Chris Rock’s Netflix special packs a punch, despite some mistargets and live gimmick
Chris Rock took to the ether Saturday night for “Selective Outrage,” the second of two stand-up specials for which Netflix paid $40 million: an event whose specialness, not to say its costliness, was emphasized by bracketing it within a pre-show and an after-show, and by putting it out live.
(West Coast viewers got Rock a little on the early side, at 7 p.m.; back East — where the show took place, at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre — a little on the late; the rest of the world — the show streamed to 90 countries — made its own accommodations.)
Had “Selective Outrage” not gone out live, a fact that Netflix could not emphasize too much, it would have been news — as indeed it had been successfully sold as such for weeks before its arrival — given that Rock was expected to address the Slap, whose first anniversary is nigh. (If you are the one person who somehow does not know, at last year’s Oscars ceremony, Will Smith attacked Rock over a bad joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith — though Rock has his own theory about that, see below.) This contretemps has refused to evaporate, perhaps exactly because the world was waiting for Rock to address it.
Nearly a year after Will Smith’s shocking assault at the 2022 Oscars, Rock broke his silence Saturday in the live Netflix special “Selective Outrage.”
Outside of news and sports and awards ceremonies, live television has been something of an affectation since the 1950s: a stunt, a gimmick, occasionally an aesthetic experiment. This is Rock’s sixth special, and that the previous five were produced in the usual manner has proved no impediment to his career.
For the record:
9:49 p.m. March 5, 2023An earlier version of this review stated that “Saturday Night Live” has been on the air for nearly 60 years. The show premiered nearly 48 years ago, in October 1975.
And as in a sporting event, there was an element of unpredictability to “Selective Outrage,” even of danger, the possibility that the comedian would have to be carried off the field, figuratively speaking. (The potential for bombing is so much a part of the fabric of “Saturday Night Live,” created to put a countercultural spin on the comedy-variety shows of the ‘50s, that it has survived for nearly 50 years with a remarkably high percentage of dud bits; fans show up as they might for a team that often loses.)
The sports metaphor was underscored by the pre- and post-game analysis, as it were; by a credit sequence in which the star seemed to be girding himself for battle, not just with audience expectations and with the specter of his Oscar attacker, but, as he walked in slow motion toward the stage past echoes of earlier specials, with himself as well — and by the triumphal pose he struck at the end, stern-faced, looking not happy but vindicated.
At 58, an age at which many comedians have reached their sell-by date, Rock is not quite an old lion — his appearance remains remarkably boyish — but he hasn’t been the new kid for nigh on four decades, and even if one takes his greatness as read, there will be the question of whether he’ll retain the crown, better his personal best, say something new, keep up, change with the changing times or dominate them by the force of his own art and personality.
Chris Rock took a dig at Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s ‘entanglement’ scandal during his live Netflix special.
Formally, the special, directed by Joel Gallen (whose credits include Rock’s 2004 “Never Scared” and many live musical events and awards shows) was something of a throwback, old-fashioned television, compared with Rock’s first Netflix special, the 2018 “Tamborine,” bathed in gold light by director Bo Burnham, and his final HBO special, the 2008 “Kill the Messenger,” directed by Marty Callner, which cut between performances in New York, London and Johannesburg, frequently in the middle of a sentence, giving you a sense of just how tightly rehearsed are Rock’s routines. Where “Tamborine” found the comic in a relatively intimate setting with the audience nearly at his feet, engaging in a more modulated, reflective style of delivery, “Selective Outrage” came across as a rough-edged bid to regain old fire; he pumped up the volume, prowled the stage, charging his text with repeated words and phrases like a revival preacher, both to hammer out a point and to make music.
“I’m going to try to do a show tonight without offending nobody,” Rock said at the time of his hour (and eight minutes), as if to announce that many certainly would be. “You never know who might get triggered,” he said, before taking aim at a mix of hard and easy and occasionally confusing targets. (There’s a lot to be said about Elon Musk, but his sperm is the last tack you might imagine.)
Though he likes to downplay his intelligence and mention his lack of education, Rock is no dummy; he clearly thinks a lot — the comedian’s job, really — and his routine Saturday covered a familiar range of subjects: race, sex, the state of the nation, hypocrisy, his own childhood and his children’s, and the newer themes of being single and dating slightly younger versus much younger women. Personal responsibility has been a theme throughout Rock’s career — he can sound surprisingly conservative at times, as when discussing making sure his older daughter was expelled from high school for bad behavior — but at this stage of life, a bit of Get Off My Lawn, You Kids These Days inevitably creeps in.
Some of his targets were strangely inessential: Going after Meghan Markle for not understanding that she’d encounter racism among the royal family, felt mean and like a waste of breath, and the Kardashians, even if super-glued into popular culture, are the day before yesterday’s news. (Though bringing up Caitlyn Jenner did give Rock the opportunity to present himself as nontransphobic, which came off in some vague way as a distancing reference to his friend Dave Chappelle’s own controversial special.) “Wokeness” is already a tired subject, but public over-sensitivity is the comedian’s bugbear, after all, and, really, anyone over a certain age is bound to have had a conversation about how the world has grown cautious.
“Everybody’s scared,” said Rock, observing that, “Anybody that says words hurt has never been punched in the face. Words hurt when you write them on a brick.”
The climax of the evening — teased through the evening as he tagged jokes about Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z with the remark that he didn’t need another rapper mad at him — was something of an anticlimax by virtue of its being so expected, like the noisy battle at the end of a Marvel movie, and many of its best jokes, worked out on other stages, having already been published.
When Rock finally got to the Slap, in the special’s last minutes, he certainly leaned into it. He was funniest comparing his own physical disadvantages, but self-deprecation led to a less effective, if brutally delivered, theory of the case, which would have been quite confounding if you weren’t up on the Jada Pinkett Smith-Will Smith backstory — that Smith’s attack on him had more to do with public humiliation over his wife’s extramarital relationship than Rock’s poor joke about her — which he tied back to the opening theme of selective outrage. (He does have an essayist’s sense of structure.)
The generalization and exaggeration that are necessary to humor (as when he takes his abortion rights stand to absurd logical extremes) are balanced with common sense and fresh insights. Whether or not you buy his theories about how men are, or women are, or what makes a good relationship, or what ails the country, or even accept the premises from which he draws his conclusions, and whether or not this was his finest hour (and eight minutes) of television, Rock remains worth listening to, because there’s nothing casual about what he does, and most important, he knows how to craft and sell a joke. You may laugh even as you’re offended.
‘Chris Rock: Selective Outrage’
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with an advisory for coarse language)
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