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Barbershop: Dave Chappelle's Controversial New Special


Now we'd like to talk about a comedy special that dropped this week that's generating more than the usual buzz and a fair share of controversy. It's comedian Dave Chappelle's fifth Netflix special, "Sticks & Stones." Now, Dave Chappelle has been one of comedy's most important figures for years for his cutting-edge material on race and politics, his generosity to other performers and causes and for his willingness to walk away when he felt it necessary to recharge. Now he's back, more prominent than ever and releasing a stream of new material - but with material that some critics say just goes too far with jokes targeting the LGBT community and sexual assault survivors. We're going to play one of the few jokes we actually can play. Here it is.


DAVE CHAPPELLE: I am what's known on the streets as a victim blamer.


CHAPPELLE: You know what I mean? If somebody come up to me, like, Dave, Dave, Chris Brown just beat up Rihanna, I'll be, like, well, what did she do?


CHAPPELLE: Dang. Michael Jackson's molesting children. Well, what were those kids wearing at the time?


MARTIN: As we said, it's raw. So in this moment when speech - who gets to say what about whom and in what way - is so much a part of our public life and conversation, we thought this would be a good thing to talk about in the Barbershop because that's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. So joining us today are Maureen Callahan. She's the critic at large for the New York Post. Her new book, "American Predator" is out now.

Maureen, thank you so much for joining us.

MAUREEN CALLAHAN: Thank you so much for having me.

ALISON HERMAN: Joining us via Skype is Alison Herman. She's a staff writer for The Ringer. That's a website and podcast network covering sports and pop culture.

Alison, welcome to you.

HERMAN: So happy to be here.

MARTIN: And last but certainly not least, Eric Deggans. He's here with me in studio. He's the TV critic for NPR.

Eric, I'm so glad that you were in town.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: I'm just glad you called me interesting. It's awesome.

MARTIN: Exactly.

DEGGANS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Well, yes. It's true. So I'm going to start with you because Dave Chappelle has always pushed the envelope, like many of the best to do. What about this feels different to some people?

DEGGANS: Well, Dave Chappelle is a genius and a master standup. And he has chosen - he seems to have chosen in this piece to push every button he possibly can with people in the audience and in the wider world that he knows are sensitive about how he talks about certain subjects - especially gender, especially gay people, especially transgender people. And so he has a lot of jokes in there that are aimed at the #MeToo movement, that are aimed at Michael Jackson's accusers. He defends Louis C.K. a little bit.

I mean, part of it is that he's deliberately provoking people. Part of it is that he's putting these ideas out there that he wants I think all of us to deal with. But part of it, I think, is that he's grappling with these ideas, and it comes out in his comedy. And I think unfortunately, it winds up reinforcing some awfully retrogressive ideas about some of these subjects.

MARTIN: Well, Alison, you, like a number of commentators, were critical of Chappelle's latest work in your piece for The Ringer, and one of the things you said is, look - like so many other comics, Chappelle sees himself as countering conventional wisdom with hard realities the audience doesn't want to hear cushioned by a laugh. But Chappelle's takes don't defy establishment thinking at all. They simply channel it. I mean, it sounds - you wrote a very thoughtful piece about it. It sounds like what you say is that part of what you object to is that he's punching down.

HERMAN: Yeah. I mean, I think the punching down, punching up dichotomy can get a little simplistic. But ultimately, what I was trying to communicate in the piece was I don't find it particularly subversive or even provocative to say things like I don't believe Michael Jackson's accusers because, you know, I think the experience of Michael Jackson never having faced material repercussions for his alleged abuse of children in his lifetime goes to show that it's actually, you know, a very mainstream opinion that, you know, these accusers are not to be believed.

So there's kind of a posturing in this special and the previous ones that he's released in his time at Netflix of, you know, I'm just saying things that people don't want to hear. I'm challenging people. And I think, you know, in the very enthusiastic response you can see from the audience in the special, it doesn't really seem to be challenging people's views so much as it affirms them.

MARTIN: And, Maureen, you have a very different take. I mean, in your piece, you said that Chappelle is a true comic provocateur. You said, look - the best of the breed, like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, double as public intellectuals reframing and refocusing our otherwise set ideas and beliefs about religion, profanity, racism, sex, poverty, drugs, materialism. You actually have more things on the list. So - and you're saying that this type of comedy is what the world needs now. Why do you say that?

