No joke had been told or the celebrity score settled (more on that later), but audiences were Rock’s to a loss from the moment the 58-year-old comedian and actor set foot on stage. Remember, it was Rock who got more than he bargained for on another world stage almost a year ago. Yes, we are talking about the blow. The shocking moment when Oscar nominee Will Smith climbed on stage and attacked Rock at the 94th Academy Awards ceremony after the comedian told a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
Rock has been touring ever since, playing nearly 140 shows across the country, keeping a calculated silence about the now-infamous live moment that turned one man villain and another a victim, leaving the pair forever entwined in the tv history. But on Saturday, the stage was all Rock’s, and the crowd was eager to prove their loyalty.
“I became part of comedy history,” says Mitchel Roy, a die-hard fan from Rock’s native New York. The importance of the night was clear; this shouldn’t have been just another old special.
This was a chance for Rock to reclaim what he lost in that Oscars debacle. It was also a chance for one of comedy’s elder statesmen to prove he still had it. Sure he could deliver the jokes, but could he deliver the tantalizing social commentary that made him one of the greats? The Baltimore set had all the potential to be career-defining. The only problem is that it wasn’t, not really. Aside from the Netflix hype and gimmicky format, the hour didn’t rank in Rock’s top five. Instead, it was an on-the-nose set filled with some good jokes, some big gimmicks — until, of course, he finally got the punch for about eight minutes. But whatever didn’t work on the set didn’t seem to bother the audience.
When Rock walked onto the stage dressed all in white against a shimmering silver backdrop, it felt like the party had already begun. A mix of walking down the aisle and birthday thoughts.
Which, of course, meant someone had to try and snatch a bit of that shine for themselves.
Just as Rock was about to launch his landmark branding set (which happened to include something about America’s addiction to attention), a man wearing a white T-shirt with the Tubi logo on the back started yelling, “Yo, Chris ! Chris!” pointing at his shirt in an attempt to grab a few seconds of fame or free advertising.
“Sit down,” Rock demanded from the stage as the audience cheered, only too happy to be rid of this outlier. Moments later, five large men, dressed in black, escorted the man down an aisle and out the door.
On either side of that aisle was a diverse group of comedy fans who looked like they were lost on their way to various events. Orioles caps and BBLs were plentiful. There was former BET manager Stephen Hill in a suit. Comedian Sam Jay watched from the box. Across the street from the theatre are box was director Spike Lee in his signature purple.
And then there was the guy who couldn’t keep his shirt on. Serious. A middle-aged man in a Crocodile Dundee hat and low-rise plumber’s jeans couldn’t resist the occasional urge to lift his T-shirt over his stomach.
“Are you here to see the show or to sell everyone fentanyl?” opener Jeff Ross asked Crocodile Dundee earlier in the evening when for some unknown reason the fan ran onto the stage to get toasted. Later, during Rock’s set, the same guy just kept exposing his belly, for reasons only he and whatever he was could explain. He did laughed a little too hard at a few jokes, and security slowly began to walk in his direction. “They’re coming for him,” a woman whispered to her friends, sure another fan was on her way out. But he must have gotten the memo that this wasn’t the night to show off. He piped down.
Since the doors of the theater first swung open, it had been made clear that everyone had to watch their P’s and Q’s. You had less than a minute to text everyone you loved before locking your phone away in the gray dungeon known as the now-ubiquitous Yondr Pouch. Then it was time to go through the metal detectors where guards pet people and check under women’s hair. for what? “Air Pods,” the uniformed man replied. Which exactly pose which threat? “Someone would like to send out a signal or something.” What in the mission: impossible?
Then there was the long list of things that made it hard to focus on the actual punchline. As Rock pranked everyone from Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, to Robert Kardashian, you could be distracted by the crane-mounted camera sweeping across one side of the orchestra section or by the team moving handhelds through the crawling aisles to capture reaction shots to jokes that might otherwise have landed if not for extra scrutiny.
Or maybe you spent the show self-conscious about all the tips Ross offered for being on live TV: If you needed the ladies, go now or hold your pee forever. If you have gum in your mouth, spit it out – chewing reads horrible on the screen. Finally, if you’re sitting next to someone you shouldn’t be with tonight, then good luck because this is live.
Of course, the main sound in the theater was laughter – and there was plenty of it throughout the night, despite the fact that Rock’s comedy has drifted from tense and fresh to funny but a day late. He is 58 and it is starting to show. Are pronoun jokes still necessary (were they ever)? Are observations about shoe-loving women and money-loving homey men earth-shattering? Hardly.
So it’s no surprise that when Rock finally addressed the elephant in the room, “You guys know what happened to me, getting punched by Suge Smith.” — even this adoring crowd collectively sat up a little straighter, bracing for Rock’s trademark takedown.
The comedian embarked on what would become arguably the most talked about eight minutes of his career, addressing the famous couple. His wife was [having sex with] friend of her son. Normally I wouldn’t talk about this. … But for some reason [they] put that… on the internet,” Rock said, sending the crowd over the edge. “She hurt him a lot more than he hurt me.”
“He’s getting spicy!” remarked someone in the crowd, as if the rest of us didn’t know.
“Everyone called him a b—-,” Rock added, after repeating the word more than half a dozen times. And who did he hit? Me. [Someone] he knows he can beat.” Then there were more jokes aimed at the “Emancipation” star and his wife, a Baltimore native who appeared to have no fans from his hometown at the Hippodrome on Saturday night.
In the end, the whole night came down to that eight minutes of public catharsis from the comedian. The gimmicky live show hype, all that pomp and circumstance, seemed over the top. Could it be a Twitter thread instead? Probably. Should it have been? Probably.
Because then suddenly it was over. After a little over an hour of riffs about waking up, abortion, rich kids and relationships, Rock ended with a literal mic drop, and that was that. At least for the showgoers, since Netflix subscribers can watch it whenever they want. (Did the live aspect even matter?)
It didn’t seem to matter much how tired some of the material felt. His fans were ready to love it, and they loved it.
“We finally got to hear his voice – and not his hands. As a comedian, that’s his thing. He used his tools,” said Jean Max Hogarth, who hung out in the theater’s lobby after the show.
“He hit it right on the head,” said a 29-year-old fan named Kameron, who then repeated a line several fans had in their back pockets: “He spoke his truth.” Others said Rock felt genuine. They weren’t fazed by the punch line aimed at the Smiths. After all, this was the House of Rock.
“It’s exactly what I wanted from Chris Rock – truth be told, ‘Kim Henessee, 49, standing outside the theater 20 minutes after the show was over, ‘processing’ what she just saw with her friend, Eliza Smith, 46.” It felt like an opportunity to participate as a community,” Smith said. “We were all rooting for him.”
And maybe that’s what made the hype for this special feeling special: All that helium in the balloon. But when it popped? Not much came out except hot air.