Before we see Dave Chappelle in his new stand-up special Sticks & Stones on Netflix, we hear him. He’s singing Prince’s “1999” and makes sure to highlight this lyric: “Tryin’ to run from my destruction, you know I don’t even care.”
Prince actually sings the words “the destruction” in the original song, but Chappelle’s version is a better fit for what he’s trying to achieve on stage. The comic, who is set to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor later this year, is constantly walking the line between self-destruction and comedic glory. Sticks & Stones is full of jokes that Chappelle knows could get him “canceled,” but more than any other comedian working today, he simply doesn’t care.
Wearing his signature green jumpsuit with his name emblazoned across the chest and a big “C” on his right arm, Chappelle is far more animated here than he was in 2017’s The Bird Revelation, which he performed seated in front of a small club audience in Los Angeles. The new special was taped just over two months ago for a crowd of more than two thousand fans at The Tabernacle in Atlanta.
And within six minutes of taking the stage, he starts attacking that audience directly, performing an “impression” of them trying to “take everything away” from him by bringing to light past controversial jokes. “That’s you!” he tells them. “That’s what the audience sounds like to me.”
“This is the worst time ever to be a celebrity, you’re going to be finished, everybody’s doomed!” Chappelle adds. The following chunk of the special finds him defending, to various degrees, Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Kevin Hart and Louis C.K., whom he describes as “a very good friend of mine before he died in that terrible masturbation accident.”
But for all of the self-destruction in the first half of the new hour—including an extended section about the LGBTQ+ community that is unlikely to make the “T’s,” as he calls them, “hate” his “guts” any less—things take a dramatic turn in the second half when Chappelle seems to argue that Americans should spend less time worrying about the #MeToo movement and more time focusing on the country’s gun violence epidemic.
“Meanwhile, while we’re worrying about all this other shit, look at what’s happening, they just killed another 12 people at a mass shooting in Virginia Beach,” he says of the most recent shooting at the time of his special’s taping in June. “This shit is happening every week. It happens so much, I almost don’t care anymore.”
Of course, he does still care. As it turns out, Sticks & Stones hit Netflix just one day after Chappelle hosted a benefit concert in Dayton, Ohio to raise money for victims of the mass shooting that occurred in his home state at the beginning of the month.
“Today we're going to show the world that nothing will get us down,” he told that crowd. “Dayton, Ohio, no matter what's going on, no matter how tough these times get, we hold our heads up high, because we know what we're about. And we're not just doing this for our city. We're doing this for every victim of every mass shooting in our country.”
It’s an issue that Chappelle has been trying to find a way to joke about for a while now. The extended section on guns in the new special is a more expertly constructed version of a bit I saw him do nearly a year ago when he opened for Ms. Lauryn Hill at the Hollywood Bowl last September.
The heart of it comes when Chappelle brings in race. “Shooting up schools is a white kid’s game,” he says, adding, “I hated school too. It never occurred to me to kill everybody in school?! It’s fucking crazy.”
“I’ve given this a lot of thought,” he continues. “I don’t see any peaceful way to disarm America’s whites.” After the applause dies down, Chappelle says, “There’s only one thing that’s going to save this country from itself. Same thing that always saves this country from itself. And that is African-Americans. And I know the question a lot of y’all have in your minds is, should we do it? Fuck yeah, we should do it.”
“No matter what they say or how they make you feel, remember, this is your country, too,” Chappelle tells his audience. “It is incumbent upon us to save our country. And you know what we have to do.” Then comes the twist: “Every able-bodied African-American must register for a legal firearm. That’s the only way they’ll change the law.”
The comic explains that “personally” he “hates” guns. “I can’t stand them,” he says. “But I have several. I don’t want them, but I feel like I need them.” He jokes that Ohio is “an old Native-American word” that “means, literally, ‘Land of Poor White People.’” It’s almost as if he’s predicting the mass shooting that would terrorize Dayton weeks later.
From there, Chappelle moves on to the opioid crisis, but he brings it all back to guns in the final joke of the special, which I won’t spoil here. He may be self-destructive, but it’s still hard to deny his fearless command of the stand-up stage.