Standing onstage in Atlanta, comedian Dave Chappelle explained how it was "the worst time ever to be a celebrity".
Before citing Kevin Hart losing his Oscars gig over past homophobic comments or the fallout over Louis C.K.'s sexual misconduct, Chappelle's first talked about pop star Michael Jackson's alleged child abuse.
"I'm going to say something I'm not allowed to say, but I gotta be real: I don't believe these [accusers]," Chappelle said, using an expletive to refer to Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who were featured in the 2019 HBO documentary Leaving Neverland. "I do not believe it."
Then, Chappelle said during his new Netflix special, he wanted to qualify his position. "If someone came up to me like, 'Dave, Dave, Chris Brown just beat up Rihanna', I'd be like, 'Well, what did she do?' 'Dave, Michael Jackson is molesting children!' 'Well, what were those kids wearing at the time?'" he said.
The comedian again reaffirmed his long-held position toward the Jackson allegations: "I don't think he did it."
Chappelle, one of the most lauded and provocative stand-up comedians of the modern era, did not shy away from taboo opinions during the combative, hour-long special released on Monday, while taking aim at the "celebrity hunting season" in American culture.
The performance was released a day after Chappelle, 46, hosted a benefit concert in Dayton, Ohio, honouring the victims of the city's mass shooting earlier this month.
Since the show's release, some have blasted him over what they call insensitive jokes toward survivors of abuse, while other critics have noted that Chappelle comments on modern outrage, in part, by stoking it so aggressively.
Within the first few minutes of Sticks & Stones – a title meant to convey that words are taken too seriously today – the comedian grappled onstage, jokingly, with the notion that Jackson did in fact sexually abuse children, allegations that have followed the pop star a decade after the 50-year-old died in 2009. At one point, Chappelle, who is set to receive the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in October, offered a nonplussed shrug over the allegations.
"I mean, it's Michael Jackson," he said. "I know more than half the people in this room have been molested in their lives. But it wasn't no G - damn Michael Jackson, was it?"
It's not the first time Chappelle has stood up for Jackson in a stand-up special. In 2004′s For What It's Worth, Chappelle acknowledged he supported Jackson against the allegations, although the comedian hedged in his delivery.
"I don't think he did it – I'm not going to say I don't think he did it, that's too strong," he said in 2004. "Let me just say I am reserving judgment until all the facts come out."
Throughout Chappelle's new special, his fifth in the last two years for Netflix, the comedian mixes in familiar targets, such as the LGBTQ community, with sobering topics, like active-shooter drills at schools in case of a mass shooting. He also addressed the long-standing sexual misconduct allegations surrounding R&B singer R. Kelly, which intensified this year following the 2019 docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly. Kelly was arrested in July and is facing new federal sex-crime charges that include child pornography, enticing a minor to engage in criminal sexual activity and obstruction of justice.
"If I'm a betting man, I'm putting my money on he probably did that," he said of Kelly, whom the comedian famously parodied on Chappelle's Show in 2003.
But it was his focus on "cancel culture" that's been generating the most attention online. When Chappelle got to C.K., who admitted in 2017 to several incidents of sexual misconduct, the comedian leveled jokes echoing his previous sentiments that the accusers were "brittle" and "weak." In Atlanta, Chappelle suggested that "nobody ran for the door" when C.K. was engaging in the sexual misconduct.
In the case of Hart, who stepped down from hosting this year's Oscars ceremony after he initially refused to apologise for several old tweets that used homophobic language, Chappelle criticised the backlash.
"I don't know what you know about Kevin, but I know that Kevin Hart is damn near perfect," Chappelle said onstage. "As close to perfect as anybody I've ever seen. In fact, Kevin is precisely four tweets shy of being perfect."
While the initial reactions on social media to the special have been largely positive, some fans suggested Chappelle shouldn't have joked about Jackson's accusers. Vice wrote that viewers could "definitely skip" Chappelle's special, arguing that he "doubles down on misogyny and transphobia". The National Review Online's critic-at-large deemed the Netflix set "not very funny". At the Daily Beast, Kevin Fallon, the website's senior entertainment reporter, noted that Chappelle knew exactly what he was doing by talking about Jackson.
"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 humour, no matter how uncouth or politically incorrect," Fallon wrote. "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."
At the end of the special, Netflix followed Chappelle's performance with an epilogue called The Punchline, in which the comedian answered audience questions about his comedy. In it, he acknowledged that his latest routine might offend many. But he said his act is not intended to hurt, even if that's ultimately the end result.
"I've been telling these jokes and sometimes [people] look like they're in actual pain over the jokes," he said. "None of it is that bad to me, but I understand why it could hurt some people's feelings."
The Washington Post