Part of the fun of watching edgy stand-up comedians is what I call the “Demolition Derby Effect.”
Just as demolition derbies were born out of the belief that a lot of ticket buyers would rather watch cars wreck than race, a lot of people pay to watch edgy comedians in the anticipation that maybe, just maybe, any minute now they’re going to (gasp!) go too far.
In that regard, notoriously edgy comic Dave Chappelle takes the prize with his latest – and fifth – Netflix stand-up comedy special, “Sticks & Stones,” judging by the volume of complaints buzzing online in news and social media.
But, as longtime Chappelle fans – like me – know, that’s not unusual. What is unusual is how much the blowback against Chappelle’s special has come mostly from the liberals and progressives and how much praise he is receiving from conservatives and the far right.
“Dave Chappelle’s New Stand-Up Is Hilarious (And Even Subversively Pro-Life)” says The Federalist’s headline on senior editor Molly Hemingway’s essay.
Iconoclastic author Bret Easton Ellis tweeted, “Did I just watch Dave Chappelle save America from itself in 65 minutes on Netflix?”
A headline on the conservative Townhall site crows, “Dave Chappelle: The Middle Finger America Needs.”
But on the more liberal or mainstream side, a critic for The Atlantic calls the set “a temper tantrum.” The Root calls it “lazy.” Vice urges its readers to just skip it altogether. The Guardian sniffs, “Dave Chappelle’s ’reckless’ #MeToo and trans jokes have real after-effects.”
Transgender YouTube commentator Natalie Wynn said on the progressive TheYoungTurks that Chappelle’s jokes, particularly about transgender people, were stale, “out of touch” and “far from his best.” She charged, for example, that Chappelle’s mockery of transgender people, saying “I identify as Asian,” steals from Ricky Gervais’ declaration in his own Netflix special earlier this year that he identifies as “a chimp.”
But transgender people are only one of the usually taboo targets Chappelle chews over in his whine list.
On abortion rights, for example, he sets us up with a disclaimer about how he supports “the right to choose,” and that “If you’re a man, you should stay out of the abortion debate altogether.”
But then he whips around to say, “And ladies, to be fair to us, I also believe that if you decide to have the baby, a man should not have to pay,” he said. “That’s fair.”
The audience quiets down for a moment as if waiting for a punchline, but that was the punchline. Does Dave really believe that’s a fair equivalence? He smiles, says it’s something worth thinking about, then he moves on to his next targets.
Among them, he skewers people who are badgering the victims of excessive appreciation, otherwise known as celebrities. He attacks the “cancel culture” promoted by the #MeToo movement and others for targeting his friends in the comedy industry, particularly Louis C.K., who has lost work after admitting to incidents of sexual misconduct, and Kevin Hart, who withdrew from consideration to host the Oscars after some of his old homophobic tweets surfaced.
“This is the worst time ever to be a celebrity,” Chappelle moans in a rant about “alphabet people,” his term for the LGBTQ rights movement. Really? I think the ghost of Lenny Bruce, who was arrested in Chicago in 1962, as well as in other cities, for jokes that were tamer than those that Chappelle and other edgy comics say every night.
Bruce died in 1966 of a drug overdose, but he lives on as a martyr to the sort of free speech that has enabled comedians and others to break taboos, speak freely, expose contradictions and, at best, move society toward better understanding of American diversity and freedoms.
Or as Chappelle explained himself on “PBS NewsHour”: “I don’t think people pay money to see a guy who speaks precisely and carefully (or) is worried about some repercussions. They just want to see a guy try to give them something honest or something relatable or maybe have some fun with something.”
Right. Above all else, we expect comedians to be funny and fearless. Even when Chappelle seems to go off the rails in his monologue, he more often than not is raising serious concerns – such as how the rules of etiquette for relations across racial, sexual and political lines keep changing.
Sometimes it is courageous comics who provide the catalyst we need for serious discussions about such tough topics. When comedians bomb, they may be behind the times. Or, as with Lenny Bruce, they may be ahead of their time.
Clarence Page is a columnist with the Chicago Tribune.