Dave Chappelle: Sticks and Stones – review (Netflix)

Being funny is a particular skill. There are different types of funny, and different people find different things amusing, but to pursue the profession of making people laugh takes a certain amount of bravery, especially in this day and age.

If you are older, over forty, forty-five years old, you know that comedy has changed a lot. The double entendre comedy of the seventies and into the eighties, with homosexual references, blonde jokes, racial stereotypes, and other utterances that would be considered inappropriate in this modern world of social media outrage and offended-ness, is difficult even to view on YouTube.

Being a stand-up comedian, or even a comedy writer, is fraught with career-ending danger. An offhand tweet can end a career, no matter how old it might be. The vociferous appetite for scandal across media has anyone in the public eye, checking themselves before making any sort of comment.

The subject of fame and how seemingly inappropriate words can bring the great and famous to heel is central to Dave Chappelle’s comedy special Sticks and Stones, that is currently streaming on Netflix. Filmed in front of an appreciative crowd in Atlanta, Chappelle runs through a gamut of uncomfortable subjects.

I did not watch the show as a fan of Chappelle. Truth be told, I have always found Chapelle’s humour a little hit and miss. most notable for his show back in the early noughties, The Dave Chappelle Show, Chappelle’s star was in the ascendency and then he stopped. Walking away from a very lucrative contract, he stepped away from comedy completely.

Though some of his sketches were funny, back then, I found some of them too juvenile to enjoy. Sticks and Stones is not juvenile. It is focused and wonderfully observed. Like the best comedians who take their material from observations of the world around them, Chappelle’s musings are based around empathy.

All the best comedians are empathetic, able to know what buttons to push to amuse the masses and to make it relatable. The real talent, especially these days, is to broach taboo subjects and speak about them without offending the audience.

A less skilled comedian would struggle, but Chappelle, a veteran of nearly thirty years, is a master of delivery, covering subjects such as race, sexuality, fame, and morality. He is not a comedian who tells jokes. He tends to relate stories or observational monologues.

He talks about Kevin Hart’s tribulations around the Oscars and old tweets, Jussie Smollett’s somewhat dubious race attack incident, school shootings, the LGBT’s appropriation of the alphabet, and growing up poor, and other musings.

Chappelle has a wonderful way of delivering his stories and monologues, speaking as though he is amongst close friends, inviting the audience to be complicit in his, occasionally close to the mark, jokes. His way of telling jokes, told confidently and unapologetically, is hard to be offended by.

That is not to say he does not say anything offensive. With the exception of body image, age-related observations, politics, and religion, Chappelle covers every subject that it is possible to offend a person with.

Having said that, one would have to be looking to be offended to find Chappelle’s Netflix show offensive. There is nothing in his delivery that is deliberately malicious or barbed, never trying to persuade the audience that a particular view is the correct one or something that should be adopted, he is just relating his stories in an amusing fashion.

At an hour-long, Sticks and Stones zips along, Chappelle expertly entertaining the audience and viewer over the runtime. The beauty with Chappelle is he owns his comedy, finding his own observations as amusing as we do, occasionally laughing at the absurdity of his jokes.

Unlike the seventies and eighties, as I mentioned before, today’s comedians have to be more aware of the words they speak in jest, whether in public or in a private conversation overheard, lest they are misconstrued and thought to have an opinion that some might find distasteful.

Chappelle’s show walks the line between inappropriate and funny, making a commentary on modern mores whilst giving a nod, with his laconic style and delivery, to older black comedic icons who came before him such as Red Fox, Richard Pryor, and Eddie MurphySticks and Stones is a sharply observed, laugh-out-loud, hour of comedy. Definitely worth a look.

My Top Ten Comedies

     Everybody likes to laugh. Whether it is with friends or alone, at something you have seen on social media, television or read, laughing is something that is enjoyed universally. There are few things in life that bring more unfettered joy, a total disconnect from any worries or stress, than a good hearty, unrestrained laugh. 

    With this in mind, I thought I would list my favourite comedies. In an effort to keep the list somewhat organised, I will only be listing ten, because ‘my ten favourite comedies’ is a clickable title. I will be sticking to true comedies, so there will be no rom-coms, as much as I enjoy them, action-comedies or any other genre-slash-comedy. 

