I’m so tired of the cycle of outrage and counter-outrage that inevitably follows them. I’m so tired of having to explain why some people might think it’s wrong to joke about child rape accusations, even in a comedy show.

Chappelle’s brand of humour is meant to be “controversial”. His approach, it seems, is to say out loud what everyone else is supposedly thinking, which in turn gets some good laughs. It’s a tricky type of humour to critique, because if you don’t like it, then you’re a snowflake. You’re being too sensitive. You just don’t get it. Maybe you should let go of your political agenda long enough to enjoy a one-hour comedy show, don’t you think, love?

But the truth is, Sticks & Stones isn’t controversial. It’s not thought-provoking. It’s lazy and unimaginative. I’m not outraged, or shocked, or triggered. I’m bored.

Chappelle was the world’s third highest-paid comedian in 2018 according to Forbes, having earned an estimated $35m. I mean, really? This is the bar we’re setting for one of the highest-profile comedians of our time? Low-hanging-fruit jokes about how bisexual people are “gross” and “greedy” because they want to “f*** everyone”? One-liners about transgender people being stuck in the “f***** hilarious predicament” of “being born in the wrong body”? A cringey bit about what Chinese people supposedly sound and look like?

This all begs the question: is this really the third-best we can do?

“It’s hard not to write these jokes,” says Chappelle in his Netflix special, as a faux-apology for his supposed irreverence. It’s an interesting remark, actually – those jokes do write themselves, don’t they? Maybe the jokes, too, are kind of tired – and maybe, if they came from any other comedian than Chappelle (say, a rookie at an open-mic night), we wouldn’t give them the time of day.

Look, there are jokes to be made about cancel culture, MeToo, and our collective efforts to come to terms with the limits of acceptable behaviour. There are jokes to be made, in fact, about pretty much anything in life. You can be provocative. People do it every day. The animated show Family Guy, for example, has joked about everything (and I mean everything, from disability to the Holocaust), and not with kid gloves, for 20 years. Sometimes, it sticks the landing. Sometimes, it really doesn’t. (The 2010 episode “Quagmire’s Dad” was notably criticised for its portrayal of the titular character’s transgender identity.)

In other words, there is room for humour that pushes boundaries – and there should also be room for those who feel alienated by this push to speak out.

Leaving Neverland premiered in March this year, and enough time has apparently lapsed for comedians to start tackling it on stage. Aziz Ansari has a genuinely funny bit about the documentary in his own (flawed) Netflix special, Aziz Ansari: Right Now. It doesn’t involve trashing Robson and Safechuck (nor does it involve openly declaring his support for them, though Ansari states that “it seems that something weird was happening and that Michael was kind of a sick guy”). So, in case anyone was wondering: it is possible to joke about Leaving Neverland while displaying a basic amount of empathy towards Jackson’s accusers.

Some will claim that anything is acceptable as long as it’s said on a comedy stage. But there’s no denying that as a famous, beloved comedian, Chappelle has a huge platform – and Sticks & Stones isn’t using it in the best possible way. Certainly, not believing Jackson’s accusers is Chappelle’s right. But there is a difference between privately not believing someone – while understanding that that’s your point of view and that other people might feel differently – and amplifying the same discourse that has harmed survivors of sexual violence, onstage, in front of an audience, during the taping of a Netflix special.

It’s painfully ironic that in another Sticks & Stones bit, Chappelle lectures feminists, claiming that they’re not going about their fight for equality the right way and that we’re now worse off than when MeToo started. Well, gee, I wonder why. Could it have something to do with people constantly undermining survivors’ voices? I guess we’ll never know.

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