Los Angeles Times

Live special packs a punch

Chris Rock finally responds to the Slap in a Netflix show full of outrage and hilarity.


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 preshow and an after-show, and by putting it out live.

Had “Selective Outrage,” filmed at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre, 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.

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.

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 preand 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, sternfaced, 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, change with the changing times or dominate them by the force of his own art and personalit­y.

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, oldfashion­ed 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 — 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 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.

 ?? COMEDIAN Kirill Bichutsky Netf lix ?? Chris Rock’s Netflix special on Saturday was broadcast live globally.
COMEDIAN Kirill Bichutsky Netf lix Chris Rock’s Netflix special on Saturday was broadcast live globally.

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