Chris Rock, Selective Outrage review: Will Smith jokes aside, comedian’s live Netflix special was uninspired
When the history of live television is written, there will be a chapter dedicated to the 2022 Oscars. Hosted by comedian Chris Rock, the show rumbled along, handing out awards to all sorts of rubbish films (who remembersCODA?) but then, suddenly, it sparked to life. Will Smith, moments away from winning Best Actor, walked onto the stage and slapped Rock. “Keep my wife’s name out your f***ing mouth!” Smith roared after returning to his seat, launching a thousand memes and now, a year on, Rock’s revenge tour.
His new special, Selective Outrage, was broadcast live on Netflix, and marked the first time the comic has spoken about the 94th Academy Awards at length. But we’ll come to that. Rock is a swaggering, charismatic, era-defining comedian. He saunters around the stage like he owns it. At 58, he has never been more confident or relaxed, even if he does appear to be powered by Botox. He knows who he is, and the audience does too. “I didn’t get rich and stay in shape to talk about Anita Baker,” he informs them, in a riff about age-gap dating. “I’m trying to f*** Doja Cat.” Other cultural targets range from Lulu Lemon and Subaru to SoulCycle and Burger King. He gets rounds of applause for his daughter and mother, anxious murmurs when he talks about Meghan Markle, and excited whispers when rappers, from Snoop Dogg to Jay-Z, are referenced.
Rock has been so instrumental to the rhythm of stand-up over the past 30 years, that, at times, his set feels like parody. His constructions are so familiar they’re almost cosy, whatever the content. He tells the audience he’s “paid for more abortions than any woman in this room” and “paid off more college loans than Joe Biden”. Performing in front a Baltimore audience, the extended gags about the “curse” of Robert Kardashian land better than a protracted segment about his daughter getting kicked out of private school. Comedians on stadium tours talking about the vexations of being mega rich has become the new “what’s the deal with airplane food?”.
Why was this broadcast live? To some extent, Netflix probably see it as a test, both for their technology and their subscribers’ appetites. For all that he touches upon subjects like the pro-life debate, opioid crisis and colonialism, Rock is not a particularly edgy comedian. “I’m rich but I identify as poor,” he says. “My pronoun is broke”. The relative mildness of Rock’s comedy is more manageable than some of the more tendentious performers who have graced Netflix in recent years, and always the spectre of the unexpected – that night at the Oscars – looms over this special. When will he talk about Will Smith?
The wait continues for the best part of an hour. Before then, there is, of course, the now customary three-minute riff on trans people. “I accept anyone,” he tells the crowd, adding: “In some situations, I prefer trans women to original recipe.” It’s a pointless detour – as much of a creative dead-end as it was for Dave Chapelle or Ricky Gervais – but one that is apparently mandatory in a show dealing with modernity. More effective are Rock’s long ruminations on his own personal life, his singleness and avoidance of attachment.
Of course, Rock (and Netflix) know the reason why we’re here. The reason why this special is being aired live. It is to address the events of a year ago, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, where Hollywood royalty Smith smacked Rock. “Y’all know what happened to me,” he says as the special arrives at its eagerly awaited climax. “I got smacked at the f***ing Oscars by this motherf****er.” Finally, in its last few minutes, Selective Outrage justifies its broadcast. The mood in the room switches from congratulatory to anticipatory; an edge creeps in and, thrillingly, Rock fluffs his lines, confusing the movies Concussion and Emancipation (easily done), a goof that requires him to reset a joke. But it’s still electric, because it feels real in a way that stand-up (especially a televised special) rarely does.
Other than that moment though, there was little need for this to be broadcast live – not least because Netflix’s subtitling couldn’t keep pace with Rock’s delivery. The special itself is uninspired and regurgitative. “You’ll never see me on Oprah, crying,” Rock claims. “I took that hit like Pacquiao.” And yet, given that this project exists to feed the tabloid frenzy around a slap so impactful that it has its own Wikipedia page, perhaps the intimacy of an interview would’ve been more interesting. For all that he willingly takes aim at the Pinkett-Smiths, Selective Outrage has little emotional insight. And, save for a few moments of nervous tension, the live broadcast is as pre-heated as, well, airplane food.