The Washington Post
Did Chris Rock live up to the hype?
BALTIMORE — “Rock! Rock! Rock!” shouted the Hippodrome Theatre crowd on Saturday, telegraphing as loudly as it could that the night belonged to Chris Rock. The historic live broadcast titled “Selective Outrage,” the first streamed in real-time on Netflix to millions around the world (we know because they kept telling us) hadn’t even started yet.
Nary a joke had been told or celebrity score settled (more on that later), but the crowd was Rock’s to lose from the second the 58-year-old comedian and actor stepped foot on the stage. Remember, it was Rock who got more than he bargained for on a different world stage, nearly one year ago to the day. Yes, we’re talking about the slap. The shocking moment when Oscar nominee Will Smith climbed onstage and assaulted Rock during the 94th Academy Awards ceremony after the comedian told a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
Rock has been on tour ever since, racking up nearly 140 shows across the country while remaining calculatingly silent about the now-infamous live moment that branded one man villain and the other victim, forever entwining the pair in TV history. But on Saturday, the stage was entirely Rock’s, and the crowd was eager to prove their loyalty.
“I came to be a part of comedy history,” said Mitchel Roy, a die-hard fan from Rock’s native New York. The night’s importance was clear; this wasn’t supposed to be just any old special.
This was a chance for Rock to reclaim whatever he lost during that Oscars debacle. It was also an opportunity for one of comedy’s elder statesmen to prove he still had it. Sure, he could bring the jokes, but could he deliver the stinging social commentary that made him one of the greats? The Baltimore set had all the potential to be career-defining. The only issue is that it wasn’t, not really. Netflix hype and gimmicky format aside, the hour wasn’t in Rock’s top five. Instead, it was a on-the-nose set full of some good jokes, some major whiffs — until, of
course, he finally got to the slap for about eight minutes. But whatever didn’t work about the set didn’t seem to matter to the crowd.
When Rock strode onto the stage dressed in all white against a glinty silver backdrop, it felt as if the celebration had already started. A mix of walking down the aisle and birthday shenanigans.
Which, of course, meant someone had to try to snatch a bit of that shine for themself.
Just as Rock was about to launch into his historically branded set (which serendipitously included a bit about America’s addiction to attention), a man wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the Tubi logo on the back began screaming “Yo, Chris! Chris!” while pointing to his shirt in an attempt to grab a few seconds of fame or free advertising.
“Sit down,” demanded Rock from the stage as the audience, all too happy to be rid of this outlier, cheered. Moments later five big men dressed in black escorted the man up an aisle and out the door.
On either side of that aisle were a diverse group of comedy fans who looked like they got lost on the way to several different events. There were Orioles caps and BBLS galore. There was former BET executive Stephen Hill in a suit. Comedian Sam Jay watched from the box. Across the theater in his box sat director Spike Lee in his signature purple.
And then there was the guy who could not keep his shirt on. Seriously. A middle-aged man in a Crocodile Dundee hat and low-hanging plumber jeans could not control the occasional urge to lift his T-shirt up over his stomach.
“Are you here to see the show or sell everyone Fentanyl?” opener Jeff Ross asked Crocodile Dundee earlier in the night when, for some unknowable reason, the fan ran to the stage to get roasted. Later, during Rock’s set, the same man just kept exposing his belly, for reasons only he and whatever he was on could explain. He did laugh a little too loud at a few jokes, and security began a slow-walk in his direction. “They coming for him,” whispered a woman to her friends, certain that another fan was on his way out the door. But he must have gotten the memo that this was not the night to show out. He piped down.
Since the doors to the theater first swung open, it’d been made clear that everyone needed to mind their Ps and Qs. You had less than a minute to emergency text everyone you loved before locking up your phone into the gray dungeon known as the now ubiquitous Yondr pouch. Then it was time to head through the metal detectors where security guards were patting folks down and checking under women’s hair. For what? “Air Pods,” answered the man in uniform. Which pose what threat exactly?
“Someone could like transmit a signal or something.” What in the Mission: Impossible?
Then there was the long list of things that made it difficult to concentrate on the actual punchlines. As Rock clowned everyone from Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, to Robert Kardashian, you might be distracted by the crane-mounted camera sweeping across one side of the orchestra section or the team with the handhelds creeping up the aisles to capture reaction shots to jokes that might have landed differently if not for extra scrutiny.
Or maybe you spent the show self-conscious about all the pointers Ross offered about being on live TV: If you needed the ladies, go now or forever hold your pee. If you’ve got gum in your mouth, spit it out — chewing reads terrible on screen. Lastly, if you’re sitting next to someone you shouldn’t be with tonight, well, good luck to you because this is live.
Obviously the most important sound in the theater was laughter — and there was tons of it throughout the night, despite the fact that Rock’s comedy has drifted from edgy and fresh to funny but a day late. He’s 58, and it’s beginning to show. Are jokes about pronouns still necessary (were they ever)? Are observations about women loving shoes and homely men with money earth-shattering? Hardly.
It’s no surprise then that when Rock finally addressed the elephant in the room — “Y’all know what happened to me, getting smacked by Suge Smith.” — even this adoring crowd collectively sat up a bit straighter, bracing for Rock’s signature take down. His petty was peak.
The comedian launched into what might become the most talked about eight minutes of his career, going in on the famous couple. “His wife was [having sex with] her son’s friend. I normally would not talk about this. … But for some reason, [they] put that … on the internet,” Rock said, as the crowd was sent over the edge. “She hurt him way more than he hurt me.”
“He getting spicy!” someone in the crowd pointed out, as if the rest of us didn’t know.
“Everybody called him a b----,” Rock added, after repeating the word more than half a dozen times. “And who’s he hit? Me. [Someone] he knows he can beat.” Then there were more jokes aimed at the “Emancipation” star and his wife, a Baltimore native who didn’t appear to have any hometown fans at the Hippodrome on Saturday night.
In the end, the entire night boiled down to those eight minutes of the comedian’s public catharsis. The gimmicky live show hype, all that pomp and circumstance, seemed like overkill. Could it have been a Twitter thread instead? Probably. Should it have been? Probably.
Because, then, suddenly, it was over. After a little over an hour of riffs on wokeness, abortion, rich kids and relationships, Rock ended with a literal mic drop, and that was that. At least for the showgoers, since Netflix subscribers can watch it whenever they’d like. (Did the live aspect even matter?)
It didn’t seem to matter much how tired some of the material felt. His fans were ready to love it, and love it they did.
“We finally got to hear his voice — and not his hands. As a comedian, that’s his thing. He used his tool,” said Jean Max Hogarth, who was hanging in the theater’s lobby after the show.
“He hit it right on the head,” said a 29-year-old fan named Kameron who then repeated a line that several fans had in their back pocket — “He was speaking his truth.” Others said Rock felt genuine. They weren’t shocked by the punchlines aimed at the Smiths. This was the House of Rock, after all.
“It’s exactly what I wanted from Chris Rock — truth,” Kim Henessee, 49, who stood outside the theater 20 minutes after the show was over “processing” what she just saw with her friend, Eliza Smith, 46. “It felt like an opportunity to participate as a community,” said Smith. “We were all rooting for him.”
And perhaps that made the hype for this special feel special: All that helium inside the balloon. But when it popped? Not much came out but hot air.