Dave Chappelle has already generated predictable headlines for speaking out against #MeToo and defending Michael Jackson and Louis CK in his fifth Netflix special. "Like most of Chappelle’s recent output, Sticks and Stones is designed to generate inflammatory coverage, which will in turn generate a chance for Chappelle to dismiss said coverage as reductive, opportunistic, and generally out to get him," says Alison Herman. "It’s a symbiotic cycle with no end in sight, and it’s become the last thing a beloved provocateur should ever want to be: predictable." Chappelle's "celebrity hunting season" line in the special shows that he "shares a basic misunderstanding of power—as well as the resulting victim complex—with many other celebrities, and a set of deeply held assumptions with that one uncle you pray you don’t wind up next to on Thanksgiving," says Herman. The special also reveals a much deeper contradiction. "All this casual bomb-throwing, delivered with Chappelle’s signature smirk and walk-away-from-the-explosion shuffle, is conducted under the pretense that Chappelle is a truth-teller," says Herman. "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."
Sticks & Stones feels like stale work from a comedian once known for truly boundary-pushing comedy: "It’s understandable for comedians to address the ways in which public discourse informs the way they perform," says Laura Bradley. "One might hope, though, that at this point, they’d also begin to understand that complaining about such things is far from boundary-pushing. Chappelle seems to believe that his special will stoke outrage; more than that, he seems to hope it will." Pointing to Aziz Ansari's recent Netflix special Aziz Ansari Right Now, she adds: "These jokes, and several others that Chappelle drops throughout the special, fall right in line with an increasingly defiant streak among comedians who rail against P.C. culture, and insist that the public has lost its ability to understand jokes in context."
Dave Chappelle still wants it both ways: "He is willing to address criticisms of his earlier sets that were more flagrantly, lazily transphobic," says Tomi Obaro, "but not actually apologize or admit to changing his mind or express any meaningful empathy."
Sticks & Stones shows Chappelle at his best and worst: "Yes, there are some cringeworthy parts of Sticks & Stones," says D. Watkins. "Some sections are too dark to repeat, let alone to laugh at. Isn’t that what we pay for? Comedians are supposed to express the things we can't or won't say, poke fun at the many biases people have, and highlight — which isn't the same as upholding — stereotypes as a way of shining a light on gaps in understanding."