By the time I got a chance to watch Sticks and Stones, the new Dave Chappelle Netflix special that premiered August 26, I had already read thousands of words of commentary about it. This isn’t the ideal way to consume any cultural product, let alone comedy. That line by E.B. White and Katharine White about the futility of explaining a joke didn’t become a famous (and frequently misattributed) adage for nothing. “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can,” the Whites wrote in 1942, “but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”
Today, when we spend so much more time dissecting our arts and entertainment than we do actually taking it in, we’re not just killing the frogs but altering their ecosystem to the point where only the most primitive species can survive. That’s because we’ve traded the laugh-o-meter for something like a moral yardstick. The concept of punching up versus punching down has long been a fundamental tenet of comedy, the idea being that ridiculing those in power is a classier, and ultimately funnier, gambit than belittling those lower down on the ladder. Traditionally, the great comedians have managed to harmonize their barbs by doing a bit of both at the same time. Back in the 1960s, Lenny Bruce used the n-word to make a statement about civil rights. As recently as 2005, Sarah Silverman observed that rape was a heinous crime but rape jokes were “great.” But today’s literal minded culture can increasingly hear only one note at a time. (Case in point: Silverman, who has disavowed some of her early material, recently revealed in an interview that she had been fired from a movie after producers dug up old footage of her in blackface. Never mind that the sketch, which dated back to 2007, was meant to be a comment about the scourges of both racism and anti-Semitism.) As such, “comedy criticism” now does double duty as a sort of warning system for the humorless.
Critics who don’t engage Chappelle’s jokes on the level at which he clearly intended them are operating in bad faith. Whether or not you think he’s funny, he deserves to be taken seriously.
Vice’s take, “You Can Definitely Skip Dave Chappelle’s New Netflix Special ‘Sticks and Stones,’” by Taylor Hosking, boiled down the performance to “anti-wokeness shtick” that was “repetitive and exhausting.” In an article on The Ringer, “Dave Chappelle’s Provocations Have Turned Predictable,” reporter Alison Herman wrote that Chappelle’s “obsession with social issues speak far more to his personal anxieties than the lived experience of those affected by them.” In Vox, writer Aja Romano took the liberty of speculating about Chappelle’s own lived experience, suggesting that the debate surrounding his act was a goal in and of itself, “a way to keep his name in the public eye, draw lots of curiosity views, make his fans feel even more protective of him and, in his own words, ‘victim blame’ anyone feeling outraged.”
Stirring up debate could hardly be said to be Chappelle’s — or any legitimately creative person’s — primary goal. Chappelle is widely considered one of the most talented comics of our time. Courting controversy for the sake of remaining relevant or marshaling the zombie support of fans is Milo Yiannopoulis stuff. It is, to the extent anyone pays attention to him, Andrew Dice Clay stuff. Here, as in his past work, Chappelle is up to something much more ambitious. Some of his jokes may fall squarely into the realm of bad taste but, frankly, any critic, professional or amateur, who doesn’t engage them on the level at which Chappelle clearly intended them is operating in bad faith. Whether or not you think he’s funny, he deserves to be taken seriously.
For what it’s worth, I liked Sticks and Stones a lot. That’s not to say it didn’t have missteps or that I belly laughed all the way through. In fact, I cringed in a few places, for instance when Chappelle sank into a crude impression of a Chinese person, or in one of the most shocking moments, when he said he didn’t believe the men who accused Michael Jackson of molesting them. But I liked how his barbs were, by and large, aimed less at individuals than at the befuddling and often counterproductive qualities of the cultural and political phenomena that have been built up around certain individuals. The Jackson joke was a bridge too far, but it was also a comment about how staggeringly common childhood sexual abuse is. “I know more than half the people in this room have been molested in their lives,” he said to the crowd of more than two thousand. “But it wasn’t no goddamn Michael Jackson, was it?”
