On September 17, 2001, the great David Letterman became the first late night host to return to television days after 9/11 blindsided New York City, and the world. In his monologue, Letterman eschewed attempts at humor, choosing instead to meet the confusion and mourning blanketing America with an appropriate solemn acknowledgment. This became the pause the nation needed before feeling permission to laugh again in the wake of a horrific tragedy.
Nearly 20 years later another great Dave — Dave Chappelle — has handed a different permission slip to Americans: one giving folks the green light to laugh at tragedies and, more to the point, the victims and survivors.
Maybe that's not being fair. The 9/11 attacks resulted in the deaths of 2,996 people and the injuries of more than 6,000 others — a massive culture-shifting calamity by any feeling person's definition.
In his new Netflix special "Sticks & Stones," the objects of Chappelle's ire are folks ostensibly making their personal tragedies everyone's problems by using them to perpetrate career death and reputation homicide upon celebrities. These people, he tells us, have made him a "victim blamer."
He guns for two men at the center of "Leaving Neverland," who allege that late pop music idol Michael Jackson molested them when they were 7 and 10 years old. And cancel culture advocates who took aim at his personal friends, like Kevin Hart and another A-list comic he was good friends with "before he died in that terrible masturbation accident."
Then there's the easily offended "alphabet people," his shorthand for the LGBTQ community, particularly, as he says, the "confusing" Ts. The #MeToo movement, organizers of school shooting drills — they've all gotten out of hand and need to be taken down a peg.
Chappelle even takes a moment to stereotypically mimic Asians, which he defuses later on by reminding the audience that his wife is Asian. The entirety of "Sticks & Stones" is structured around such logic: by signaling to those who are true believers in his genius that it's all just a joke, only words, this earns his ability to "punch down," as the parlance goes.
In that context, his stated position that he doesn't believe Jackson's accusers is about as true as his tall tale about "peppering" an opioid addict who had supposedly broken into his house with birdshot fired from his shotgun — which is to say, not true at all.
And perhaps he doesn't really mean it when he says, even if Jackson molested children, "I mean" — long pause — "it's Michael Jackson! I know more than half the people in this room have been molested in their lives. But it wasn't no goddamn Michael Jackson, was it? This kid had his d**k sucked by the King of Pop. All we get is awkward Thanksgivings for the rest of our lives!"
Yes, perhaps it's just words.
But, to paraphrase a portion of one of his bits, dammit if his angle isn't confusing. While several critics and comedians liken the latest form Chappelle's taken to a grumpy, middle-aged uncle who refuses to evolve with the times, I have a different theory.
On the whole, "Sticks & Stones" exists as a defiant design to intentionally offend large swaths of the audience Chappelle deems too thin-skinned and easily outraged, too quick to find offense, while serving up simple, low-bar yucks to anyone yearning for validation of their anti-P.C. stance. Indeed, it may end up being one of the defining comedy specials of our time.
Because our time is defined by cruelty. Me-first, to-hell-with-everyone-else cruelty.
The shock being felt by Chappelle's fans who fell in love with "Killin' Them Softly" Dave, (circa 2000), or the Dave who walked away from "Chappelle's Show" and a $50 million deal with Comedy Central (vintage 2005) are the ones who still see Chappelle as a man concerned about being socially irresponsible, and "pay[ing] attention to things like your ethics," as 2006 Dave tells Oprah Winfrey during their famous conversation on her show.
Apparently there's a huge difference between a cable network $50 million deal in 2005 and a Netflix deal for $60 million in the present.
These are the same folks who may have been incensed by Chappelle's soft offer to give Donald Trump a chance during his post-election monologue on "Saturday Night Live." What they should have been paying attention to was the part where he said this:
All my black friends who have money said the same thing when Trump got elected. They said, 'That's it, bro. I'm out. I'm leaving the country. You coming with us?' 'Nah, I'm good, dog. I'm gonna stay here and get this tax break, see how it works out.' Because that's how it is being Dave Chappelle!
These are the people caught off guard at the transphobic jokes in his 2017 set worked out during his Radio City Music Hall residency (which also turned up in his first two Netflix specials), only to be soothed by his 2018 interview with Van Jones.
"We're living in a time where there's got to be more cultural sensitivity," Chappelle, circa October 2018, tells Jones, later adding, "Even a guy like me that's just writing jokes, I have to listen more than I've ever had to listen, because the gripes is coming so fast and furious, and I'm not dismissive of people's gripes. Might sound like it on stage, but I listen."
