Chappelle acknowledges that he is “what’s known on the streets as a victim-blamer,” noting that his first response to Chris Brown’s 2009 assault of Rihanna was to wonder what she had done. Chappelle then suggests that, if he were a pedophile, the child he’d most want to assault (he uses a four-letter word instead) is Macaulay Culkin. These hostile comments are often bookended with a smug reference to Chappelle’s own characteristic brazenness, as if to distance the comic from any standard of civil discourse and instead deflect that responsibility onto viewers. “If you’re at home watching this shit on Netflix,” he laughs at one point, “remember, bitch, you clicked on my face!”
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Sticks and Stones is, of course, a production from a man long known for his provocative material—and it’s possible that barbs about difficult topics could serve as a balm for some people. But with the exception of a few jokes about his children participating in active-shooter drills, Chappelle doesn’t spend much of the special attempting to apply humor with the kind of incision he once did. He seems entirely uninterested in punching up—partly because it doesn’t seem that many people are above him anymore. The special’s few standout spots occur when Chappelle offers asides reflecting on his own wealth or his previous financial hardships. But, taken alongside the rest of his material, even these moments reveal the comic’s sense that everything could be taken away from him at any time.
Chappelle also stops short of considering the consequences of his past work—even when explicitly referencing times when he was asked to do so. The Culkin remark, for example, serves as a transition to discussing R. Kelly, whose guilt Chappelle says he would bet money on. But rather than reflect on his infamous Chappelle’s Show sketches about the singer, which made a mockery of the specific fetish act Kelly was alleged to have forced a teenage girl to perform, Chappelle pivots to criticizing the Surviving R. Kelly filmmaker dream hampton for having told press that the comedian refused to discuss his sketches in her documentary. He lambastes her for assuming he knew Kelly personally or had direct knowledge of the singer’s alleged crimes. (On Twitter yesterday, hampton said that she’d wanted Chappelle to comment on his early-Aughts jokes about Kelly, not on the singer’s actions or personal behavior.) Again and again, Chappelle reveals his frustration with merely being asked to weigh the real-world ramifications of art, comedy included.
Sticks and Stones registers as a temper tantrum, the product of a man who wants it all—money, fame, influence—without much having to answer to anyone. In this, the special extends the egocentric logic evinced by Aziz Ansari in his recent Netflix special. Though Chappelle has not faced allegations of sexual misconduct like those that C.K. and Ansari addressed with varying degrees of contrition, his work feels deeply informed by the other celebrities’ public reckonings. The special’s epigraph is a quote from the rapper Kendrick Lamar’s bombastic 2017 track “DNA.,” which also effectively serves as Chappelle’s walk-on music: “Tell me somethin’ / you mothafuckas can’t tell me nothin’ / I’d rather die than listen to you,” the screen reads before Chappelle appears. The next hour proves he means it.