In the first 20 minutes of his new Netflix special, Sticks & Stones, Dave Chappelle says he doesn’t believe Michael Jackson’s rape accusers, explains why he didn’t participate in the R. Kelly documentary, and defends Kevin Hart against his LGBTQ critics. Later, he jokes about what he considers to be an overreaction to Louis C.K., who “was a very good friend of mine before he died in that terrible masturbation accident.”
[Warning: This article contains graphic language and content.]
It’s all part of an extended set the comedian performs about cancel culture, or, as he refers to it, “celebrity hunting season,” in which no public figure is protected from potentially career-ruining backlash once they even lightly trip the trigger wire of outrage with a misstep.
“This is the worst time ever to be a celebrity,” he says in the special. “You’re gonna be finished. Everyone’s doomed. Michael Jackson’s been dead for 10 years, and this nigga’s got two new cases.”
Chappelle knows what he’s doing as he plunges into this part of his set. He knows that, by and large, the audience will go along with him, even as he calls the Leaving Neverland documentary, in which two accusers allege being sexually abused and raped by Jackson when they were just seven and 10 years old, “fucking gross…really nasty shit.”
He knows that a swath of his audience, those who watched his button-pushing comedic commentary on The Chappelle Show and applauded that his astute, unfiltered genius, would be on board for the humor, no matter how uncouth or politically incorrect. That’s Chappelle’s talent: saying the things we’re not supposed to say, let alone think, and then consider what it says about us that we quiet those parts of ourselves.
He knows that he will get those laughs when he says that he doesn’t believe Jackson’s accusers, owning the fact that this makes him a victim-blamer. When someone tells him that Chris Brown beat up Rihanna, “I’d be like, well, what did she do?” he says. Hearing that Jackson molested children, he jokes he’s the kind of person who would say, “Well, what were those kids wearing at the time?”
More than both those things, he knows that this article is going to exist. He knows that this portion of his set will be pull-quoted and headlined and trending on social media as cultural critics wring their hands in disbelief that he could say something like that about Jackson’s accusers, or those outraged over Hart’s homophobic jokes, or angry about his own history of humor at the expense of the LGBTQ community.
That’s the point of this part of the set, to take the air out of that instinct and to make us wonder what it says about our inability to understand the true value—or lack thereof—in cancellation culture, because we’re too blinded by woke outrage to notice what we’re really doing to discourse.
Or is it not that at all: Just plain offensive jokes that see Chappelle shielding himself from true criticism because of the special’s title, Sticks & Stones—they’re just words!—and the idea that he’s in on the outrage they’ll cause.
He explains his disgust over the graphic details of Leaving Neverland—that Jackson enjoyed, as Chappelle cringes, “long ganders at the anus”—the disturbing specificity of which victims’ advocates championed for being necessary in order for the severity of the allegations against Jackson to finally break through culturally.
Then, as he talks about how he doesn’t think Jackson actually does it, he moves on to the cheekier part of his bit: that, if it did happen, the victims should feel honored.
“I don’t think he did it, but you know what? Even if he did do it… you know what I mean?” he says. “I mean, it’s Michael Jackson. I know more than half the people in this room have been molested in their lives, but it wasn’t no goddamn Michael Jackson, was it? This kid got his dick sucked by the King of Pop. All we get is awkward Thanksgivings for the rest of our lives. You know how good it must have felt to go to school the next day after that shit?”
After he performs what it would be like to be molested by Michael Jackson as a child and the bragging rights that would afford, he says, “I know it seems harsh, but somebody’s gotta teach these kids. No such thing as a free trip to Hawaii. He’s going to want to look at your butthole or something.”
Chappelle, as he historically does, blurs the lines here, so that you can’t tell how much of what he’s saying is what he actually believes and how much, if you’re giving him the benefit of the doubt, is him baiting shock-value laughs to bolster his larger point.
He says he doesn’t believe Jackson did it because Macaulay Culkin has come forward saying that he was never molested by the singer, nor did he ever witness him molesting anyone else in his presence. “I’m not a pedophile,” Chappelle says. “But if I was, Macaulay Culkin’s the first kid I’m fucking. I’ll tell you that right now.”
“On social media, the hive of Michael Jackson truthers…are already congratulating Chappelle for expressing that he doesn’t believe the accusations in ‘Leaving Neverland’ and thanking him for spreading their gospel.”
On social media, the hive of Michael Jackson truthers—a community that voraciously attempts to discredit Jackson’s accusers and harass anyone who comes forward with or reports on allegations—are already congratulating Chappelle for expressing that he doesn’t believe the accusations in Leaving Neverland and thanking him for spreading their gospel.
Jackson is the first in a suite of “canceled” celebrities that Chappelle talks about.
He talks about R. Kelly, not because he didn’t think he’s guilty of what he’s been accused of (statutory rape, among other things)—“I’m pretty sure he did that shit”—but because he himself has been implicated in fostering the industry blind eye that was turned toward the behavior because he turned down an offer to appear in dream hampton’s documentary Surviving R. Kelly.
Chappelle says that hampton casually asked him once if he’d want to appear, and then he totally forgot about it until the director was on her press tour for the documentary naming Chappelle as one of the male celebrities who refused to talk because he found the content, as hampton said, “too hot for TV.”
The comedian takes the opportunity to clarify once and for all that the only reason he didn’t participate in the documentary is because “I don’t know this nigga at all.”
He then moves on to “poor Kevin Hart” and the Oscars hosting gig he was forced out of amidst outrage over past jokes and tweets that were homophobic. “I don’t know what you know about Kevin, but I know that Kevin Hart is damn near perfect,” he says. “As close to perfect as anybody I’ve ever seen. In fact, Kevin is precisely four tweets shy of being perfect.” (There were much more than four, for what it’s worth.)
Hart was clearly joking when he wrote those incendiary tweets, Chappelle says, wrapping what happened to the comedian into his own problematic history joking with and about the LGBT community. He’s not so much reflecting a blindspot he’s had when it comes to those issues, but actually shining a spotlight on his controversial approach. “You are never, ever allowed to upset the alphabet people,” before launching into a set that risks doing just that—but also might be championed by the more self-aware of the community.
He then insinuates that the masturbation acts that Louis C.K. admitted to were not, in the grand scheme of things, that menacing. Is he right? Or outrageous?
It’s the gray area Chapelle is purposefully working in. Can these things truly be outlandish and offensive when Chappelle is knowingly being so? Or does a trigger warning—and Chappelle sends out several—not absolve objectionable content, even if the ensuing outrage might prove his point that we’re all being too sensitive?
He wants your attention—you don’t begin a special with those comments about Michael Jackson if that’s not your goal—and he’s got it. So now what? Well, according to him, it’s exactly the content you wanted when you pressed play, shock and anger be damned: “If you’re at home watching this shit on Netflix, remember, bitch, you clicked on my face.”