But October 2018 is a lifetime ago — long enough for Chappelle's views on transgender people to evolve to a place of befuddlement, but not long enough for Chappelle to temper his anger at cancel culture turning his world into "celebrity hunting season."
Throughout his career, Chappelle constantly reminds us of the complicated territory comedians travel in relationship with their fans, without whom they wouldn't be working. And yet, the most successful comedians tend to be the ones who resist the roles and labels fans assign to them, who test the limits of their craft and fan loyalty along with it.
We want our comedians to be some version of truth-tellers. Even if we don't hold them them to a standard of being entirely factual, we at least expect something genuine from them. We also want them to remind us of our shared humanity, even in cases where the socio-economic divide between them and us is vast.
"I think words aren't what hurts people as much as the intentions behind words," the 2006 version of Chappelle observes in an episode of "Iconoclasts." "I think that's been one of the reasons that I can say some pretty ugly words that would traditionally hurt people, but when they hear it, they feel like, this isn't hurting me. Because they can feel the intention behind the words. Just in how I'm using it."
That episode is an interesting one to watch in the context of the current furor over "Sticks & Stones," since it features Chappelle in conversation with Maya Angelou specifically about words. To the late Angelou, words hold tremendous power. The boyfriend of Angelou's mother raped her when she was eight years old. He was found guilty and was jailed for only one day, but days after his release, he was kicked to death. This event led her to stop speaking for years, because she believed her words killed a man.
But we are speaking of today's nonchalant cruelty: October 2018 also happens to be the month that The Atlantic's Adam Serwer wrote about the delight Donald Trump's base takes in watching the people it loathes suffer under his policies. "The cruelty is the point" is that story's headline, and it became a recurring refrain on social media, accompanying the sharing of stories representing new lows in morality.
If art is shaped by the times in which an artist lives, then surely we cannot be surprised when some artists capitalize on that moment's reigning emotions. Our times also are defined by a lack of historic context and forgetting, which may explain why a comic so reverent of a woman who was also raped as a child during their 2006 meeting might find it perfectly OK to play his disbelief of Jackson's accusers for rowdy giggles.
Cruelty is a frequently used spice in all kinds of comedy, of course; even a guy like Jim Gaffigan, who works as squeaky clean as you can imagine, is viciously cruel, but mostly to himself. In 2019, when cruelty is the headliner, the country's most successful stadium comic is killing it at every stop with unfettered screeds about immigrants, slapping political rivals with nicknames like Pocahontas.
Cruelty is in fashion, so can we be surprised when an artist widely understood to be a genius in his form seizes our attention by Jackson Pollock-ing up the place with a set filled with jokes that would've walked other rooms had they been delivered by so-called lesser comedians?
Cruel humor is facile and blunt, as easy to tap as pushing a lame old man into a mud puddle and posting the video on WorldStar. Wielding it at the expense of the disenfranchised is beneath the best of us. But maybe not the richest of us. And so much of today's cruelty is born of an economic divide that gives the better-off license to "go there" in a culture that rewards oh no you didn't! brashness.
"Few people may be aware that a taboo exists, but everyone knows when it's violated. A stand-up comedian appears on stage and, with no preface, simply yells an obscenity; people are likely to laugh and applaud as if he has said something funny," wrote Joyce Carol Oates in 1990. "… Because taboos are part of what we are taught as children, their violation — and the rowdy applause it engenders — is a defiant cry to parents, elders, and custodians of authority: You don't control us after all."
Comedy's rules, such as they are, are structural, not tonal. There are people who would say that actually, no, comedy has plenty of rules. They'd list the classics: never punch down, don't prey on the vulnerable, and don't joke about hurting children. But that's not entirely accurate. Successful comedy can punch every which way and land its humor, as long as the context works.
No subject matter is truly off-limits if — and this is important — the joke is constructed correctly. The late George Carlin bellowed out entire acts revolving around this idea. But the question is whether the shocking statement a comedian makes is ludicrous enough to signal to the audience that he is actually kidding.
What's catching people off guard in this scenario is that it's not quite clear that Chappelle is joking about, say, not believing Jackson's accusers, any more than he appeared to be joking when he pantomimed Bill Clinton getting fellated by Monica Lewinsky in 2000, then launching her into the world with, "Now, go on out there and be somebody!" In the year 2000, that line was hilarious.
