Nowadays, calling an hour of stand-up comedy a “special” can feel like a misnomer. The huge number of specials available for consumption on streaming services like Netflix means that the release of a new one rarely feels like a noteworthy occasion anymore.
But if there’s one comedian who can still get the public talking with the release of new material, it’s comedian Dave Chappelle.
The sheer volume of his output in recent years is impressive. “Sticks and Stones” is the fifth special Chappelle has released on Netflix since 2017, more than doubling the annual pace of famously prolific comedians like George Carlin.
What’s more impressive is that Chappelle doesn’t sacrifice quality to achieve that quantity. “Sticks and Stones” is a highly polished and masterfully delivered hour of comedy that feels like a fitting addition to arguably the greatest run of specials in comedy history.
One of Chappelle’s greatest strengths is the way he balances his image as a rockstar mega-comic with the casual and intimate tone he maintains with his audience. His swagger and comfort on stage means he can make a 15,000 seat arena feel like a 70 seat comedy club. With “Sticks and Stones,” Chappelle continues that balancing act.
Perhaps Chappelle’s most impressive feature is his ability to offer insightful social commentary without sacrificing the actual comedy in his material. Some comedians are more concerned with garnering applause breaks than laughs, and as a result, their comedy feels like watching a TEDTalk. In “Sticks and Stones” Chappelle’s jokes both reinforce and are reinforced by his societal observations.
Much of Chappelle’s recent work has been the subject of social controversy. His jokes regarding topics such as transgender issues and the #MeToo movement have been decried as transphobic and misogynistic by many.
With “Sticks and Stones” Chappelle leans into that controversy harder than ever. He tackles everything from mass shootings, the LGBTQ+ community, to the recent resurgence of allegations against Michael Jackson and R. Kelly. As a result, those who found his previous material objectionable or offensive probably aren’t going to find much to praise in his new special.
For me, however, the thing that kept Chappelle’s more provocative material from feeling abhorrent is that it rarely feels like he’s making a definitive statement or taking a hardstand. His jokes and stories feel more like a conversation with himself, his audience and the country at large.
Chappelle believes it’s the role of the comedian to push the boundaries of that national conversation; he said as much in his last special for Netflix, “The Bird Revelation.” For him, the healthiest discourse is one in which people aren’t afraid to get messy, make mistakes and challenge one another and in the end still treat each other with dignity and respect.
Chappelle argues that in taking on the role of provocateur, he’s supporting that discourse and that without it, things start to fall apart. In “Sticks and Stones” he attributes the recent clamping down of abortion laws in states like Georgia to the ideological orthodoxy he’s trying to fight against.
In the end, though, that won’t be enough to justify his more offensive material for many people, and for them, it’s probably better to skip “Sticks and Stones.”
But for those who have enjoyed the renaissance of Chappelle’s career in the last few years, “Sticks and Stones” is an essential addition to an already monumental body of work.