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Chris Rock’s producers failed him with his latest comedy special

The material in “Selective Outrage,” Rock’s new special, deserved a more appropriate setting than a large concert hall. His producers should have known.


Many of the reviews of Chris Rock’s latest comedy special, “Selective Outrage,” seem focused on moralizing. 

Some are using Rock’s controversial Netflix show to retroactively defend Will Smith’s slapping him at last year’s Oscars, while others are defending Rock’s routine as an acceptable clapback.

I’m going to do some quick moralizing of my own as a foray into what I believe is a far more interesting conversation: the actual quality of the show. 

I don’t think Rock, or anyone for that matter, should feel shame for being attacked. I think Smith and other such assailants should feel shame over their lack of self-control, their petulance and any insistence of theirs that the violence was done in the name of something valorous rather than selfish emotion. 

I say this to make the point that I don’t know whether Rock feels ashamed by the slap as much as he may feel a sense of isolation. He was attacked in front of thousands of people, his attacker was allowed to enjoy the rest of the evening as if nothing happened, and millions more people saw fit to laugh rather than express concern. 

All of this is — or should have been — important context for the producers of the new show to consider when they were putting it together. 

All of this is — or should have been — important context for the producers of the new show to consider when they were putting it together.

Instead, what we got was a standup routine that seemed sloppily assembled — and I’m not talking about Chris Rock here. The live production seemed like a run-of-the-mill comedy performance, but its subject matter was anything but typical: a widely publicized attack. And it was lacking in intimacy for a performance that was part comedy, part confessional.

Much of Rock’s routine — particularly the parts referring to the slap — didn’t even sound like jokes, coming across like cutting critiques with a few laughs sprinkled on top. And at times he appeared straight up uncomfortable.

I think that was a predictable outcome here, given how traumatic an experience this clearly was for Rock. 

So, assuming his producers understood this, why, exactly, was this put together like a typical comedy routine?

A large concert hall did no justice to the stream of consciousness Rock employed toward the end of his performance. This wasn’t a performance for the Hippodrome in Baltimore. This was meant for an audience of a few hundred or less, perhaps packed tightly in a comedy club with Rock’s musings delivered in a quieter, more self-reflective tone. 

We should have gotten something closer to “Tamborine” than “Bigger & Blacker.”

And what gets me is that Netflix has already demonstrated a willingness to experiment with unique comedy formats. 

As someone who obsesses over the presentation of content, I can’t help but think Rock’s special would have been better served if it had been presented in the style of Dave Chappelle’s “The Bird Revelation” special, in which a relatively soft-spoken Chappelle was seated for the most part, with tight camera shots, upward-looking angles and muted lighting giving the special an intimate feel. 

Take a look to get a sense of what I’m talking about:

See how it feels more like story time than a standup show?

I truly believe the setting has the power to influence the performance itself. What we got in “Selective Outrage” was Chris Rock trying to channel his classic persona, loud and proud, in ways we’ve seen from him before. 

But the Oscars incident has clearly changed him, and it felt like the producers did a poor job of helping him express this in a way that was funny or profound.