Chris Rock’s new special was…something

OPINION: Everyone was waiting to see what he'd say about Will Smith, but how is the whole special?

Chris Rock appears at the Television Critics Association Winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 9, 2020. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

We all were waiting to hear what Chris Rock was going to say about Will Smith. It’s been a year since “The Slap,” and Rock has said very little about it in public. It was like we all witnessed a fight in class and then waited for the undisputed champion of the dozens to come out and finish the bully off with his mouth. After Smith slapped him, Rock took the high road on the stage and in the months since. So, he’s built up a lot of goodwill. People were open to him saying anything. That’s what he did in his special, “Selective Outrage,” on Netflix as a live hour that streamed Saturday night. Doing it live gave people a sense that Rock was free to say whatever…so get ready. He has been one of the best comedians and one of the most engaging talkers in America for decades, so surely he would find a way to skewer Smith and make it both smart and funny. Did he? 

At one of the key moments in Rock’s closing minutes, on the subject of Smith, he says, “I watched ‘Emancipation’ just to see him get whupped. Got me rooting for massa.” What? Reveling in watching a Black person get whipped? Siding with a slave master? Is that smart or funny? That critical line was, for me, beyond the pale. Even after what happened at the Oscars, that’s not a funny vision of revenge. A slave master whipping a person is the worst torture in the African American collective memory. But, OK, surely Rock knew that when he wrote that line, so it signals how incredibly angry Rock still is.

He talked about the assault hurting him physically and emotionally, too. He went through how much bigger Smith is and how much he loved Smith before all of this. He was a fan, which makes this whole episode harder for him. Rock blames it all on Jada Pinkett Smith. He says she started all of this by chirping at him before the 2016 Oscars, and, he feels, she’s embarrassed Smith immensely over many years.

By now, everyone knows what that means. Some would call their relationship radically open, as far as what they’re allowed to do, as well as painfully open about what they have done, down to stuff like Jada interviewing Will about his feelings about her being with other men. Others think all this sounds crazy and is emasculating to Smith. Rock touched on all of that, but what I really got from that section of the set was his anger. His anger toward Will and Jada is still really present. He’s still deeply hurt. He’s still going through what happened. Instead of adopting a cool pose, or making it silly, Rock let us see what’s really in his heart.

Many people, after The Slap, said that if Smith had run up on them they would’ve done this or that violent thing, and they’re all missing the point. Rock, by not responding, made a terrible moment a lot better. He saved the night. And for those who still think about such things, he made the race look good. Rock’s insight into why he stood his ground and absorbed The Slap and kept it moving is: he had good parents, and they taught him to never fight in front of white folks. That’s probably something he really heard growing up. It’s something I heard from my parents. People who were kids in the ’60s and ’70s know about respectability politics. Our parents taught us that we have to act right in front of white people. Don’t embarrass the race. Most of us don’t think in those terms nowadays. Millennials have completely rejected that way of thinking, but Rock’s dignity and professionalism on Oscar night made both us, and him, look better than anything else he could have done. 

Let me pause momentarily for those who would say to this entire analysis, “It’s just jokes….” Please miss me with that. It’s disrespectful to Rock. The man is one of the greatest stand-ups alive, and he thinks deeply about every word and every pause and every gesture in his sets. He has a reputation as a politically astute observer of the world. He’s an intellectual slash philosopher slash comic. If anyone is more than “just jokes,” it’s Rock. He gives us really interesting political ideas in a comedic way. His work deserves critique because it comes from a brilliant mind. I write this after following Rock for decades, interviewing him and talking to him offstage. Many people have discussed and dissected Rock’s career like we dissect the rhymes of our favorite MCs. I hold him, and his art, in the highest regard. The same way that I hope for the best possible Jay-Z every time he drops an album, I hope for the best possible Rock every time he drops a new special. I also hope, from Rock, to get some smart political analysis of the world. But when I stepped back, I said his worldview sounds strangely familiar. It recalls stuff that you hear said on a certain political TV station.

I love this artform called stand-up. I’m the sort of person who sits around listening to great comedy routines over and over and over. It’s not just jokes. It’s an art. I get into thinking about what the comedian is really trying to say. Rock is one of the greatest to ever tell jokes, so to say “it’s just jokes” doesn’t make any sense. This is his sacred art. And “it’s just jokes” is not a way of explaining away a joke that’s in poor taste or a joke that has a curious meaning to it. That just doesn’t fly. Rock’s sets are special and worthy of scrutiny because they’re quite often brilliant. I approach him with the expectation of greatness. He’s a special part of the culture. That said, Rock’s political mindset behind this special has me confused. 

He opened “Selective Outrage” with a critique of political correctness and wokeness in general, ultimately saying people are too sensitive, and you can’t really trust wokeness. He piled on with criticism of Meghan Markle and declared that she is not a victim. Rock sees a world where there’s “woke traps” and the gotcha game of inconsistently applied outrage. If you listen to Michael Jackson but not R. Kelly, then you’re a hypocrite! It was around that part of the set that I heard a thought in the distance of my mind but then dismissed it.

Then Rock said “abortion is killing babies,” which is a really right-wing pro-life way of putting it. And, yes, he also said he’s pro-choice and wants his daughters to have that right. But the thought I was hearing in the distance was getting louder and more undeniable. This is a right-winger view of the world. I’m not saying Rock is a Republican. I’m saying the big themes of his set sounded like an intelligent recitation of the themes you hear on Fox News: woke culture is the real problem. People are always getting outraged over nothing. Meghan Markle is not a victim. Rock’s line, “the emergency room is filled with people with paper cuts,” is brilliant and visual. It’s a sharp, cynical way of describing the era of trigger warnings, but it’s also Rock mocking the idea that we should have empathy for other people’s feelings. 

To many of us who were born in the ’70s or the ’60s, modern culture often seems filled with oversensitivity. That notion powered this set. It’s fun sometimes to poop on society’s modern sensitivity to everyone’s feelings. All that can be tiresome at times, but that sensitivity is also meant to help marginalized people have space at the table and to get society to be more empathetic toward them. For a Black person to attack that is to attack himself. It doesn’t really align with the political brilliance Rock normally brings to his comedy. He has been great so many times that when he’s just good it feels like a loss for the culture.  

Rock remains one of the greatest comedians alive. This wasn’t one of his great specials, but I will be in line to see whatever he does next.


Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter. Look out for his upcoming podcast Being Black In the 80s.

TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, and Android TV. Please download theGrio mobile apps today!