Chris Rock took to the air Saturday night for “Selective Outrage,” the second of two stand-up specials for which Netflix paid $40 million: an event whose singularity, not to say preciousness, was highlighted by featuring in a pre-show recording and an after-show, and releasing it live.
(Viewers on the west coast got Rock a little early, at 7 p.m.; back east — where the show took place, at the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore — a little late; the rest of the world — the show got to 90 countries streamed – made his own accommodation.)
If “Selective Outrage” hadn’t gone live, a fact that Netflix couldn’t stress too much, it would have been news – as indeed it had been successfully sold as such weeks before its arrival – given that Rock was expected to that he would address the Slap, whose first birthday is near. (If you’re the only person who somehow doesn’t know, at last year’s Oscars, Will Smith attacked Rock for a bad joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith – although Rock has his own theory about that, see below.) has refused to vaporize, perhaps precisely because the world was waiting for Rock to handle it.
Aside from news and sports and awards shows, since the 1950s, live television has been an affectation of sorts: a stunt, a gimmick, an occasional aesthetic experiment. This is Rock’s sixth special, and the fact that the previous five were produced in the usual way has not hindered his career.
And like a sporting event, “Selective Outrage” had an element of unpredictability, even danger, the possibility that the comedian would have to be figuratively carried off the field. (The bombing potential is so much part of the fabric of “Saturday Night Live,” created to put a countercultural twist on the comedy-variety shows of the ’50s, that it’s survived nearly 60 years with a remarkably high percentage of duds; fans show up as they might for a team that often loses.)
The sports metaphor was, as it were, underlined by the pre- and post-game analysis; through a credits in which the star appeared to gird himself for battle, not only with the audience’s anticipation and with the specter of his Oscar striker, but, as he walked to the stage in slow motion past echoes of past specials, with himself as well – and by the triumphant attitude he assumed at the end, with a stern face, looking not happy but justified.
At 58, an age when many comedians have reached their sell-by date, Rock isn’t exactly an old lion — his looks remain remarkably boyish — but he hasn’t been the new kid for nearly four decades, and even if one takes his greatness as read, the question will be whether he will retain the crown, improve his personal best, say something new, keep up, change with the changing times or dominate them through the power of his own art and personality.
Formally, the special, directed by Joel Gallen (whose credits include Rock’s 2004 “Never Scared” and many live music events and awards shows) was something of a throwback, old-fashioned television, compared to Rock’s first Netflix special, the “Tamborine” from 2018.”, bathed in golden light by director Bo Burnham, and his latest HBO special, the 2008 “Kill the Messenger,” directed by Marty Callner, which cut between performances in New York, London, and Johannesburg, often mid-sentence , giving you a sense of how tightly rehearsed Rock’s routines are. Where “Tamborine” found the strip in a relatively intimate setting with the audience almost at its feet, engaging in a more modulated, reflective style of delivery, “Selective Outrage” came across as a crude attempt to reclaim the old fire; he pumped up the volume, rumbled around the stage, and charged his lines with repeated words and phrases like a revival preacher, both to elaborate a point and to make music.
“I’m going to try to do a show tonight without offending anyone,” Rock said at the time of his hour (and eight minutes), as if to announce that many certainly would. “You never know who’s going to get triggered,” he said, before aiming for a mix of hard and easy and sometimes confusing targets. (There’s a lot to be said about Elon Musk, but his sperm is the last tack imaginable.)
While 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 Saturday routine covered a familiar range of topics: race, sex, the state of the country, hypocrisy, his own childhood and that of his children, 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, such as when he discussed his oldest daughter being expelled from high school for bad behavior – but at this stage in life a little Get Off My Lawn, You Kids These Days inevitably creeps in.
Some of his goals were curiously unimportant: going after Meghan Markle because she didn’t understand she’d encounter racism within the royal family, felt mean and like a waste of breath, and the Kardashians, even though they’re super glued in popular culture , are the day before yesterday’s news. (Though raising Caitlyn Jenner gave Rock the chance to present herself as non-transphobic, which vaguely came across as a distant reference to his friend Dave Chappelle’s controversial special.) “Wokeness” is already a tired topic, but public over-sensitivity is, after all, the comedian’s scare, and in fact, anyone over a certain age will no doubt have had a conversation about how the world has become cautious.
“Everyone is scared,” Rock said, noting, “Anyone who says words hurt has never been punched in the face. Words hurt when you write them on a stone.”
The highlight of the night — being teased all night as he tagged jokes about Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z saying he didn’t need another rapper mad at him — was sort of an anticlimax because it was so expected, as the boisterous battle at the end of a Marvel movie, and many of his best jokes fleshed out on other stages, already published.
When Rock finally got to the Slap, in the final minutes of the special, he certainly leaned over it. He was funniest comparing his own physical cons, but self-deprecation led to a less effective, if brutally delivered, theory of the matter, which would have been quite confusing if you weren’t aware of Jada Pinkett Smith’s backstory —Will Smith – that Smith’s attack on him had more to do with public humiliation over his wife’s extramarital affair than with Rock’s bad joke about her – which he traced back to the opening theme of selective outrage. (He does have an essayist’s sense of structure.)
The generalization and exaggeration necessary to have humor (such as when he pushes his position on abortion to absurd logical extremes) are balanced against common sense and fresh insights. Whether or not you accept his theories about how men are or women are, or what makes a good relationship, or what is wrong with the country, or even accept the premises from which he draws his conclusions, and whether this was his prime hour or not (and eight minutes) of television, Rock remains worth listening to because there is nothing casual about what he does, and most importantly he knows how to make a joke and sell it. You are allowed to laugh even if you are offended.
‘Chris Rock: Selective Outrage’
rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under 17 with strong language advice)