   And, crucially, they all have to have contained a scene that made me laugh uncontrollably. I’m talking tears streaming down my face, was unable to hear the next scene funny. With these criteria in mind, here is my list of the funniest films, in no particular order, I have enjoyed over the years. 

   The first film I’m going to list is Eddie Murphy’s funniest and most quotable classic, 1988’s Coming to America. Murphy was already a big star by the time Coming to America came out, having made his name in the buddy classic alongside Nick Nolte in 1982’s 48 hours and starred in another comedy classic opposite Dan Akroyd in1983’s Trading Places. 

   But it was in Coming to America that Murphy really showed his comedy chops. Not only did he play the central character of Prince Akeem, he also took on other smaller roles in the film, as a barber, a Jewish man and soul singer. Along with Arsenio Hall, who also played multiple characters, Murphy is hilarious as the crown prince of a fictional African country who goes to America to find a bride. 

    Not only does the film contain multiple laugh-out-loud scenes, it also features a, at that time, unknown Samuel L Jackson in a small, expletive-filled scene. A classic comedy that even after many viewings is still funny. 

   My next film is a film that spawned many a copycat but was never bettered. Starring Leslie Neilsen, who would go on to make such films his stock-in-trade, Airplane (1980) is a brilliant spoof on the popular disaster movies of the seventies. Containing brilliant visual gags and a script full of comedy gems, the film works mostly because the entire cast plays it absolutely straight. 

    From the memorable ‘assume crash positions’ which sees the passengers strewn about the plane, to the slowly going maniacally crazy air traffic controller, played by Lloyd Bridges, who through the whole ordeal list the various vices he picked the wrong week to give up. Airplane is a classic of its type that has never been surpassed or equalled. 

    Next, on my list, I’m going back to the thirties, 1933 to be exact. That is when my favourite film of the comedy quartet that were known as the Marx Brothers came out. Duck Soup finds the four brothers in the fictional country of Freedonia. 

   Rufus T Firefly (Groucho) is the ruler and the country is in dire straits. He plans to marry a wealthy widow, MrsTeasdale (Margaret Dumont). But when he finds he has a rival in Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) from the neighbouring country, Sylvania, he decides to declare war. 

    Not only is Duck Soup a brilliant farce, it is also the source of the often copied mirror scene. When Firefly hears a noise in the night he goes around his home checking. He comes across a door-sized reflection of himself, Harpo as Pinky, dressed exactly the same. Suspicious, he tries to outwit the doppelgänger. If you have never seen Duck Soup, it is worth seeing for that scene alone. 

    Staying in the thirties, next on my list is Bringing Up Baby(1938). Cary Grant plays David Huxley, a palaeontologist who is trying to secure a million-dollar donation for his museum. He meets the flighty and quirky Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn) and chaos ensues. 

     Susan takes a fancy to David and, as a way to keep him around, tricks him into helping her out with a gift bestowed on her aunt Elizabeth (May Robson), by Major Applegate (Charles Ruggles), a tamed tiger named Baby. Aunt Elizabeth is also the benefactor whom David is hoping to get the donation from. 

     Grant’s and Hepburn’s comedy timing is something to admire, considering both also did many dramatic roles. Directed by the legendary Howard Hawks, Bringing Up Baby is a film that is timeless in its ability to amuse. 

    A more recent film for my next pick is a film starring Melissa McCarthy. I have been a fan of hers since her turn as the happy chef Sookie in the brilliant dramedy series, Gilmore Girls. McCarthy has been in many, mostly good, comedies; Bridesmaids, The Heat, Identity Thief, Ghostbusters, Tammy, to name a few. 

   It is in 2015’s Spy that McCarthy excels as the CIA office drone, Susan Cooper, who is forced to work in the field when the identities of all the field operatives are compromised. Playing opposite a surprisingly funny Jason Statham as the macho Rick Ford, McCarthy shows her full comedic repertoire here, from goofy and clumsy to potty-mouthed and caustic. Spy is a laugh fest. 

