Chris Rock messed up a joke.
To be precise Rock fumbled a Will Smith joke. The stakes couldn’t be higher: Netflix’s first-ever live event, broadcast across 190 countries. The standup comedy special Selective Outrage was performed on March 4, almost a year since Rock was assaulted on the Academy Award stage by Smith, and the world tuned in to see what Rock would finally say about the incident. That’s why the fumble matters. Watching Rock, a relentless and precise comedian, absolutely kill it on stage is no surprise, but it was the fumble — where he was talking about Smith’s 2015 film Concussion but instead named Smith’s 2022 film Emancipation — that reminded us that this was indeed a live show. That mistakes happen.
Rock cannily took his time getting to Smith, knowing audiences were thirsty for that verbal bodyslam, but as he spoke — primarily about woke hypocrisy, double-standards, and a society too eager to play the victim-card — he kept teasing. He made a dig at Snoop Dogg, then apologised, saying he didn’t want any more rappers mad at him. He took a shot at Jay Z later in the show, and repeated the apology. This was in keeping with the start, when he pretended that Selective Outrage would be a show that wouldn’t offend anyone.
“Words hurt,” he said, appearing to agree with those who consider jokes as offensive as violence, before he brought the hammer down: “Words hurt when you write them on a brick.”
The 58-year-old, dressed in all-white and wearing a Prince necklace, performed with bastardly swagger, eager to play villain and shock audiences, promising that “you can’t tell any of these jokes at work.” It’s an angry special, with Rock eviscerating not only The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air but also the culture as it stands. Back when Rock was struck by Smith during the Oscars, after making a joke about Smith’s wife, I was appalled to see mature people tweeting in support of Smith’s actions. No wonder Rock is annoyed by those who are “typing woke-ass tweets on a phone made by Chinese kids.”
The best — and most scathing — example of the cancel-culture hypocrisy he’s rallying against featured Rock speaking about those who have self-righteously stopped listening to R Kelly, yet continue listening to Michael Jackson. Referring to the musicians caught in child molestation scandals (though only R Kelly was legally convicted and imprisoned) Rock labelled it the same crime. “One of them just got better songs.”
Pointing to Americans as addicted to attention, Rock outlined four ways to get it: by showing your ass, by being infamous, by being excellent, and — because being excellent may be too much trouble — by being a victim. He took apart Meghan Markle for sobbing to Oprah Winfrey about the racism she faced, saying he didn’t understand her surprise at this behaviour from the royal family, the people who made racism mainstream. A lot of the behaviour Markle whined about, according to Rock, wasn’t even racism. “Just some in-law shit.”
Half a dozen years ago, I’d watched Rock live in New York. He’d shown up unadvertised to the Comedy Cellar, and on a beer-soaked stage, he giggled at the jokes that didn’t land as he tried out new material in front of an already-tickled audience. As comics go, Rock is a craftsman, committed to structure and delivery, with gradual storytelling that builds to a larger point. He takes from the playbooks of both the insightful Dave Chappelle and the structurally meticulous Jerry Seinfeld, both his friends and admirers, and his beautifully scripted Netflix special Tambourine exemplifies his comic rhythm and his unsparing style.
This time, Rock was angrier and seemed more unhinged, but that vengeance propels Selective Outrage, giving it a uniquely righteous energy.
It doesn’t completely land. Rock, speaking about how his “spoiled” daughters got to enjoy the “Illuminati version” of Disneyland, speaks of hanging backstage with the Disney characters instead of standing in line to wait for them. To illustrate his point Rock conjures up the preposterous image of Minnie Mouse twerking against his lap… which makes it sound like his children may not have had as good a time as he thinks. There are times during this special when, in his urge to paint himself as the philandering mega-rich villain, the point runs away from him.
At the end, he stops playing rope-a-dope and lays into the uppercut that he’s been winding up for a year. He brutally insults Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, saying that — by cuckolding Will and then interviewing him about it on camera — Jada humiliated him far more than any joke could have, and that Will chose to attack Rock, simply because he could. He highlighted the differences in size between Smith, who once played Mohammed Ali, and himself, who could never do a movie with his shirt off.
The comedian says the blow still hurts. “I have rooted for Will Smith my whole life,” Rock said, “And now I watch Emancipation just to see him get whooped.” It takes a lot for one of the most prominent black entertainers in America to call out another, reference a film about slavery and admit that rage is making him side with the evil white man. “Now I’m rooting for Massa. You missed a spot.”
There have been other mic-drops. Stand-up comedy is built on the explosive coup de grace, and there have been many smarter — and more scathing — ones than the knockout blow Rock delivered this weekend. Yet this felt louder. Blame the hype, the waiting time, the spontaneity of the live event. As the fumbled joke demonstrated, things do indeed go wrong in the heat of the moment. When your weapon is words, though, you have the superpower of taking it back. It’s less simple to un-throw a punch.
Streaming Tip Of The Week
The Dude abides. This week marks 25 years of the best Coen Brothers film. The Big Lebowski (Amazon Prime) is a slacker comedy that unfolds like a pulpy noir fever-dream, about a White Russian drinking man who just wants to get his rug back. It’s a masterpiece, man.