Alison Grillo can see both sides of the debate around Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix stand-up special, “Sticks & Stones,” which has been criticized for jokes about LGBTQ people. As a comedian, she thinks Chappelle should be free to joke about anything. But as a trans woman, she said one of his jokes “rankled” her a little bit.
“I wouldn’t say you shouldn’t make jokes about Michael Jackson, or you shouldn’t make jokes about trans people unless you’re trans, or you shouldn’t make jokes about school shootings unless you’ve been in a school shooting. No. I wouldn’t put that level of censorship on anyone,” Grillo told TheWrap.
But she didn’t love a joke in which a character isn’t sure what pronoun to use for trans people: “I guess the most offensive joke I would say, personally, was the joke about the LGBT people in the car, and when he says, ‘Oh, yes, hi, whatever pronoun you’re comfortable with.’ That kind of rankled me a little bit. But otherwise, I didn’t think it was a terribly mean-spirited performance.”
By nature, comedy specials mix truth with jokes that aren’t meant to be taken seriously. But Chappelle has caught criticism from some viewers who think he’s punching down, targeting people who historically haven’t been given a voice in comedy or society at large.
In “Sticks & Stones,” Chappelle goes after many unexpected targets, including the men who’ve accused Michael Jackson of molesting them as children. He also likens LGBTQ people to passengers on a long road trip who don’t always get along.
Many have taken sides, but TheWrap sought out the opinions of people who can see the special from both a comedic and LGBTQ perspective.
“I’m sure a lot of people will be not happy with it, or have their feelings hurt,” Grillo said. “If you don’t like it, you don’t buy his album or you don’t click on his face. I don’t mean to dismiss his power as an entertainer — I mean, yes, he has a sense of responsibility. But if you look at his whole act, you can say that in many ways, he means well.”
He also talks about an argument he once had with a network standards-and-practices employee that includes him asking, “Why is it that I can say the word n—– with such impunity, but I can’t say the word f—–?”
Chappelle’s point is that there’s a double standard around the slurs. But lesbian comedian Elsa Eli Waithe said that asking the question is “not a good look” for Chappelle.
“For the same reason whites can’t say n-word. You don’t belong to the group. This is mad simple, not clever and low hanging fruit. Not a good look Dave,” Waithe tweeted.
“Sure, everything is fair game,” she elaborated, in a statement to TheWrap. “But he uses his platform to make jokes about rape victims, trans folks, and the LGBTQ community. With all that’s going on in the world, that’s what he chooses to do?”
As opinions swirl around whether Chappelle’s jokes are fair play or if they’ve gone too far, some conservatives have come to Chappelle’s defense, calling him a free-speech champion.
“Of course, free speech, and I support his right ’cause I want the same latitude,” Waithe said. “But when the alt-right thinks you’re doing something right, you’re probably wrong.”
Gay comedian Guy Branum, known for “The Mindy Project” and “Awkward,” tweeted succinctly: “Comedians should support each other and one way Dave Chapelle [sic] could support me more is by calling me a f—– less,” he tweeted.
Alex English looks at it a different way. A gay stand-up comedian who has appeared in VICELAND’s “Funny How?” and written for “The Rundown with Robin Thede” on B.E.T., he says that Chappelle could actually be “providing visibility” to the LGBTQ community.
“In my opinion, people don’t take the time to actually listen to everything thing he says in his jokes,” English told TheWrap. “As a gay person, I’d actually feel left out if he didn’t have any material on us. In my personal opinion, anything and anyone can be made fun of, but only an actually funny person can pull it off. A comedian’s job is to observe, so in way, he’s providing visibility to a group of people whom are ignored constantly, especially in the LGBTQ community (which was the underlying truth in his ‘car’ bit).”
Dewayne Perkins, a gay comedian and actor who has written for “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “The Break with Michelle Wolf,” said the conversation should be much bigger than just Chappelle.
“Stand-up as an artistic medium has historically been exclusive in terms of who is targeted in jokes and even gets to participate. Hence the lack of mainstream queer comics, especially queer black comics. But this isn’t new, it didn’t start with Dave Chappelle and won’t end with Dave Chappelle,” Perkins told TheWrap.
“So to make the conversation about him ignores the bigger issue of a simple lack of representation in comedy,” Perkins added. “If more energy was actually spent just giving those marginalized voices a bigger platform, their art could speak for themselves, and in turn be an active counterpoint to comedy that people feel is problematic.”