Recently, comedian Dave Chappelle released another comedy special on Netflix. Titled Sticks and Stones, it features his trademark brand of attack comedy. If you’ve seen any of his past work, especially his mid-2000s era Comedy Central sketch show Chappelle’s Show, you pretty much know what to expect.
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Dave Chappelle takes his usual potshots at anything he feels deserving of criticism. These days, much of his fire seems directed at LGBT people. He went a step further in mocking Michael Jackson’s alleged victims. I won’t quote him – there are plenty of articles and think pieces already available on the special that you don’t even need to watch it. I’m admittedly late to the game here, but I’ve had a busy week.
Unlike the other blogs and Buzzfeed-style attacks, I’m not here to offer the typical criticism, which I feel amounts to a sort-of “How dare he!” reductive argument. I won’t do that. I feel that isn’t a critic’s job, and in any case, it doesn’t offer much in the way of anything productive.
Instead, I’d like to say, we can still enjoy comedians and call them out when needed. I’m tired of the “this or that” mindset that anti-PC comedy fans, as well as super-left people, display. You see this in a lot of polarized areas that are de rigour, and I’d argue most of my friends are like this. For every person I know that screams, “I’m boycotting them!” I can name just as many who say “Comedy shouldn’t have to play to your safe space!”
But why does either have to be the case? Maybe comedy doesn’t have to worry about other peoples’ sensitivities (however justified a person is in taking offence), but why should a comedian be let off so easily? If comedians are rightly viewed as social critics, what point is there in not viewing what they do with a critical eye? And what does it help just “boycotting” them?
These are rhetorical questions, of course. Comedians should be free to say whatever they want, to attack whoever they want. But both sides aren’t making them do the work required of them as artists – which is to improve their work. My real problem with Chapelle’s embrace of being offensive in all the wrong ways ultimately boils down to comedy being an art form.
Comedy is supposed to be a magnifying glass turned toward us, so that we can see social issues for what they are. When comedians play the easy route, mocking those who already get an unfair shake from society, what good does that do? It isn’t showing us anything other than that they themselves hold up the status quo. That isn’t edgy, or genius, or any degree in between. It’s just lazy.
Art needs to change. And the fact he doesn’t even want to give a fake apology (not saying that’s good or bad, just that it would be something) proves he doesn’t want to work on his art. He wants to be able to punch down without being called out on it when he does. A good comedian would look at the justified criticism and then work around it.
He’s no longer sharp, if cringy at times, social commentator I remember from my youth. He would have done better for his legacy if he had just remained off the radar following his disappearance in 2005 – when he passed up a lucrative $50 million deal from Comedy Central – and his bizarre comeback reminds me of artists who do comeback tours and albums years after their last album, and it just totally waters down their reputation.
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I think what bothers me the most about the whole fiasco of comedians who just won’t adapt to the changing times is that, somewhere in some dingy comedy club, there’s bound to be a young, up-and-coming comedian doing truly daring and edgy work – but no one is writing about them because we’re all too busy having our time wasted on people who were once great. But because they continue to rest on their laurels, we have no alternative but to continue calling them out. In the hope that they’ll get the picture. But they probably won’t.
So here we are, asking people like Chappelle to change, and stop attacking people who don’t need it. Should we expect anything better at this point? I think the answer is clear. But should we “boycott” him, and other comedians? No. That’s just as unhelpful as people applauding him every time he makes a lazy joke about trans women. As much as I hate that it needs to happen, we must do our part and point out what material works and what doesn’t. Otherwise, we’re not doing our jobs as conscious art consumers.
Stephanie Knarr recently moved to Pittsburgh, PA from the Harrisburg, PA area. Her writing appears in Harrisburg’s local magazine, The Burg, and her work will soon appear in Unwinnable and Five:2: One. Her favourite drink is RC Cola, and her favourite band is probably Animal Collective.