When the history of live television is written, there will be a chapter dedicated to the 2022 Oscars. Hosted by comedian Chris Rock, the show thundered, handing out awards to all kinds of trash movies (who remembersCODA?) but then, suddenly, it sparked into life. Will Smith, moments away from winning Best Actor, took the stage and slapped The Rock. “Keep my wife’s name out of your mouth!” Smith roared after returning to his seat, launching a thousand memes and now, a year later, The Rock’s Revenge Tour.
His new special, Selective ragestreamed live on Netflix and marked the first time the comic talked about 94u The Oscars for a long time. But we’ll get to that. The Rock is an era-defining charismatic comedian. He struts around the stage like he owns it. At 58, he’s never been more confident or relaxed, even if he appears to be fueled by Botox. He knows who he is, and so does the audience. “I didn’t get rich and stay in shape to talk about Anita Baker,” he informs them, in a riff on age dating. “Trying to understand Doja Cat.” Other cultural targets range from Lulu Lemon and Subaru to SoulCycle and Burger King. He gets applause for his daughter and mother, anxious murmurs when he talks about Meghan Markle and excited whispers when rappers from Snoop Dogg to Jay-Z are mentioned.
Rock has played such an important role in the rhythm of stand-up over the past 30 years that sometimes his set feels like a travesty. Its constructions are so familiar they’re almost comfortable, regardless of the content. She tells the audience that she “paid for more abortions than any woman in this room” and “paid off more college loans than Joe Biden.” Performing in front of a Baltimore audience, extended gags about Robert Kardashian’s “curse” land better than a protracted segment about his daughter’s expulsion from private school. Stadium tour comedians talking about the agony of being super rich has become the new “what’s with airplane food?”
Why was it broadcast live? To some extent, Netflix probably sees this as a test, both for its technology and the appetites of its subscribers. For all that he touches on topics like the pro-life debate, the opioid crisis and colonialism, Rock is not a particularly edgy comedian. “I’m rich but I identify as poor,” he says. “My pronoun is broken.” The relative blandness of Rock’s comedy is more manageable than some of the more ambitious performers to grace Netflix in recent years, and always the specter of the unexpected—that night at the Oscars—looms over this special. When will he talk about Will Smith?
The wait continues for the better part of an hour. Before then, there’s, of course, the now-usual three-minute riff on trans people. “I accept anybody,” she tells the crowd, adding, “In some cases, I prefer trans women over the original recipe.” It’s a pointless detour – as much of a creative dead end as it was for Dave Chapelle or Ricky Gervais – but it’s obviously mandatory in a show dealing with modernity. More effective are Rock’s long reflections on his personal life, independence, and avoidance of attachment.
Of course, Rock (and Netflix) know why we’re here. The reason why this special is going live. It is to talk about the events of a year ago, at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, where the king of Hollywood Smith beat the Rock. “You know what happened to me,” he says as the special reaches its long-awaited climax. “I got beat up at the Oscars by this mom.” Finally, in his last minutes, Selective rage justifies its broadcast. The mood in the room changes from congratulations to anticipation. an edge drags and, excitingly, Rock loses his lines, confusing the films concussion and Emancipation (easily done), a stupidity that requires bringing back a joke. But it’s still electric, because it feels real in a way that stand-up (especially a TV special) rarely does.
Except for that moment, though, there was no need to broadcast it live — mostly because Netflix’s subtitles couldn’t keep up with Rock’s delivery. The special itself is uninspired and cringeworthy. “You will never see me Oprah, he’s crying,” Rock claims. “I took that hit like Pacquiao.” And yet, given that this project exists to fuel the tabloid frenzy surrounding a slapstick so spectacular it has its own Wikipedia page, perhaps the intimacy of an interview would have been more interesting. For all that he willingly targets the Pinkett-Smiths, Selective rage has little emotional insight. And, apart from a few nervous moments, the live broadcast is as preheated as airplane food.