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One day, a century from now, somebody will be checking out Netflix’s Chris Rock: Selective Outrage special. They’ll be doing it on a streaming service dedicated to serving viewers their entertainment in five- or ten-minute chunks — quick bites, as it were — because that will be the way everybody will be ingesting their entertainment in 2123. That person won’t be watching with any interest in the timeliness of the special. They won’t be watching with any hunger for what Chris Rock had to say about wokeness or Will Smith, because if we’re still talking about cancel culture and Slapgate in 2123, that will make mushroom zombies look like utopia. But anyway, they’re gonna be watching and they’re going to very, very briefly be confused by Rock doing a joke about how Slapgate started when Jada Pinkett Smith got pissed off that Will Smith didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Emancipation. And they’re going to be so darned confused. For five seconds.
“Not Emancipation. I fucked up the joke. Concussion,” Rock said, quickly realizing that the punchline on his horizon involved Smith not getting a nomination for Concussion and then … giving him a concussion.
Chris Rock: Selective Outrage
Director: Joel Gallen
And that, kids, is the beauty of live TV. Netflix attempted to build a live stunt out of Rock doing stand-up material that he’s been doing on the road for 10 months, and the only thing that would tell you the special was live was — after making viewers wait 61 minutes for the inevitable Will Smith material — Rock fucking up the joke. A joke he’s probably made around the country dozens of times. (Editor’s note: Netflix later edited the joke for replay.)
It’s not judgment, by the way, to note that a comedy special is the filmed version of an oft-repeated, highly refined stand-up set. If there’s ever been a comic who did an entirely improvised filmed special, I don’t know who it was — but then again, there’s very rarely been a comic whose workshopped reactions to a very public event were getting printed in newspapers in every city he went to.
“Chris Rock Breaks His Silence on Oscars Slap” is a headline I’m sure you’re going to see on every website in the known universe, which will then repeat the punchlines that journalists in Phoenix and Shreveport and Atlanta reported when Rock made those jokes on the road. Sure, “breaks his silence on national TV,” or whatever it is Netflix is. But this prior workshopping is how I already knew, going into the Netflix special, that Rock was going to make the joke about their respective differences in stature, noting that even in animation, Smith was a shark and Rock was a zebra. This is a joke he has made repeatedly, and nobody cares that in Shark Tale, Smith voices a TINY little fish who hangs out with the shark voiced by Jack Black.
For live TV, Chris Rock will correct the Concussion/Emancipation joke, but he’ll keep perpetrating lies about Shark Tale.
Anyway, as for the actual Will Smith material that everybody was waiting for? Yeah, Rock went off, mostly blaming Jada Pinkett Smith for the whole thing and mocking Will for taking out his frustration about his wife’s very public cuckolding conversations on him.
“That is some bitch-ass shit,” Rock said. Not controversial, but pointed.
I could talk about the text of the special itself, but I’m a TV critic and not a comedy critic. I could point out that a shocking amount of Rock’s material felt somewhere between dated and embalmed. That was a very long run of jokes about Elon Musk’s sperm. That was a weirdly stale series of jokes about the Kardashians and O.J. Simpson. And it’s all fine and well to make jokes about victimization culture in 2023, but it’s material that’s funnier if you didn’t watch Rock’s last Netflix special, Tamborine, in which the entire second half was Rock lamenting his status as the victim in his recent divorce settlement.
The stuff about people getting triggered and woke corporations that started the show? Not awful. Just stale. Material that has been done to death by 50 late-night comics and other comedians who got their new specials out earlier. Rock is a provocateur, darnit! Nothing in Selective Outrage raised my hackles. I didn’t even get a semi-hackle. My hackles were flaccid.
