A live-streaming Chris Rock Netflix special, from one of the most provocative, energetic, and balletic comedians of all time, a special where he would talk about being slapped by Will Smith at the Oscars, one week before the next Oscars ceremony, could have been an astonishing sight to behold. It should have been — the potential excitement of live reactions from the audience, of Rock’s performative vivacity, of commentary about a shocking pop-cultural event layered on top of the new-to-Netflix live streaming element. What if something went wrong onstage? What if an audience member did something disruptive? On paper, it all seems thrilling and possibly combustible. Which is why it is so disappointing when, in life, Chris Rock’s Selective Outrage cannot rise to the moment.
If this had been a typical special, filmed over several performances and then edited together afterward, it might have felt very different. Rock’s opening half-hour of material teases slap-related commentary but dawdles largely on familiar, well-worn topics like wokeness, trans rights, Kardashians, and the soul-sucking traps of social media. In many of those jokes, Rock finds his way toward personal or surprising twists on what could otherwise be hacky premises:
A joke about trans rights could’ve stayed abstract but instead shifts to a sharply detailed little act-out where he becomes his skeptical elderly uncle. The Kardashians material seems to begin from the premise of his frustration with the digital attention economy but instead finds its way toward seeing them as an atypically inclusive American family. A joke about Elon Musk starts from the (dubious and outdated) premise of Musk’s enormous popularity, but then it becomes a wildly strange, hilarious image of him being so popular that he has negative cum in his body.
Were the special directed and edited by someone whose primary focus was on the ideal way to present those jokes, rather than on the most efficient way to capture a live show, it might have been easier to register the areas of surprise, the places where he diverges from every hoary joke about woke America. That first half-hour is not just tired jokes about abortion (with a section similar to Maron’s recent special) and gender identification (“I identify as poor. My pronoun is broke”), although it may have felt that way. The structure of that pronoun joke, for instance, is so instantly overfamiliar that the impulse is to groan in dismay. But Rock is reaching toward something personal, something he does legitimately want to express about his disorienting, specific experience of the world.
No one could be blamed for missing that element of it, or any of the other places where Rock attempts to carve out more interesting versions of stale setups. For one, jokes that feel like they come from everywhere at once are always going to run exactly that risk: A listening ear hears a stock topic and then tunes out rather than leans in. There are ways to work around that, though, to use visual cues and thoughtful direction to point a viewing audience’s attention toward the places it should land. None of it happened, and as a result, the biggest failure of Selective Outrage is not Rock himself, but everything around him — the direction, the staging, and the abysmal pre- and post-shows.
The pre- and post-shows are the most obvious disasters. In the lead-up half-hour before Rock begins performing live from Baltimore, a gathered group of comedians presents in front of a small audience at the Comedy Store in LA, taking the role that would typically be held by an opener. The goal is to warm up the audience, get them ready for the main event, and establish the mood for the evening.
Led by Ronny Chieng (who, alone among the rest of the comedians, seemed skeptical of his purpose in being there), the pre-show does indeed establish a mood. The mood is: Chris Rock is the greatest comedian of all time, this performance has the highest stakes of any performance ever put on in the history of man, and a package of pretaped congrats from Chris Rock’s bevy of celebrity friends is here to celebrate him pulling off this Herculean feat.
That is a terrible setup for comedy, promising a level of blow-your-hair-back laughter that can happen inside a theater but simply does not exist for people sitting at home on their couches. The post-show is just as bizarre. It returns to the Comedy Store and featured a panel of comedians including Dana Carvey, David Spade, Yvonne Orji, JB Smoove, Arsenio Hall, and also, for some reason, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Their goal, seemingly, is to treat the special like a State of the Union, breaking down the performance by topic or idea.
This is an underwhelming approach to comedy commentary, especially when no one is going to touch any form of negative sentiment. It is a mess of a conversation, with no one seeming to grasp what they were there for or how any of it was supposed to go. At one point David Spade mutters, “We’re treading water and we’re starting to drown.” It’s pitched like a joke, but it plays like a confession.
Yet the biggest and most frustrating misstep is the direction of the special itself. Director Joel Gallen’s credits include numerous live award shows, and that was the visual language he brought to Rock’s performance. Cameras are locked to Rock’s face and tracking along with his body as he strode back and forth on the stage, blocking out all sense of scale and any energy from the audience, despite the (stilted, too close) audience-reaction shots peppered throughout.
Because the stage has a backdrop of vertical mirrors and lines, that perpetually-swinging camera also creates a weird, nauseating zoetropic effect, like being caught in a misfiring carnival ride. A more composed still camera would’ve helped with that, but it also could’ve shown Rock moving around the space rather than frantically sweeping along with his every step. It would’ve been a better demonstration of physical performance and his enormous, charismatic stage presence. Instead, the direction treats him like a presenter at the Oscars, where the main goal is simply to see him clearly, in a mid-length shot, at the center of the frame, at all times.
That kind of visual messaging is not empty. It shapes the way we receive the story we’re being told, and in the case of Selective Outrage, the story could have been Here is one of the greatest living comedians, an artist and a master, taking ownership of this absolutely wild thing that happened to him and reframing it into his own artistic context. Instead, the special’s visual approach is Here is Chris Rock once again at the scene of the awards show crime, nakedly capitalizing on all the attention he claims to disdain. Of course, it feels like a deflation. Rock is trying to give us a little bit of how raw and weird this last year has been for him, but the special has filmed it like a re-creation scene from a true-crime documentary.
The special’s final ten minutes, in which Rock finally takes on Will Smith and the Oscars, are the strongest part of the show. In fact, the special improves steadily from about the halfway point, as the audience starts to relax from the defensive posture it assumes during his stretch of dude-comedian-with-a-podcast material and as Rock shifts into a slower storytelling style rooted in anecdotes about his children and family life. By the time he reaches the Slap section, the hour has finally found a bit of a rhythm, and the energy shift is palpable.
Rock appears buoyant; his typical rhythm of repeating a joke set-up at last clicking into place as a puckish delaying game rather than seeming like a provocation of discomfort. The crowd is raucous and engaged, clearly relieved and excited to have finally gotten to the material they all came to hear. Jokes about Jada’s “entanglement” and Will Smith’s movie career land in spite of Rock flubbing a film-title line.