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Netflix's 'Chris Rock: Selective Outrage' reveals a lot of anger for Will Smith

Chris Rock at the Hippodrome Theater Saturday in Baltimore.
Kirill Bichutsky
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Kirill Bichutsky/Netflix
Chris Rock at the Hippodrome Theater Saturday in Baltimore.

Turns out, Chris Rock is still really angry at Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.

"His wife was f---ing her son's friend...she hurt him way more than he hurt me," Rock said of Will Smith Saturday night during his live standup special for Netflix from Baltimore, Selective Outrage.

The last eight minutes or so of the special was focused on Rock's reaction to Smith slapping him onstage at last year's Oscars ceremony, with the comic unloading a deluge of expletives and bile while contending the assault was the actor's reaction to all the criticism he had taken for accepting his wife's very public affair.

"Everybody called that man a b----," Rock added of Smith, who is physically more imposing than him. "They called his wife a predator...And who's he hit? Me! A n---- he knows he can beat [up]."

Rock's outrage focused on the Smiths

The quips came in a flurry, as Rock finally told his side of the story, accusing Smith of practicing "selective outrage" by getting mad at him instead of the wife who cuckolded him.

In fact, the comic got so excited he messed up one joke, saying at first Jada wanted him to quit hosting the Oscars in 2016, because Will didn't get nominated for Emancipation (the movie was actually Concussion, one of the omissions which fed the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag).

"She said, 'He should quit because Will didn't get nominated,'" Rock added. "So then I do some jokes about it...That's how it is. She starts it; I finish it...Nobody's picking on this b----. She started this s---." Eventually, he got the punchline out: "She said a grown a-- man should quit his job because [her husband] didn't get nominated for Concussion. And then this n---- gives me a concussion."

Rock also said he was once a huge fan of Smith's, but the slap had him watching the actor's movies, like his Civil War-era drama Emancipation, much differently. "Now I watch Emancipation just to see him get whooped," the comic added. "Got me rooting for massah!"

Before Saturday night, it seemed as if Smith had mostly climbed out of the public relations hole he dug for himself by slapping Rock, apologizing publicly several times while admitting the comic hadn't responded to his attempts to reach out. One reason Smith may have been able to rebuild his image somewhat, is because Rock wasn't speaking publicly about the incident — so the guy who was slapped wasn't giving his perspective.

Until now.

Rock insisted that, even though he was slapped live on international television by a much larger man, he wasn't a victim – unfortunately implying there might be some shame in that designation, while connecting to a rant he had delivered earlier in the night insisting that too many people seek attention by unfairly claiming victimhood.

"I'm not a victim, baby...you will never see me on Oprah or Gayle crying," the comic said. "I took that hit like [champion boxer Manny] Pacquiao."

He may not have been crying, but Rock's anger over the incident seemed fresh as if it had just happened last week. "People are [asking me] 'Did it hurt?'" Rock said, incredulously. "It still hurts."

And his final observation: He didn't fight back against Smith because of a lesson from his parents: "Don't fight in front of white people!"

Funny, but less than groundbreaking

Chris Rock at the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore.
Kirill Bichutsky / Kirill Bichutsky/Netflix
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Kirill Bichutsky/Netflix
Chris Rock at the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore.

It was a dramatic end to a standup special that often felt less groundbreaking than the hype surrounding it suggested. For an hour, Rock held forth on an array of topics, some of which felt like they could have come from a special years ago – including jokes about the Kardashians, O.J. Simpson and Meghan Markle.

Some jokes just felt a little odd – like complaining about selective outrage by people who dance to songs by Michael Jackson but won't play songs by R. Kelly, who – unlike Jackson – is alive and was actually convicted in court of sex crimes.

Parts of the special seemed calibrated to tweak stereotypically liberal sensibilities, with Rock insisting, "Anybody that says 'Words hurt,' has never been punched in the face." And jokes about how a "woke trap" works; if "somebody wants your job, they just wait for you to say some dumb s---."

On abortion: "Women should have the right to kill a baby until he's four years old." On being a divorced single guy dating younger women: "I didn't get rich and stay in shape to talk to Anita Baker. I'm trying to f--- Doja Cat." On why the power of women's beauty gives them dominance over men: "Beyonce is so fine, that if she worked at Burger King, she could still marry Jay-Z. Now if Jay-Z worked at Burger King..."

Rock stalked the stage with energy and the practiced cool of a longtime standup comedy legend – even while admitting he'd gotten his own daughter kicked out of a tony high school to teach her a lesson, claiming that she, his ex-wife and their lawyer were likely finding out he asked the school to expel her by watching the Netflix special.

Comedy from a guy who has been rich and famous a while

Because Rock is a comedy pro, a lot of the special was entertaining and some of it was poignant, including his reflections on having a mother who grew up in segregation who is now able to visit her granddaughter studying at culinary school in France. I also loved his observation that the January 6, riots were "white men trying to overthrow the government...that they (already) run."

But some of it also felt like the kind of comedy you might expect from a guy who has been rich and famous for so long, his view of the world is clouded by the bubble of privilege he lives in (for example, Rock's version of the tired "my pronouns are" joke is that he self-identifies as poor, despite his riches, and his pronoun is "broke.")

Ronny Chieng hosts a live pre-show at the The Comedy Store in Los Angeles.
ADAM ROSE / Adam Rose/Netflix
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Adam Rose/Netflix
Ronny Chieng hosts a live pre-show at the The Comedy Store in Los Angeles.

It didn't help that Netflix hyped the show with both pre and post-concert specials that felt a bit labored. Hosted by Ronny Chieng, David Spade and Dana Carvey, the specials featured tons of appearances from celebrities like Bono (singing Jailhouse Rock before Rock's show, as one does), Rosie Perez, Matthew McConaughey, Arsenio Hall, Leslie Jones, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and more.

They offered the kind of glad-handing display Rock himself likely would have skewered, had he been forced to sit through it.

And for this comedy fan, who still remembers when Rock's groundbreaking standup specials for HBO redefined his career and the world of comedy in the same moment, Saturday night's special was sad proof of the distance between a brash young comic trying to make his mark and a seasoned pro who knows how to work the room, even when he might not have as much to say.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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