Photo Credit: Kirill Bichutsky / Courtesy of Netflix
Last weekend, Chris Rock’s Selective Outrage dominated today’s marquee: social media buzz and barbershop talk. Selective Outrage, which debuted live on Netlfix on Saturday, March 4th, mimicked an aging professor, remaking the theater of delivering jokes but with none of the substance. Rock’s best film performance came a decade ago, in the movie Top Five, where he played a version of himself. The Netflix live stream was more of that. Rock had his cadence down pat, as my comedy fanatic friend noted. “I repeat the premise. I REPEAT. THE PREMISE!!!!” he joked.
And we laughed at how Rock’s signature tics could still evoke nostalgia. Bigger and Blacker, his breakout special from 1999, was an insightful dressing-down of American culture, and it came from a wispy, raspy movie sidekick with an oracle’s sobriety. Thinking back, I was instantly plopped down on my mom’s old living room couch, stamping my feet through guffaws and trying not to spit-take the Minute Maid on the carpet. But nostalgia is as mesmerizing as it is unreliable. His rolling hard syllables, intense growls, and Jefferson strut pantomimed a boxer at his peak, death blow after uppercut swing after light jab, with only a few pauses to let the audience wail their approval.
Since 2018’s Tambourine, Rock’s encamped a suspicion of public sentiment, derided shifting morality, and kept his reference points solidly in the ’90s. Even the audacious Will Smith slap from last year’s Oscars that got him here came from a ’90s joke gone wrong.
The demand for a Chris Rock live special crested before Netflix was born. We all wanted to see him crack wise on Will Smith, himself, that couple, the Oscars. Any of it. That’s not to take away from what he did in his majesty, but Rock and his relevance have regressed. He needed to stick the landing on this. And, although Rock had the most anticipated show, a far more successful comedy special premiered just two days prior.
About 10 minutes into Marlon Wayans’ new HBO Max special, God Loves Me, the middle Wayans overtook the comedy giant. Wayans gave the performance of his life at Rock’s expense. Whereas Rock meandered and ranted about his post-divorce dating gripes and reluctance to cancel or get canceled — or whatever it is middle-aged comedians are perpetually hurt about — Wayans zeroed in on how that infamous moment took shape. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why Rock avoided the obvious slap rundown until that last disorganized 20 minutes of the show. But Wayans’ special exposed some major facts about Rock’s character (or lack thereof) that are hindsight gems.
How does a great comedian respond when the joke’s on them? For Rock, the “great” qualifier hamstrung him, froze him at opportune moments to make light of it, and forced out a special of disjointed material. Wayans posits that his entire life has been one big Chris Rock joke, detailing moments when the “Great One” took special occasion to mock and tear him down. That gives important context. Chris Rock’s thesis in Selective Outrage is that we’re all too sensitive to our own plights… and then he prattles on for 40 minutes about how he’s the real victim. A victim of Will Smith’s power and status. A victim of the women who took advantage of his wealth. A victim of his spoiled children (who he simultaneously admits to spoiling?)
Wayans’ vulnerability is a tool of equal power when paired with his penchant for physical performance. Instead of lingering in the self-pity of early Rock wins over him, he uses that to point at his own jealousy of his brothers, his envy of Jada Pinkett’s budding romance with her soon-to-be husband. He shows self-awareness and talks about how love is “letting go.” That letting-go practice is evidence Wayans loves comedy — and the leveling effect it has — more than he does his own story. Chris Rock loved the standup bully pulpit until he was unceremoniously slapped off of it.
The slap was fertile ground for jokes. Wayans used it to cover:
- How mean and ugly Chris Rock’s been over twenty years. And what that caused.
- How fake Will Smith is. And how that boiled over.
- How much proximity to Whiteness has cradled both men, but also detached them from normal behavior.
- How alluring Jada Pinkett-Smith was and is, despite some of her self-serious carrying on.
- How Black and white folks privately reacted to the same moment. (His one-man play of the Black family might be the greatest acting I’ve seen from him.)
- How money can’t buy (stable, steady) love. He implicates himself in this too.
- How much Chris Rock, for all his preening, gives cowardly energy.
He proved you could spend an hour reckoning with adolescent disappointment. He proved you could publicly critique a Black man as another famous Black man and still do so from a place of love. He proved that the biggest joke was on us if we couldn’t shoulder blame for our biggest pitfalls.
While, with the other special, Rock proved he’s angry at women, particularly his ex-wife and daughters. Chris Rock proved “woke” and “cancel culture” mean the same thing to famous Black comedians and their aggrieved white fans. Rock proved the chip on his shoulder has turned into a mountain. He proved that his best creative contribution, Everybody Hates Chris, is a philosophy not just a sitcom title. His lowest moment robbed us of any humor in favor of ire with a juvenile “She started it.” Was this Chris Rock’s comedy or Chris Brown’s Instagram Story?
Wayans’ focus on universal themes like loss, heartache, jealousy, vengeance, and self-reflection made him relatable and funny. Rock’s focus on blaming others made him seem cranky and isolated. Neither approach guarantees good or bad results but, with “The Slap,” we got the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime event that could bring a star down to Earth for long enough to laugh with us. It just wasn’t the star we were expecting.
Andrew Ricketts is a writer from New York. He wants to tell the story you share with a friend.