There’s a Grand Canyon-sized divide among reviewers on the new Dave Chappelle special on Netflix, Sticks and Stones. On Rotten Tomatoes, the audience score is sitting at 99% fresh, with nearly 30,000 reviews praising it. Meanwhile, the critics — what few will admit to watching the special — have panned it under 25%, and are telling people not to watch it.
It’s just the latest example of a comedian stepping out to criticize people on all sides, poking fun at American culture, and getting met with leftist backlash.
Comedy, you see, can only be used to criticize one side of the aisle. Comedians have long made fun of cultural elites and politicians with witty observations.
But this changed in the social media age, when news sites and aggregators became desperate for clicks and eyeballs on stories. Comedy was no longer just a pastime where people enjoyed a laugh — it became a weapon to hammer political foes.
The critical moment in all of this was Jon Stewart’s rise to Daily Show stardom. Stewart combined comedy with quick-hit viral moments for YouTube clips that drove internet traffic to news aggregators online. When Stewart retired, Newsweek summed up the formula:
If you’ve browsed the Internet any weekday since, let’s say, 2009, you might know what I’m referring to. The rise of Stewart’s Daily Show has also been the rise of a curious — and curiously obnoxious — headline trope. The format is pretty simple: (1) Jon Stewart, (2) aggressive verb, (3) proper noun, (4) brief explanation.
Every night, Jon Stewart “destroyed,” “eviscerated,” or “disemboweled,” some target of his comedic observation. His viral clips drove internet traffic, and as a result, also drove the news narrative.
As Newsweek reports:
He is the first late-night host to create incisive, bite-sized segments that seem in some ways custom-made for the viral Web. They’re short, they’re funny, and they express a smart, topical political statement (or, OK, an “amazing point” that “nobody’s talking about”) that’s liberal-minded but not too lefty. At best, they illustrate some mind-numbing hypocrisy.
These types of segments have helped revolutionize the relationship between late-night TV and the Internet.
Stewart was ahead of his time — and the rest of the game — when it came to creating these moments and using them to build his platform. It even led mainstream outlets like The New York Times to run pieces asking: “Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?”
Stewart was considered the new truth-teller in America — the court jester was now the court reporter, using irony, detachment, and comedy to wrily describe how things really are to his audience. Journalists frequently considered him in the same breath as a Walter Cronkite of the news; the comedian is now the most trusted voice in America.
If you want to start your hunt for where fake news got air and fuel, start here. It’s a pretty thorough condemnation of modern journalism when people of all political persuasions look at the story and say, “Let’s trust the comedian over the reporters.”
But let’s get back to Dave Chappelle for a moment, and how his new act connects here. Chappelle’s stand-up has long been known to hit people across the political spectrum. He’s an equal opportunity offender. There are no sacred cows he won’t explore for the sake of a laugh, which is what gives him his edge — and the capacity to make jokes others would shy away from.
The problem is that Dave Chappelle effectively retired around the time that Stewart rose to fame. The world changed, and so did comedy. Dave Chappelle did not change, and decided to keep targeting everyone.
It’s not just that Chappelle offended people with his stand-up special; he’s violating the new place that the left, in particular, gives to comedians commenting on politics.
Stewart and his progeny, like Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Amanda Bee, and the rest, are more than comedians — they’re the new trusted names in journalism, the truth-tellers. So if they make fun of someone, they’re supposed to have a similar power to Stewart to “destroy,” “eviscerate,” or “disembowel,” their political opponents.
If Chappelle can mock something about people on the left — in this case, “cancel culture,” among other things — it means Chappelle isn’t just joking; he’s trying to “destroy,” “eviscerate,” or “disembowel” people on the left.
It’s not just a joke to them — it’s a political betrayal. The truth-tellers have come for them now, and they’re not ready for that light to shine on them.
The media and our news aggregation culture are incentivized to retain the Stewart model. It keeps many of them in business. That model also makes the life of counter-culture comedians like Dave Chappelle harder, because it incentivizes the targets of his comedy to dislike him — hence the critic-audience split in the ratings.
Fortunately, it doesn’t look like Chappelle is fazed by any of these attacks — and, more importantly, he’s saving comedy from itself.