Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special ‘Sticks and Stones’ pushes the boundary between comic relief and brutal offense

Illustration by Jeffrey Belfield

Tagwa Shammet, Opinions Editor

I clicked on his face ready to roll on the floor, clutching my stomach to stop the pain of his humor. I clicked on his face. I can’t seem to decide whether I regret doing so.

Dave Chappelle’s latest stand-up comedy special “Sticks and Stones” premiered last week on Netflix. His special, just like many of his specials before, poked at topics ranging from the excessive school shootings to the opioid crisis. Chappelle held nothing back, especially when it came to his infamous punches at LGBTQ+ people, specifically targeting the transgender community. Time and time again, Chappelle finds himself in hot water over his “offensive” jokes, yet always comes out unscathed. Is this the special that will finally dampen Chappelle’s career?

I’ve always loved Chappelle. My dad has been a fan of him for as long as I can remember. Once it became appropriate, or as close to appropriate as it gets, to let your kid watch “The Chappelle Show,” it was on in my house like cartoons on a Saturday morning. He had this humor that was so raw and uncensored, yet eloquent and articulate. His jokes made me cover my mouth in horror, while laughing my butt off at the same time. Chappelle’s jokes are what all of us are thinking, yet can’t say. 

Or, at least they used to be. 

Comedy has always been a gray area. For as long as I can remember, comedians have taken real-world issues – political tensions, social controversy and many other dilemmas – and used their stages as outlets. A prime example is Def Comedy Jam. Premiering in 1992, it served as a stage to prop up aspiring black comedians. Well-known actors such as, but not limited to, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Bernie Mac, Adele Givens, Cedric the Entertainer, Martin Lawrence and Chappelle got their starts on Def Comedy Jam. The show, which aired on HBO, was notorious for its profanity and “ghettoizing black stand-up.”

Def Comedy Jam allowed black comedians to be unapologetically black, never censoring their humor to fit white norms, while allowing black audiences to laugh to the sound of people who looked like them and made jokes about struggles they understood. In 1992, the black community may have respected Bill Cosby, but his conforming comedy didn’t give them the relief they were looking for. In 1992, the black community needed and appreciated the raw jokes that eased the pain of Rodney King’s beating and shined a light on the realities of mental illness. Def Comedy Jam conquered everything from oppression to depression.

But as the times evolve and social sensitivity is encouraged, when does a joke cross the line and become an issue?

For many, Chappelle’s “Sticks and Stones” crossed it. Surpassed the line. Critics dragged the special, saying Chappelle’s jokes “make you wince” and accusing him of being “out of touch with today.”

I’m conflicted on my feelings toward “Sticks and Stones.” I won’t lie, the special had me unusually uncomfortable at some points. I was relatively prepared for the outrageous jokes Chappelle was about to throw at me, and I was abnormally excited for that taste of home he was going to provide. But with the aggressive ignorance toward the transgender community by openly disregarding transgender people’s pronouns and belittling their struggles — comparing them to something as impossible and ridiculous as an Asian man being trapped in a black man’s body — I was unamused. 

Nevertheless, I won’t be “canceling” Chappelle. This might seem problematic to some of you, but I knew what I was doing when I watched this special. Like Chappelle said: “You clicked on my face.” He has always been wildly inappropriate, and this show was no exception. A portion of me felt guilty watching the special, but I won’t front and say the special wasn’t entertaining in its full Chappelle glory.

I grew up with the understanding that comedy is meant to be painful. That it is meant to trigger you and make you laugh. That it is meant to be disturbing, meant to make you uncomfortable. What you do with that irritation is your choice. After hearing those jokes about transgender people, the discomfort led me to educate myself on the community, to understand their struggles.

Coming to VCU, I was thrown into a diverse world. Not just racially, but a university that accepts all sexualities and gender identities. I, however, was not as understanding. I wasn’t intolerant in any way, but I will admit, I was wildly uninformed; ignorant, frankly. Growing up, the LGBTQ community was slowly introduced to me, only minimal fragments being showcased at a time. 

While the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities were relatively easy for me to understand, gaining a grip on the transgender community and culture was far more difficult. To put it in simpler words, before I came to VCU, I knew nothing about transgender people. Now, ever since beginning my college career at VCU, I’ve been introduced to many new concepts, even some as simple as using a person’s correct pronouns. After watching Chappelle’s special, I hopped on my laptop, intrigued to read about the outrage the transgender community felt towards “Sticks and Stones.” Let’s just say, problematic and offensive were the kindest words people used to describe the special — and rightfully so.

Comedy does evolve with the times. It elevates that uneasy feeling in your chest, while leveling out that need for humor in your bones. However, comedy never conforms to societal expectations. Was “Sticks and Stones” wildly belligerent? Yes. Isn’t that what comedy is all about? Yes. But, even I agree that comedians need to be somewhat mindful of audiences’ ability to digest the content. Chappelle won’t lose any of his key audience members after this special, but he certainly isn’t accumulating viewers from younger generations, and that will ruin his views.


  1. >>New science teaches us that there is no biological difference between races, and the whole concept of ‘race’ is a social construction…
    >>”The idea of an asian man being trapped in a black man’s body is impossible and ridiculous!!”
    >>Painfully obvious biological differences between males and females…
    >>”If you don’t fully support the fact that a woman can be born in a man’s body and identify her the way she chooses, and ensure that she never has to experience anything that makes her question her life choices, you are a hateful transphobic bigot!!”

  2. Can you imagine the strength and bravery our ancestors needed to survive the absolute hell that was slavery and the Middle Passage?

    Now imagine telling one of them that people of today are devastated by being called “he” for being born with a penis.

    Weakness. I weep for the future.

  3. We are living in a willingly pussified world where everybody gets offecnted over anything, including facts which is the most disturbing of them all. USA has poisoned the entire world with this SJW softness and offence taking behavior that represents noting but the degradation of the human brain into retardness. I am sorry but I am stating the truth. In 2019 offence means a disturbing lack of humor and intelligence. Congrats to the comedian.

  4. Your an idiot. Anybody’s with some IQ knows when they go to a comedy show they might be made fun of. Fuck off and go back to whatever it is you were doing before you thought your feelings fucking mattered.

  5. Hi Tagwa,

    I love Dave and I respect your opinion. I wouldn’t bash you like the past comments, but let me tell you… He is Brilliant and comedy as you stated is meant to be painful and hurt. But he is doing it in the smartest way possible… To make anyone that watches or listens to him THINK.
    After reading this article, I am definitely going to watch the special again, that’s how awesome I thought it was.
    No, I dont have a problem with anyone but the negative (in real life) people. I just love the fact that he had the courage to be a comedian and not be afraid to put his thoughts out there for us to react to.
    If i was you, I wouldnt be unamused. Be thankful that we are living in an ERA where we are watching someone standing up for other people, not just comedians.
    He made you think, right? You got introduced to a whole new group (the LGBTQ community) on your way to college, so there wasn’t any harm on that.
    Your reaction is what counts, yours was a good, willing to learn and see what the struggle is about, and other people may decide to be more negative and hateful and that’s on them!

    Thanks for your article!

  6. I realize you were too young to have watched Def Comedy Jam. Eddie Murphy was definitely never on that show. I dont think Chris Rock was either. Even your researched description of the show came from people who never watched it. I know we shouldn’t have to research our research but if you’re gonna name-drop from an era that was before your time please be accurate on all accounts.

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