Watching Dave Chappelle’s latter-day comedy specials—the most recent of which was released on Monday—is like dropping in on a rascally uncle who doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, how much he’s disappointing you. Maybe he was a favored relative once, the kind of eyebrow-wagging scamp who made the other grown-ups uncomfortable just to entertain you but also gave you peeks into adult complexity that few others would. He was more clever than anyone you’d met up until that point, and there was something impressive about the lengths he’d go to make you laugh. Then he went away for a long time, and while you changed with the times, he fashioned himself a badge of honor for defiantly not doing so. Now, his jokes make you wince. The soundness of their logic is as intact as ever, but they’re seldom informed by facts or new perspectives. Each visit reminds you that your face is technically capable of laughing and cringing at the same time—but it certainly doesn’t feel good to do so. Despite it all, Uncle Dave insists it’s not that his viewpoints have gotten stale: Everyone’s just gotten so much more sensitive.
In his fifth Netflix special, titled Sticks & Stones, Chappelle rails against the perceived softness of many different groups: Louis C.K.’s victims, Kevin Hart’s detractors in the gay community, and Michael Jackson’s survivors, whom he says he doesn’t believe anyway. Chappelle also directs his exasperation at his own audience, or at least the kinds of viewers who aren’t interested in supporting artists and celebrities responsible for horrendous things. “If you do anything wrong in your life,” he ventriloquizes, “and I find out about it, I’m gonna try to take everything away from you. … You’re fucking finished.” But as is so often the case with those who accuse others of having thin skin, it’s mostly projection. “This is the worst time ever to be a celebrity,” Chappelle complains early on. He bemoans “celebrity hunting season” several more times, and a photo montage during the end credits, in which the comedian poses with the likes of Will Smith, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Chris Rock, and Jon Stewart, betrays his true affiliation despite his car-mechanic-alluding designer coveralls. Even the comedian’s son’s not safe from the wrath of the public. “You probably gonna get shot, nigga,” Chappelle imagines telling his child, who has just undergone a school-shooting drill. “You got a famous dad. I talk a lot of shit. They gonna be gunning for you, little buddy.”
Chappelle retains his killer timing and raconteur’s charms, but with Sticks & Stones, he seems more interested in seeking the clapter of like-minded patrons than anything else. The comedian sells his self-centered worldview, hard: Jackson didn’t molest any kids, because the singer didn’t target a prime candidate like Macaulay Culkin. C.K. didn’t do anything wrong, because exposing himself to female colleagues isn’t a crime worthy of reporting to the police. The opioid crisis makes him understand how white people felt during the crack epidemic, because “I don’t care, either.” I don’t think we can always take Chappelle at his word; his evident obsession with the details of the Jackson cases, in particular, gives the impression that he accepts more of the allegations than he professes to. He’d just rather reach for the neatest narrative or the most puckish punchline than grapple with messy truths. But he obviously also takes pride in serving as an oracle, at least for the kinds of audience members who whistle and applaud when he calls Jackson’s accusers liars or evokes the right’s “gay agenda” by declaring homophobia the single biggest taboo in show business. An audience member who yells out R. Kelly’s name at Chappelle, seemingly asking for an exoneration of that singer too, encapsulates the pact of mutual affirmation between the comedian and his fans. For his part, Chappelle says he thinks Kelly “did that shit,” but uses the moment to chide Surviving R. Kelly executive producer Dream Hampton for asking him to participate in the documentary—in his telling, yet another instance of the perils of fame.
Chappelle does offer a few breaks from the grievance-a-thon, and you respect his prodigious talents, even when his words are depressing as hell. (Kinda-sorta seeing it R. Kelly’s way: “No such thing as good 36-year-old pussy.”) A final segment on Jussie Smollett might qualify for the least objectionable portion of the special, given the Empire actor’s status as a universal laughingstock. But even then, Chappelle’s decision to call him “Juicy Smolier” (the surname pronounced in the French style) carries an unmistakable ring of homophobia. (So much for the omnipotence of “the alphabet people.”) The rest feels like the comedian shoring up his reputation as an audacious truth-teller. But you can’t help wondering: If the jokes were so funny on their own, would Chappelle have to spend so much time justifying his right to tell them?