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?
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.