To say Chris Rock didn’t work for his $20 million Netflix payday would be disingenuous. The stand-up legend performed live, in a much ballyhooed first for the streaming giant, for 68 blaring minutes, growling and shouting into the microphone as he has for the last four decades. In addition to the physical and mental exertion that goes into bellowing for a sold-out Baltimore auditorium and an unknown number of Netflix subscribers, Rock carefully teased the main draw of “Selective Outrage” without spoiling his closer. “They say ‘words hurt,’” Rock said in the opening moments of his set, “but anyone who says ‘words hurt’ has never been punched in the face.” OK, he didn’t say slapped in the face. but he didn’t need to — the connection was clear enough, and if it wasn’t, he inserted a more explicit runner soon after. “I’m not dissing Snoop,” Rock said, after wondering why Snoop Dogg is in so many commercials these days. “The last thing I need is another mad rapper.”
Forty minutes and an untold number of predictable jokes later, Rock returned to the punchline — “That is not a Jay-Z diss,” he said, after making a vaguely sexist comment about Beyoncé’s hotness trumping her talent. “I don’t need another rapper mad at me.” The angry rapper alluded to is, of course, Will Smith, who infamously assaulted the stand-up during the 2022 Oscars. Rock has spoken publicly about “The Slap” since then, during various gigs on his ensuing tour, but “Chris Rock: Selective Outrage” offered a wide audience the chance to hear from the comedian first-hand. (Just as it offered Netflix the chance to cash in on their aforementioned investment.)
Rock did appear outraged — at least, more so than at any other point during his overly familiar, often recycled or otherwise outdated material. “People are like, ‘Did it hurt?’” he said. “It still hurts. I got ‘Summertime’ ringing in my ears.” He referenced the Smith family drama surrounding his comments, without mentioning the comments themselves. He called their choice to go “on television” (aka Facebook Watch) and talk about their marital struggles “low down,” before repeatedly and emphatically asserting that “everyone” called Will Smith “a bitch” except for him — “And who’s he hit? Me. A [man] he knows he can beat,” Rock said. “That is some bitch-ass shit.” Rock was so worked up, he tipped his own joke, mistakenly referring to “Emancipation” when he meant to say “Concussion” before circling back to the little-seen 2022 slavery drama soon after. (“Now I watch ‘Emancipation’ just to see him get whooped.”)
But even though Rock threw the microphone to the ground before striding off the stage, his set wasn’t really about outrage. It was about attention. Rock, who’s been a stand-up, film, and television star for longer than many of us have been alive, knows all about attention. He’s gotten it when he needs it and endured it when it’s the last thing he wants. He’s seen stand-up comedy evolve from an art-form that could be contained — by practicing in bars and clubs before recording your special or playing to thousands of people — to something that could be recorded at random and shared with the world in the blink of an eye. He knows how to attract attention and use it to his advantage, and the finest craft seen in “Selective Outrage” stems from his acknowledgement and execution of that tool.
In short, he spewed broadly topical keywords for an hour, betting that Elon Musk, Steph Curry, one of the Kardashians, one of the Royals, or, of course, Jada Pinkett Smith would respond and extend his special’s cultural life cycle. Their tweets will be retweeted, headlines will be written about those tweets, maybe more tweets will be written about those headlines, and it all leads back to “Selective Outrage.” Maybe an organization would issue a statement condemning his blustery, nothing comments about abortion, transgender people, or the war in Ukraine. Maybe Fox News will do a segment. Rock’s set is designed to hit as many divisive topics as possible, and given its wide-reaching platform on Netflix, odds are extremely high people will talk about it, at least for a little bit. (News stories are already circulating about his response to Will Smith.)
And while courting indignation via pervasive buzzwords certainly isn’t all Rock did, “Selective Outrage” was in no way built to last. Half the jokes were obsolete before he finished saying them. Five minutes on O.J. Simpson? In this economy? And why does everyone over the age of 40 still feel the need to talk about pronouns? Haven’t enough TV shows, movies, stand-up comics, dads, uncles, and grandads made every “joke” there is, including Rock’s? (“Yeah, I’m rich, but I identify as poor,” Rock said. “My pronoun is Broke.”)
“Chris Rock: Selective Outrage”
Courtesy of Kirill Bichutsky / Netflix
But beyond the light hazing he gave Meghan Markle, Rock’s special looked awful. Audiences have grown accustomed to the polished direction of prerecorded stand-up specials — so much so, they’re eagerly embracing comics like Bo Burnham and Jerrod Carmichael who experiment with the form. Shooting live puts plenty of restrictions on what’s visually possible, but director Joel Gallen and his team couldn’t find beauty, balance, or cohesive rhythm. Once, the camera zoomed in on Rock expecting to catch his punchline, only to awkwardly hold for second after second until he finally got there. The wobbly frame and extra beats actively hurt what was already a pretty average joke. Toss in a crowd that seemed more bored than anxious — and certainly not loud enough to give the impression of a triumphant stand-up routine — and “Selective Outrage” fell flat in more ways than one. (I’ll be curious if the sound mixing is amped up in post-production, for the vast majority of viewers who didn’t tune in live.)
Still, I have to credit Rock for putting in the work to structure his special. After a 10-minute warm-up, he provided an outline for the evening via the Four Easiest Ways to Get Attention: First, “Show your ass.” (Rock means this literally, it seems, since his main point of clarification was that this step could be accomplished “even if you don’t got an ass.”) No. 2: “Be infamous. Do some fucked up shit,” Rock said. “Shoot up a school, or try to stab Dave Chappelle at a show.” OK, that’s clear enough. No. 3 is the hardest of the easiest ways to get attention: “Be excellent.” Rock then cited Serena Williams, the greatest tennis player in the world, and cautioned that you have to work to be excellent, so maybe it’s not that easy after all. And last but not least, “Be a victim.” Rock then bemoaned a world “where the emergency room is filled up by people with paper cuts,” and mocked white men for trying to overthrow the very government “that they run!”
Throughout the special, Rock returned to these talking points without mentioning them. He joked about showing your ass when he got into his dating life. He brought up a number of infamous figures, including O.J. and Elon Musk. He admired his own daughter’s excellence in a weird story about teaching her a life lesson by not suing her school when they justifiably wanted to expel her. (“Now she’s amazing,” he said, noting her tutelage at a Parisian culinary school.) And he directly stated he is not a victim when it comes to being slapped by Will Smith. “You’ll never see me on Oprah or Gail crying,” he said, right as he launched into his closing monologue.
Throughout “Selective Outrage,” Rock told on himself. Sometimes, it was intentional — he knew he was teasing the Will Smith story for the very end, just as he knew he was going to garner a lot of attention for each example of his own step-by-step guide to raising awareness in America. More often, though, it wasn’t. I doubt Rock intended for most of his jokes to miss because they weren’t thoughtful enough, well-executed enough, or shocking enough. (Though I do believe his language was precisely chosen to feign toward controversy without saying anything truly infuriating.) “Selective Outrage” felt like top-of-mind observations, uninterested in deeper scrutiny or even overall cohesiveness. Here’s a guy saying — or “joking” — that “the biggest addiction in America is attention,” as he’s performing for over 231 million subscribers in 190 countries in a special that has its own pre- and post-shows. Technically, you could argue his point of focus, his structure, and the very existence of his special shows he’s aware of the unprecedented attention he’s receiving. But you could just as easily argue that by not earning it, he’s just showing his ass.
“Chris Rock: Selective Outrage” streamed live Saturday, March 4 at 10 p.m. ET on Netflix. The special is now available to stream on-demand.
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