Furious Chris Rock Vents His Own ‘Selective Outrage’
Chris Rock was in a prize fight last night. From his hype men agitating the crowd (I’ve never ever seen a comedy special with a pre-game lineup of comics essentially screaming ‘You got this, man! Go get ‘em!’) to the special’s opening montage (slowly walking to the ring through clips of his past triumphs, jokes from Bring the Pain echoing like the theme from Rocky), Rock took to the Baltimore stage with a gleam in his eyes. He had a score to settle.
For some sizable percentage of viewers who tuned into the first-ever live Netflix comedy special, blood was just what they were looking for. After last year’s infamous Oscar wallop courtesy of the Fresh Prince, Rock has remained mostly silent on the matter — pretty much the only comedian who didn’t milk The Slap for easy laughs. He didn’t address the situation in interviews. We all knew why. Rock was saving all his punches for a night like this.
But was Rock just setting himself up for failure? Selective Outrage just might have been the single most anticipated comedy special of all time. Maybe that’s hyperbole, but what else can compare? John Mulaney retook the stage after a notorious intervention and subsequent rehab, but his public rise from the ashes wasn’t a one-night-only, all-or-nothing affair — he worked his jokes show by show, month after month. The closest comparison is Richard Pryor’s Live on the Sunset Strip, the feature film the comic made after nearly burning himself to death. That was the bar: An all-time great stand-up stared into the face of extreme public humiliation, even death, and turned it into the highest art of his career.
There was one more factor as well. Rock has been doing this for a while. Bring the Pain, arguably his biggest triumph, was in 1996. That’s more than 25 years ago, which is even longer in comedy years. Hall-of-Fame comedians generally have a shelf life, a window of white-hot relevancy before fading into the background. People still love Rock the stand-up comic, but it’s not like everyone walks around quoting jokes from Tambourine. Selective Outrage wasn’t only about justifying the hype. Rock was looking to regain a seat at the cultural conversation table.
It would be difficult for any stand-up special to live up to all that, and frankly, Selective Outrage didn’t seem like it was going to get there. Rock took the stage dressed completely in white, a bookend to the all-black ensemble in Bring the Pain and the Eddie-Murphy-inspired purple number from Bigger and Blacker. He stalked the stage like a prize fighter, but he was playing rope-a-dope with the audience — a jab here, a body combination there, but nothing that really drew blood.
For 45 minutes, the act seemed a little tired. At first, Rock checked off a laundry list of Hot Topics 2023, including woke culture, trans acceptance, white victimhood and abortion. This was the “go ahead, cancel me” section of the show, a series of jokes that seemed to say, “I can make anything into comedy, and you can’t stop me.” Then things go more personal — bits about relationships with women and his daughters — but much of this felt like territory Rock had walked before. The laughs were there for him all night, but the special didn’t feel special. Just another night of familiar Rock comedy, with only a recurring joke to hint at where he was going: “The last thing I need is another rapper mad at me.”
But of course, finally, Rock got to the conclusive round of the fight, the one where you can’t pull your punches anymore. It was the Will Smith Round, and now it was time to see a Chris Rock we’d never witnessed before. This wasn’t Indignant Chris Rock, fed up with social injustice. This was Furious Chris Rock, the poor sap who got sucker-punched in front of a global audience. On Oscar night, Rock took the high road. Last night, he did not.
He eviscerated Smith with a cruelty that doesn’t sit comfortably alongside comedy. Smith wasn’t angry with me, Rock argued, it was Jada. “His wife was fucking her son’s friend,” Rock spat as the air went out of the room. Sure, the couple has addressed this themselves publicly on their strange internet shows, but no one has ever called out Will and Jada like this. Rock tried to turn Smith into America’s cuckold last night, a slap that’s going to leave a mark that lasts much longer than the one Smith inflicted. The comic ran down all the people who called Smith a “bitch” for enduring his wife’s infidelity, each repetition drawn out for maximum humiliation — “biiiiiiitch.”
Now it was clear — Rock wasn’t in the Pryor turn of his career, turning trauma into truth. This was the move George Carlin made to regain relevance, tapping into inner anger and righteous indignation. Carlin’s own humiliation — with other comics ridiculing routines that had become hacky — made him resolve to dig deeper into the things in our culture that he detested. Rock played a similar card last night, but with a twist: The anger he expressed wasn’t a universal outcry about what’s wrong with our idiotic world. It was personal.
And because it was Rock’s anger — not the comic speaking for us, but for himself — the turn didn’t work nearly as well. There was something undeniably thrilling about watching Rock land haymaker after haymaker, the same way watching Mike Tyson drive someone’s nose into the back of their skull was so electrifying. But after the adrenaline rush wears off, some amount of shame sets in. Did I just watch that for my own entertainment?
Rock accused many, and especially Smith, of selective outrage, being okay with some versions of injustice while being infuriated at others. Of course, he’s guilty of the same. His venom for other people who have hurt him — his ex-wife, for example — isn’t the fatal kind. But Rock absolutely selected his outrage last night. Maybe Smith got exactly what he deserved, but Rock didn’t create art in exacting his revenge. All we got to watch was a beatdown.