After getting slapped by Will Smith for insulting Jada Pinkett Smith at the Oscars last year, Chris Rock stayed relatively quiet. We all saw what happened. We said a lot about it, but not him. He let the controversy stew for nearly a year. After Smith resigned from the Academy, and the Academy banned him from the Oscars broadcast for 10 years, it was over, so far as the Oscars were concerned. It was a clownish episode, one not likely to be repeated by anyone else, and the Academy could move on to more manageable controversies.
All that was left was for Rock to weigh in. In an era when comedians sit at the center of pop culture, when their every joke is treated like a Supreme Court decision, when they get paid $40 million for two specials (Rock’s current deal with Netflix), the greater spectator sport for the American viewing public immediately became the anticipation of a scorching Rock response. It’s not just that Rock was struck on live TV but that Will Smith decided to punish the comic who brought us Bring the Pain, Bigger & Blacker, and Tamborine. Whatever verbal slap back Rock planned wouldn’t be anything so crude as an actual slap back; it would reflect the deeper, more nuanced art of self-aware invective that makes Chris Rock one of the key comics of our age.
Nor is this the first time in his career when audience expectations for Rock transcended comedy—and that, too, largely because of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. In 2016, he hosted the Oscars in a year when no Black directors, actors, or writers were nominated. Rock had already accepted the job of hosting when Pinkett Smith and others called for a boycott of the Academy and for Rock to quit the show. Instead, he hosted, with the incredible weight of having to address the Academy’s entire history of race on his shoulders. That night, Rock delivered one of the great monologues of his career. Challenge accepted, as they say.
“You realize, if they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job,” said Rock, who then offered a historical approach to the exclusion of Black talent at the upper ranks of the film industry over the 88 years of the Academy Awards and American history. Why was 2016 singled out over any other year in the past? Of the civil rights era, he said, “We had real things to protest at the time. We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won Best Cinematographer.” In contrast to more lethal racism, he defined the Hollywood variety as “sorority racism,” a system that regularly denied opportunities to Black artists. “This year the Oscars gonna be a little bit different,” he added. “In the ‘In Memoriam’ package, it’s just gonna be Black people shot by cops on the way to the movies.” Rock also called out Pinkett Smith by name. “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties,” Rock said. “I wasn’t invited.” He also joked about Will Smith’s Oscar snub that year: “It’s not fair that Will Smith was this good and didn’t get nominated. It’s also not fair Will was paid $20 million for Wild Wild West.”
Rock managed to talk everyone down without denying the Academy’s history. He defused the entire situation, for that night, and then delivered a perfectly pleasant, completely forgettable Oscar night as host. Can you remember who won awards or anything about that night besides Rock’s monologue? The only people still angry when he left the stage were the Smiths. So six years later, when Rock insulted Pinkett Smith while presenting an award at the Oscars, it was already personal.
With culture war so central to virtually every facet of American life, the well-documented ability of comedians to touch the third rail in just about any discursive setting and live to tell the tale has made them invaluable to streaming corporations looking to draw subscribers. It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when comedic outrage became so bankable for entertainment producers, but the rise of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show in the aughts seems like a clear market indicator in retrospect. Comparatively few late-night hosts were expounding robust liberal views in the terror-addled Bush years. The term clapter (as opposed to outright laughter) was a phrase coined back then, to characterize a joke that got as much as or more applause for the political or pop culture points it scored as for its audible hilarity.
This was all a reminder of a central truth: Comedians have no real power, just one skill—the ability to shift the conversation. They can get us to take someone or something less seriously, or maybe more seriously, than we did before they spoke—as Rock did on Oscar night 2016, and has done throughout his career.
Politicians rarely have that kind of cultural capital; indeed, they fear it. Today, movie stars make increasingly irrelevant blockbusters. The conversation following their release is mainly a “Who wore it better?” debate over which actor is the best Spiderman or which director gave us the best Gotham City. The movies that move you have a smaller and smaller cultural imprint; no one seems to see them. Rihanna recently delivered a tour de force Super Bowl halftime appearance, but besides the amazing performance, what was it about? Her red outfit, hand signs, use of a Kanye song—all were deciphered, debated, and decrypted. It was a Da Vinci Code–style descent into pop-cult symbology. In an age of instant social media response when there’s no such thing as “too soon,” comics like Rock are rare because they can go directly to an issue on the biggest stage in the world.
That’s why Rock let the suspense about his response to The Slap build before delivering his special, timed to arrive just before this year’s Academy Awards. He had the whole world watching again, and he was going to do it right. He also raised the bar for himself considerably, making the special a live show from Baltimore. Considering the intense scrutiny every word in his act would get even without the long-awaited Smith takedown, Rock pulled off a pretty amazing night as a performer. He was not editing this special together from a series of shows, but coming out like it was a fight night in Las Vegas.
As for the material, fans and critics of Rock’s will recognize many familiar themes: heavy doses of responsibility politics, tough-love parenting, a very, very rich man’s complaints about dating, and mockery of the privileged for their questionable sense of victimhood. Rock called out January 6 as a “white Planet of the Apes”: “White men think they’re losing the country.… They’re trying to overthrow the government that they run.”
That bit led him into one of his favorite topics: the many shades of victimhood, and who gets seen as a victim and who gets to reap the benefits of the public’s “selective outrage,” as the title of the special puts it. He segued into a skeptical riff on Mehgan Markle and the racism she faced marrying into the royal family. “Didn’t she win the light-skin lottery?” asked Rock. He denounced the British royals as “the original racists. They invented colonialism. They’re the OGs of racism. They’re the Sugarhill Gang of racism.” But as he did on Oscar night in 2016, he questioned the level of oppression at play in her situation, writing off many of Markle’s complaints as standard-issue run-ins with obnoxious in-laws rather than case studies in systemic racism.
Rock told a long story about his daughter and her friends getting kicked out of school for sneaking off from a field trip and drinking. When he saw his ex-wife and the other parents hiring lawyers to challenge the expulsions, Rock questioned it, but backed off. “The last time I argued about a lawyer with my ex-wife, I lost my house.” After seeing his daughter and her friends laughing off the incident beside his swimming pool, Rock actually went behind his family’s backs to the principal and agreed that she should be expelled, and she was. She’s now a culinary student in Paris, an accomplishment he directly connects to his paternal toughness in forcing her to deal with the consequences of her actions. He also announced that he never told them he did that until he said it publicly on this special. There is some serious divorced-dad energy in that story, but to be fair, if you’ve seen Tamborine, you know Chris Rock is one seriously divorced dad.
Like every comic today, Rock talked about “woke” language, but skirted the usual “You can’t say anything anymore!” stand-up comic hackery. He focused on how corporations like Lulemon use anti-racist messaging in their advertising to sell $100 yoga pants. As he has pointed out in the past, corporations like to highlight how much they do for charity and social justice while pricing the people who most need such support out of their customer base. Rock presents of host of contradictions in class- versus race-themed political satire for some, but in Selective Outrage, he reconciles many of them.
When Rock got to the denouement, Rock respected Will Smith’s request to “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!” at the 2022 Oscars and never mentioned Pinkett Smith by name, and instead called her a “bitch.” The long-awaited takedown of Will Smith was powerful, damning, and angry. It was also steeped in a sense of hurt over getting slapped by a rapper whose work he had admired for decades. Ultimately, though, it was something both more and less than comedy, funny but also the occasion for a lot of clapter from Rock’s fans. Rock delivered on all the expectations swirling through social media over the past year, but it’s also OK if we never hear about that slap again.