But in that long-ago time, we were also still recovering from Andrew Dice Clay's lazy, sexist, racist limericks that dominated comedy in the late '80s. Oates' quote refers to him and observes that when Clay referred matter-of-factly to women as "chicks," "whores," and "sluts" who "are always looking for someone to treat them like the pigs they are," that the people in his audience who laughed and applauded most enthusiastically are women. And Clay's ascent parallels the rise of Reagan-era, "greed is good" conservatism, right-wing talk radio and professional insult cannons like Rush Limbaugh.
Clay's career teaches us an important lesson about comedy that's cruel for its own sake: It has a limited shelf life. He rose to fame as a shock comic, built to devour political correctness before such a concept was labeled, and a number of comedians followed that pattern, men and women alike. But shock wears off and eventually the audience tires of it. The audience at large turned on Andrew Dice Clay, and he failed to transition into TV sitcoms. Nobody would believe him as a family man — who'd have thunk it?
And those of his ilk whose careers have lasted longest are the ones who evolve. Howard Stern survives because he's actually a decent interviewer. Sarah Silverman made shock the backbone of her comedy in the early Aughts, until she evolved into an earnest bridge builder in a divided political climate.
Anthony Jeselnik dabbled in shock for a while before fine-tuning the art of twistedness. Daniel Tosh, the world soon discovered, isn't a great stand-up comic but found his niche as YouTube veejay. And though Dane Cook's name was once synonymous with plagiarism and sexist implosion, he's still touring.
The comedy world is full of men and women who rip into no-go areas with aplomb and leave little in the way of collateral damage. Katt Williams' legendary bit on Michael Jackson slayed — and he did it while Jackson was still alive. (That was several minutes' worth of hyperventilating laughter, circa 2006, deep in the George W. Bush era. Jeselnik crushed a rimshot line in under 280 characters back in March.)
And then there's Lisa "Lovable Queen of Mean" Lampanelli, who once said, "Political correctness has no place in comedy…You're supposed to make fun of things you're scared of, like racism." She did this by making lots of jokes about screwing black men. Lampanelli quit comedy in 2018, explaining that she feared her insult comedy was sending the wrong messages and might be hurting people.
She is now a life coach.
On the flipside, Clay recently announced he and Roseanne Barr are joining forces for a comedy tour. Because it's 2019.
"Comedy's boundaries should be excellence," Jon Stewart said during a 2018 interview with Christiane Amanpour. "So, whatever it is that you're talking about in terms of subject matter, if you're just napalming, you know, indiscriminately to provoke, then to me, that's not really comedy. Comedy should be something more human and truly believed."
Sitting at his side was Chappelle, who largely remained silent as Stewart answered Amanpour's questions about #MeToo and whether there should be a way back for people like Chappelle's masturbating comedian friend. Neither had suitable answers then — it was early days in this #MeToo headache — and we barely have any now.
However, even the best of us suffer from a surfeit of exhaustion, to the point that we should probably stop expecting the "greats" to act the men they once were. I adore comedy, and I adored that Dave Chappelle, and I wouldn't want him to be "cancelled" now, as if that's even a danger.
But it isn't too much to ask Chappelle to be the thoughtfully provocative, excellent comedian he used to be.
Or maybe that's just outdated thinking. Today Chappelle's "Sticks & Stones" is a performing wildly well among the far-right, the main perpetrators of the racism he still skewers and stands against. He's also earned ample praise from Jackson loyalists, a portion of whom have been sending threats to the late pop star's accusers and anyone who stands with them, including Oprah. They're on board with the meanness.
Chappelle is not obligated to comfort middle America. He isn't angling for a sitcom, nor does he seem overly concerned about the ethics that inspired him to walk away from $50 million a decade and a half ago. As he frequently reminds his audience, he's a rich guy who can retreat to his Ohio farm and live his life and never perform again if he chooses.
And yet, even these actions show there's still a little bit of 2006 Dave in there, the iconic comedian who told the legendary poet, "I need the people so bad. Because I need people so much for my process; something about celebrity interrupts the process. Because in order to do what I do, I have to be comfortable with making mistakes."
"Just saying," he finished, "being nothing is more painful than watching a comedian grow." And don't we know from pain?