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Shock and bore: how Dave Chappelle lost his comic touch

The Guardian logo The Guardian 8/28/2019 Charles Bramesco

Dave Chappelle performs at The Imagine Ball Honoring Serena Williams Benefitting Imagine LA Presented By John Terzian & Val Vogt on September 23, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Imagine LA) © 2018 Vivien Killilea Dave Chappelle performs at The Imagine Ball Honoring Serena Williams Benefitting Imagine LA Presented By John Terzian & Val Vogt on September 23, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Imagine LA) It all goes back to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, or at least the reputation they left behind as a legacy. The two continue to inspire up-and-coming comedians due to their lionized status as embattled truth-tellers, men whose jokes were so searingly incisive about human hypocrisy that the culture’s tongue-cluckers couldn’t handle the truth. Bruce in particular stands today as something between a rock star and martyr, the angry young subversive with a tight fifteen so powerful that the squares had to put him in handcuffs and drag him off the stage.

At the time, rabble-rousers like Bruce and Pryor knew they were doing something right when people got angry at them. They prided themselves on it, in the knowledge that shaking the foundations of the old guard – their religion, their etiquette, their sexual hangups – made their voices vital and exciting.

This is almost certainly how Dave Chappelle sees himself, judging from the material and delivery in Sticks and Stones, his fifth stand-up special recorded as part of his twenty-million-a-pop deal with Netflix. He opens with an epigram from Kendrick Lamar, triumphantly declaring, “Tell me somethin’ / you moth--------s can’t tell me nothin’ / I’d rather die than to listen to you.”

It’s a defiant middle finger extended in the direction of the critics, notifying whatever haters may have tuned in out of perverse curiosity that he will not be deterred by their words. Indeed, Chappelle has come under fire as of late for saying things he should not say, the very same charge that Bruce and Pryor were slapped with decades earlier. But only if a person thinks about the ire directed at these provocateurs that broadly, with no mind to the specifics of their respective situations, does the comparison hold up.

A single moment’s consideration would reveal that there’s a big difference between Lamar telling the hosts of Fox News that he won’t be their talking point in bad-faith conversations about the societal effects of hip-hop, and Dave Chappelle taking potshots at the transgender community. Trans people – referred to as “the Ts” in an extended run about “the alphabet people” that make up the LGBTQ community, as if Chappelle will melt like the Wicked Witch of the West if he even says the word – really take it on the shins, but they’ve got plenty of company.

Chappelle speaks out against Michael Jackson’s accusers, stating in no uncertain terms that “I do not believe these moth--------s” to whistles and cheers of approval from the audience. An assortment of his hotter takes plays like an exoneration wishlist: Kevin Hart’s a good guy, Louis CK never did anything wrong, and even if the King of Pop did prey on innocent children, “I mean, it’s Michael Jackson.”

Chappelle likes to play sheepish when airing what he knows will be his more polarizing opinions, repeatedly doing the classic “drop the punch line, throw your hands up, and walk upstage” bit to playact stepping away from the fallout of his jokes. He puts on the Bugs Bunny gee-ain’t-I-a-stinker face as he qualifies with transparent sarcasm, “Far be it from me to offend anybody!” He even gives the timeless defense of the indefensible and mentions more than once that he has gay friends, perhaps in the hopes that they will form a protective phalanx around his ideas.

The public hailed Chappelle as a s--t-stirring seer for so long, and for the most part rightly, that he cannot part with that image of himself even as it rapidly sours. In the worst-case scenario, this trajectory ultimately sends him the way of Ricky Gervais, currently locked in an increasingly sweaty campaign to get a rise out of his audience with the same tired jabs. That’s the most meaningful front on which Sticks and Stones fails; for all his power to offend, Chappelle has utterly lost the power to shock.

The predictability has been the most dispiriting part about watching the master lose his touch over the past couple of specials. Excepting one little tease facetiously implying that he may have had sex with a fourteen-year-old, none of the lines raise an eyebrow.

We’re locked into a routine, both the performer and the critical corps professionally obligated to take his bait, his transgressions every bit as preordained as our objections to them. Even for someone uninterested in pondering the particulars of who he’s making angry and why, Chappelle’s got to recognize another major difference between his predecessors and himself in their reception.

Those familiar with his recent output click into the newest knowing full well what they’re in for, leading to the same restricting self-selection of opinion that one might otherwise find on Fox News, Chappelle’s secondhand enemy left unnamed in Lamar’s quotation. Forefathers like Bruce and Pryor reveled in infiltrating the mainstream with beliefs so progressive about sex, race, and culture as to be dangerous. Chappelle would rather retreat into his niche as an old crank, where all is expected and safe.

Related video: Dave Chappelle defends Michael Jackson, Louis C.K. in new special (via Yahoo Entertainment)

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