In a sequence that’s sparked considerable apoplexy among progressives, Chappelle parses the layers of LGBTQ activism, positing that each letter represents a separate movement “that just travel in the same car together.” Here, the punch up/punch down nature of the conceit is both maddening and masterful — and also the whole point. On one hand, Chappelle refers to LGBTQ individuals as “alphabet people,” a juvenile setup that, however wince-inducing, ultimately works because it simultaneously draws in and ridicules the knuckle dragging types who might earnestly use such a term. On the other hand, the entire bit can also be read not just as an indication of support for LGBTQ rights but also a signal of awareness of the ways in which certain groups under that umbrella — for instance the G’s, which contain plenty of white men — may be more privileged than others. “Everybody in the car respects the T’s [the trans people], but everyone also resents the T’s,” Chappelle says. “It’s not anyone’s fault but everyone in the car just feels like the T’s are making the trip take longer.”
Despite the outraged reaction to this routine, Chappelle isn’t targeting trans people — or any people — at all. He’s exploring the vicissitudes of social progress and the often-slow pace at which human beings adjust their perceptions. He’s making the eminently reasonable yet not-safe-for-Twitter point that activism around transgender and nonbinary rights is a moving target of such rapid and multi-directional proportions that even the most committed allies may be inclined to pump the brakes in order to keep the whole movement from swerving off the road. Beyond that, he is, at least in my reading, implying that not exercising some measure of speed control is tantamount to not taking LGBTQ rights seriously enough to employ smart strategy around them — for instance, recognizing that Democrats might be better off passing trans-friendly bathroom bills once they get into office rather than making it a campaign issue that might keep them from getting elected in the first place.
Chappelle is doing exactly what good comedy should do, which is to make us laugh while also forcing us to confront our own confusions and moral inconsistencies.
Some will see such calculations as nothing more than cynical centrism that panders to those who are, to use the phrase du jour, “on the wrong side of history.” Others will argue that slow and steady wins the race. In fact, both are true. And when Chappelle gets to the part in the car joke where the other passengers tell the “T’s” that they’ll have to wait through four more states before they can use the bathroom “so we can get where we’re going,” he’s expressing the confusion and discomfort that comes from holding two opposing thoughts in your head at the same time. He’s doing exactly what good comedy should do, which is to make us laugh while also forcing us to confront our own confusions and moral inconsistencies.
By all appearances, the show is a hit. Netflix is notoriously secretive about its ratings, but Chappelle’s specials have always been among its most-watched programming, and online chatter suggests that, outside of the woke-o-sphere, the comic is as beloved as ever. But you wouldn’t know that from reading the news. That leaves me wondering: why are we letting some of the most humorless people in our midst, presumably young puritanical lefty journalists and their mob-like acolytes on Twitter, decide what’s funny and what’s not?
This crowd already has its hands full telling us what’s problematic in general — what’s sexist, racist, transphobic, ableist and the like. Do we really need its approval over what should make us laugh? Furthermore, are these hall monitors so committed to the most literal application of “punch up/punch down” that they can’t tell the difference between making fun of vulnerable people and making fun of the ways in which vulnerability itself has been elevated to a status position?
I’d like to think most writers for outlets like Vice, Vox, and The Ringer (if not necessarily everyone who reflexively retweets them) can make the distinction. These are, for the most part, people with pedigreed educations and high IQs. That they choose to pretend there’s no difference — and that anyone who thinks otherwise is just using irony and nuance as a smokescreen for hatred — tells us a lot about where the highest value cultural currency is these days. It tells us that there’s status to be gained in being a scold. It suggests humorlessness has become a power grab.
Which is why it’s so absurd to accuse Chappelle of punching down. On the contrary, most of the show is a series of slugs at an increasingly powerful force in the culture today: the force of outrage mobs. He’s not punching down at marginalized people, he’s punching up at the sanctimony that can dilute — and ultimately dehumanize — their cause. As for the charge that his “obsession with social issues speak far more to his personal anxieties than the lived experience of those affected by them,” well, that’s what artists do. They take the personal and make it universal, or at least communal. They take their own lived experience and transform it into something in which others can see their own lives. That’s not about punching up or down. It’s about looking around in all directions.
Update: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote to BuzzFeed. The quote was from a story on The Ringer.