CALLAHAN: I think that what Dave is doing in this special is attempting to lure us all into a larger conversation. And that goes to our culture of cancellation, where we take one moment, one offense - we dig up something someone said or tweeted five years ago, and we suddenly render them mute. And I think that he knew exactly what he was doing putting that Michael Jackson material at the top of his set because everything else he had to say, by and large, has gone unremarked upon, and that is a shame because there is some really insightful stuff in that set.

MARTIN: It does go to the point of whether - it was the question I'd asked Maureen earlier - what is constructive about this in the current moment? And it makes me wonder - and not to say that that's his job, to be constructive. But it does make me wonder if part of it is the context of, you know, you're in a moment when you have people with, you know, real - you know, hard power, not just cultural power, saying these things and making, you know, hyper-vulnerable people feel extremely vulnerable.

For example, there was a - Damon Young writes Very Smart Brothas. It's a cultural commentator, appears on The Root website, and he says that - the headline of his piece is all the worst white people love Dave Chappelle's "Sticks & Stones." And he says that, you know, defending the words and rights of powerful people is perhaps the least mundane and least transgressive thing an artist could do. And he says that this is a moment in which, you know, people are being trolled - you know, very vulnerable people are actually experiencing harm, and that there's something about it that just feels wrong right now. What about that? Do you think that might be true? Eric?

DEGGANS: Yeah. And, in fact, to say now we can't turn to people like R. Kelly, we can't turn to people like Louis C.K. and say, you know, you have been, you know, hiding this awful stuff you've been doing for a long time, and it's time for you to take a minute and get out of pop culture. You know, I think that makes a lot of sense. And so for Dave to turn to his audience and say, you know, you're doing something awful when you're looking at these people and banishing them from pop culture because they've been abusive for a long time in secret, that doesn't make sense to me. And I'm not even sure that he would want to say it like that if he really followed through his ideas all the way to their conclusion.

MARTIN: Alison, where you think? What do you say to that question?

HERMAN: Something that's really remarkable about the current moment and Dave Chappelle is that he went from a moment - or, you know, several years of total scarcity and total absence to almost total oversaturation. This is the fifth hourlong special we've gotten inside a year and a half, and this is not the first time he's expressed a lot of these ideas, especially about transgender people.

And, you know, you brought up the idea that it's not necessarily his job to be constructive. But we're talking about a comedy special, and I do think it's his job to be funny. I do think we're reaching the point where it's starting to actively negatively affect his art and his ability to be kind of a surprising and innovative and on-the-bleeding-edge figure in our popular culture.

MARTIN: Well, that leads me to my last question. In advance of our conversation, I was looking at a lot of the pieces that people had written about it, and some people made the point that it's not that funny. It's boring. Other people made the point that he's a comedian, and if you don't find it funny, don't watch. So that would be the question I'd have - the last question I'd have for each of you - is that does this really matter? And if you don't find it funny, I mean, does it really matter...

DEGGANS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Is the question. So, Eric, does it really matter?

DEGGANS: It absolutely does matter. I always tell this story about how my mom always hated Don Rickles because he would make - whenever he was imitating a black person, he would sound stupid. He'd put on this dialect where he sounded stupid. And she felt like he was spreading this idea that to be black was to be stupid. And we can see how important cultural influencers can spread these ideas about how to regard women, how to regard people of color, how to regard LGBT people. A popular movie or a popular comic can do that. And so we have to look at those people and say, if you are spreading this vision that is rooted in stereotypes and bias, it's not cool, and it's got to change. And it's going to be challenged by people like me.

MARTIN: Alison, does it matter?

HERMAN: I do think the more of this kind of material he puts out, the more it influences our overall perception of him, and I think the more he drifts away from this subversive countercultural voice to someone who's really in line with other members of his profession and generation. And his exceptionalism gets kind of eroded.

MARTIN: And, Maureen, final thought from you.

CALLAHAN: I think we may watch him grow and change and hopefully evolve. I certainly don't believe in everything that he had to say in the special, and I wrote as much in the piece. Some of it was very hard to hear. But do I want him censoring himself and pretending to be someone he is not? Absolutely not.

MARTIN: That's Maureen Callahan, New York Post's critic at large. Alison Herman joined us. She's staff writer for The Ringer. She joined us via Skype. And NPR's Eric Deggans was with us in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Thank you all so much - really thoughtful conversation.

CALLAHAN: Thank you.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

HERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.