One year later, Chris Rock slapped back. Hard.
It was certainly not as startling as Will Smith hitting him at the Oscars, but his long-awaited response, in his new Netflix stand-up special “Selective Outrage” on Saturday night, had moments that felt as emotional, messy and fierce. It was the least rehearsed, most riveting material in an uneven hour.
Near the end, Rock even botched a key part of one joke, getting a title of a movie wrong. Normally, such an error would have been edited out, but since this was the first live global event in the history of Netflix, Rock could only stop, call attention to it and tell the joke again. It messed up his momentum, but the trade-off might have been worth it, since the flub added an electric spontaneity and unpredictability that was a drawing card.
At 58, Rock is one of one of our greatest stand-ups, a perfectionist whose material, once it appeared in a special, always displayed a meticulous sense of control. He lost it here, purposely, flashing anger as he insulted Smith, offering a theory of the case of what really happened at the Academy Awards after he made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair, and in what will be the most controversial part of the set, laid much of the blame on her. This felt like comedy as revenge. Rock said he long loved Will Smith. “And now,” he added, pausing before referencing the new movie in which Smith plays an enslaved man, “I watch ‘Emancipation’ just to see him get whooped.”
One of the reasons Netflix remains the leading stand-up platform has been its ability to create attention-getting events. No other streamer comes close. Through a combination of razzle dazzle and Rolodex spinning, the streaming service packaged this special more like a major sporting event than a special, a star-studded warm-up act to the Oscars next week.
It began with an awkward preshow hosted by Ronny Chieng, who soldiered through by poking fun at the marketing around him. “We’re doing a comedy show on Saturday night — live,” he said, before sarcastically marveling at this “revolutionary” innovation. An all-star team of comics (Ali Wong, Leslie Jones, Jerry Seinfeld), actors (Matthew McConaughey) and music stars (Paul McCartney, Ice-T) hyped up the proceedings, featuring enough earnest tributes for a lifetime achievement award. As if this weren’t enough puffery, Netflix had the comedians Dana Carvey and David Spade host a panel of more celebrations posing as post-show analysis.
This was unnecessary, since Netflix already had our attention by having Rock signed to do a special right after he was on the receiving end of one of the most notorious bad reviews of a joke in the history of television. Countless people weighed in on the slap, most recently the actor and comic Marlon Wayans, whose surprisingly empathetic new special, “God Loves Me,” is an entire hour about the incident from someone who knows all the participants. HBO Max releasing that in the last week was its own counterprogramming.
Until now, Rock has said relatively little about the Oscars, telling a few jokes on tour, which invariably got reported in the press. I’m guessing part of the reason he wanted this special to air live was to hold onto an element of surprise. Rock famously said that he always believed a special should be special. And he has done so in previous shows by moving his comedy in a more personal direction. “Tamborine,” an artful, intimate production shot at the BAM Harvey theater, focused on his divorce. This one, shot in Baltimore, had a grander, more old-fashioned vibe, with reaction shots alternating with him pacing the stage in his signature commanding cadence.
Dressed all in white, his T-shirt and jeans hanging loosely off a lanky frame, and wearing a shiny bracelet and necklace with the Prince symbol, Rock started slowly with familiar bits about easily bruised modern sensibilities, the hollowness of social media and woke signaling. He skewered the preening of companies like Lululemon that market their lack of racism while charging $100 for yoga pants. Most people, he says, would “prefer $25 racist yoga pants.”
If there’s one consistent thread through Rock’s entire career, it’s following the money, how economics motivates even love and social issues. On abortion, he finds his way to the financial angle, advising women: “If you have to pay for your own abortion, you should have an abortion.”
A commanding theater performer who sets up bits as well as anymore, Rock picked up momentum midway through, while always hinting at the Smith material to come, with a reoccurring refrain of poking fun at Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z before making clear it’s just for fun: “Last thing I need is another mad rapper.” Another running theme is his contempt for victimhood. His jokes about Meghan Markle are very funny, mocking her surprise that the royal family is racist, terming them its originators, the “Sugarhill Gang of racism.”
On tour, his few jokes about Smith were once tied to his points about victimhood. But here, he follows one of his most polished and funny jokes, comparing the dating prospects of Jay-Z and Beyoncé if they weren’t stars but worked at Burger King, with a long, sustained section on the Oscars that closes the show. Here, he offers his theory on Will Smith, which is essentially that the slap was an act of displacement, shifting his anger from his wife cheating on him and broadcasting it onto Rock. The comic says his joke was never really the issue. “She hurt him way more than he hurt me,” Rock said, using his considerable powers of description to describe the humiliation of Smith in a manner that seemed designed to do it again.
There’s a comic nastiness to Rock’s insults, some of which is studied, but other times appeared to be the product of his own bottled-up anger. In this special, Rock seemed more raw than usual, sloppier, cursing more often and less precisely. This was a side of him you hadn’t seen before. The way his fury became directed at Pinkett Smith makes you wonder if this was also a kind of displacement. Going back into the weeds of Oscar history, Rock traced his conflict with her and Smith to when he said she wanted Rock to quit as Oscar host in 2016 because Smith was not nominated for the movie “Concussion” (the title that he mangled).
That her boycotting that year’s Oscars was part of a larger protest against the Academy for not nominating Black artists went unsaid, implying it was merely a pretext. Rock often establishes his arguments with the deftness and nuance of a skilled trial lawyer, but he’s not trying to give a fair, fleshed out version of events. He’s out for blood. There’s a coldness here that is bracing. Describing his jokes about Smith’s wife at the ceremony in 2016, he put it bluntly: “She started it. I finished it.” But, of course, as would become obvious years later, he didn’t.
Did he finish it in this special? We’ll see, but I think we’re in for another cycle of discourse as we head into the Academy Awards next week.
At one point, Rock said there are four ways people can get attention in our culture: “Showing your ass,” being infamous, being excellent or playing the victim. It’s a good list, but this special demonstrates a conspicuous omission: Nothing draws a crowd like a fight.