Like Rock’s “Why didn’t Meghan Markle Google the royal family?” bit? The number of people on Twitter who made that joke when Meghan sat down with Oprah and then during her Netflix documentary and every day in between could be in the millions. The thing you have to remember: Rock’s version of the stalest and oldest jokes will always be written better than 99 percent of the comics out there and delivered better than 100 percent of them. Rock is, in this current landscape, a stand-up without peer. This will probably, however, be the first Rock stand-up special ever that didn’t have a moment or many moments that instantly embedded themselves in the culture. The culture moves fast.
That’s part of why Netflix wanted to accentuate the liveness of this special, complete with a pre-show that nobody needed and a post-show that, well, nobody needed.
Ronny Chieng’s intro to the pre-show, mind you, was fantastic. “We’re doing a comedy show. On Saturday night. Live. Genius,” Chieng deadpanned, mocking Netflix’s “innovation” here. That was pretty good. The post-show had some good moments as well, especially everybody on the panel making fun of nominal hosts David Spade and Dana Carvey for the strangeness of two white guys orchestrating the analysis of jokes by a Black comedian. The real joke, though, is how unnecessary post-comedy-special analysis turns out to be in the first place. That, again, is what Twitter is for!
As for how the liveness impacted the show on a formal level? Well, the easiest thing to do is go back and watch Tamborine, a generally uneven but frequently brilliant special that’s notable for how fantastically directed it is. Bo Burnham made a Chris Rock special that looked like no previous Chris Rock special. There are so many close-ups. Almost all close-ups for long stretches. The lighting is impressively evocative. It’s a moody piece of material, and it looks moody! The camera is in exactly the right place to catch every micro-expression when subtlety is the thing Rock is going for, and every piece of physical comedy when he dances or mimes oral sex.
Chris Rock comedy specials have been really well-directed as a rule, and “comedy special direction” isn’t a thing we talk about very often. Give it up to Keith Truesdell for capturing the almost feral, prowling intensity of a young Rock in Bigger & Blacker. Or to Joel Gallen for reflecting the more mature version of Rock a few years later in Never Scared.
Gallen was back behind the camera on Selective Outrage and he just got beat down by live-ness. I can’t say whether or not every Rock performance on his recent tour has been as overlit as this one, but it was like the comic was standing in the floodlights for 72 minutes tonight and the only reasonable justification was that it’s just easier to film if you don’t need to worry about what happens when the performer wanders into a shadow or fails to travel in perfect unison with the spotlight. Instead, Rock was blandly and perfectly over-illuminated every second. Again, go back to Tamborine and see what Burnham accomplished. It’s darned artistic.
Then again, Burnham was lucky enough to be dealing with a slightly more stable piece of Rock self-choreography. Rock began his career as a stage-marcher, going back and forth and back and forth. He seemed to slow and mellow with age. For Selective Outrage? Back to prowling! Back and forth and back and forth! And if you have three or four cameras rolling at all times and you can edit stuff together, that doesn’t need to be a nauseating experience. Here, it was like the primary camera was stuck in the same medium shot, on a tripod, and it just went back and forth and back and forth with him. Like rocking, so to speak, back and forth on a rickety vessel while the audience at Baltimore’s Hippodrome laughed, but never in quite the immersive way we’ve come to expect from crowds at Rock’s specials, which have always been half-entertainment and half-church.
A well-directed comedy special gives you, simultaneously, the impression of being in the audience and having access and intimacy that nobody at home (or even in the venue) gets. There was basically none of that intimacy here. It was like watching a comic appearing on The Tonight Show or something where there’s one camera setup and that’s the perspective you get and you accept it because that’s what the format looks like. This was live, but it felt canned.
Except for that one moment when Rock confused Concussion and Emancipation.
So when you see that guy in 100 years watching Selective Outrage and he gets to the gaffe and he briefly looks confused, that’s when you lean over to him — yes, you’re immortal in this situation, which gives you the right to butt in — and say, “That! That imperfection. That’s the magic of live TV! Oh, and Will Smith was a Bluestreak cleaner wrasse and not a shark in Shark Tale.”
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