    Now to a comedy that should not work. A comedy that is a guilty pleasure even though it is not a secret. A comedy whose premise is so stupid it could only have soared or crashed and burned. I am talking about the gender/race swap craziness that is White Chicks. 

    White Chicks, starring two of the brothers, Marlon and Shawn, from the comic dynasty that is the Wayans’, sees the two black FBI agents go undercover as two white, blonde sorority girls to foil a kidnap plot. Told you it was ridiculous. As well as some brilliant gender gags and race-baiting humour, there is a standout performance from Terry Crews as Latrell Spencer, a big black man who embraces everything white. White Chicks is really a bad film that is somehow a good comedy. If watched with low expectations, it is an enjoyable romp. 

    From a bad gender swap comedy to a classic. Going back to 1959, I am picking the Billy Wilder film, Some Like It Hot. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play Joe and Jerry, a couple of musicians who find themselves on the run from the mob after witnessing a hit. 

    They dress as women, adopting the names Josephine and Daphne, and join an all-female band on a train to Florida. Joe/Josephine is attracted to Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) and so adopts another identity – Shell Oil jr – to try and woo her. Jerry/Daphne is trying to repel the attentions of a true millionaire, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). 

    The two men also have to avoid Spats Colombo (George Raft) who wants them dead. A sparkling comedic property that, even after all these years, still works on multiple levels.

     The youth of today do not know what they are missing when it comes to this next comedy gem. With an Oscar-winning turn by a then-unknown Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito, the long-suffering girlfriend of Vinny Gambini, a fantastically streetwise Joe Pesci, the film, My Cousin Vinny, is comedy gold. 

    When a road trip across America finds New Yorkers, Bill (Ralph Macchio) and Stan (Mitchell Whitfield) arrested for murder in rural Alabama, the only lawyer they can afford, because he’s free, is Bill’s cousin, Vinny. 

    My Cousin Vinny has so many great scenes, it is difficult to pick a favourite one. With the acting good across the board and the late Fred Gwynne, as Judge Chamberlain Haller, excelling. My Cousin Vinny is a must-watch film for any fan of comedy.

    Before he went a little existential, Jim Carrey was a comedy superstar. In 1994 he had a particularly good year, releasing three great comedies. First came Ace Venture: Pet Detective, Carrey’s manic energy perfect for the animal obsessed private investigator. That was followed by The Mask, which saw another high octane performance from Carrey. Finally, that year, came my penultimate pick for a place in my top ten, Dumb And Dumber. 

    Playing opposite an equally funny Jeff Daniels, who plays Harry, Carrey is Lloyd. Together the pair play best friends whose matching levels of stupidity see them get into situations and crises they are too inept to get out of. 

     The buffoonery of the two is something to behold, their lack of intelligence making an amoeba look like a genius. Written by the Farrelly brothers, Peter and Bobby, Dumb and Dumber is one of their standout works along with Shallow Hal and Something About Mary. Dumb And Dumber is idiotic humour at its best. 

   My final pick is from the mind of B movie action star Michael Jai White. White, a highly accomplished martial artist and passable actor, who has graced screens both large and small for the past couple of decades. 

   Appearing in frankly too many forgettable roles to mention, as well as some respectable fare such as a recurring role in the television series Arrow and Nolan’s The Dark Knight, White created a cult film in 2009 with a pastiche of seventies blaxploitation films. 

    Black Dynamite was clever and funny, nostalgic and knowing, an unexpected gem of a comedy, relishing in the many quirks and novelties of the blaxploitation era. With White playing the lead role of Black Dynamite, a mixture of Shaft (1971) and Jim Kelly’s Black Belt Jones (!974), he looks the part and is perfect for the all-action role he created for himself. 

    There are a few more films that could have made it to the list – The Odd Couple, Uptown Saturday Night, Blazing Saddles, The Lego Movie, The Hangover, to name a tiny few, that is without even delving into the silent era classics. 

   Comedy is such a personal thing that to proclaim my choices, which in truth are changeable, definitive would be foolhardy. For me, the ten films I have listed are all films that have given great joy on multiple viewings and even to think about scenes in many of the above would bring a smile to my face. Everybody loves to laugh.