Chris Rock ‘Selective Outrage’ Netflix Live Special

Photo: Kirill Bichutsky/Netflix

A live-streaming Chris Rock Netflix special, from one of the most provocative, energetic and balletic comedians of all time, a special where he would talk about being punched by Will Smith at the Oscars, a week before the next Oscars ceremony, could have been an amazing sight to behold. It should have been – the potential excitement of live audience reactions, of the performative liveliness of Rock, of commentary on a shocking pop-cultural event on top of the new livestreaming element on Netflix. What if something goes wrong on stage? What if a spectator did something disruptive? On paper, it all seems exciting and potentially flammable. That’s why it’s as disappointing as, in life, Chris Rock’s Selective outrage cannot rise at this time.

If this had been a typical special, filmed over several performances and then edited together, it might have felt very different. Rock’s first half hour of material teases limp-related commentary, but largely dawdles on familiar, overused topics like wakefulness, trans rights, Kardashians, and the soul-sucking traps of social media. In many of those jokes, Rock finds his way into personal or surprising twists on what might otherwise be hacky premises: a joke about trans rights could have remained abstract, but instead shifts into a sharply detailed little act-out in which he exposes his skeptical elders. is becoming. uncle. The Kardashians’ material seems to begin with the premise of his frustration with the digital attention economy, but instead winds its way to seeing them as an atypically inclusive American family. A joke about Elon Musk starts from the (questionable and outdated) premise of Musk’s huge popularity, but then it turns into a very weird, hilarious image of him being so popular that he has negative semen in his body.

If the special had been directed and edited by someone whose primary focus was on the ideal way to present those gags, rather than the most efficient way to capture a live show, it might have been easier to avoid the areas of surprise. register, the places where he deviates from every gray joke about waking America. That first half hour isn’t just tired jokes about abortion (with a section similar to Maron’s recent special) and gender identification (“I identify as poor. My pronoun is broke”), though it may have felt that way. For example, the structure of that pronoun joke is so directly overfamiliar that one tends to groan in dismay. But Rock is reaching for something personal, something he legitimately wants to express about his disorienting, specific experience of the world.

No one could be faulted for missing that element of it, or any of the other places Rock tries to flesh out more interesting versions of legacy setups. First, jokes that feel like they’re coming from everywhere at once will always be at risk for just that: a listening ear hears a standard topic and then tunes in instead of leaning in. There are ways around that, though, using visual cues and thoughtful direction to direct a viewing audience’s attention to the places it needs to land. None of it happened, and as a result the biggest bust of Selective outrage is not Rock himself, but everything around him – the directing, the staging and the hopeless before and after shows.

The pre and post shows are the most obvious disasters. Leading up, half an hour before Rock begins performing live from Baltimore, an assembled troupe of comedians present themselves to a small crowd at LA’s Comedy Store, assuming the role normally filled by an opener. The aim is to warm up the crowd, get them ready for the main event and set the mood for the evening. Led by Ronny Chieng (who, alone among the rest of the comedians, seemed skeptical about his purpose in being there), the pre-show does indeed set the mood. The mood is: Chris Rock is the greatest comedian of all time, this performance has the highest stakes of any performance in human history, and a package of pre-recorded congratulations from Chris Rock’s bevy of celebrity friends is here to celebrate him. to achieve this tremendous achievement.

That’s horrible setup for comedy, which promises a level of laugh-out-loud laughter that can happen in a theater, but just doesn’t exist for people sitting on their couches at home. The post-show is just as bizarre. It returns to the Comedy Store and featured a panel of comedians including Dana Carvey, David Spade, Yvonne Orji, JB Smoove, Arsenio Hall and for some reason also Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Their goal is ostensibly to treat the special like a State of the Union, breaking the performance down by topic or idea. This is a disappointing approach to comic commentary, especially when no one will touch any kind of negative sentiment. It’s a mess of conversation, with no one seeming to understand what they were there for or how it was all supposed to go. At one point, David Spade mumbles, “We’re treading water and we’re starting to drown.” It’s pitched as a joke, but it plays like a confession.

But the biggest and most frustrating misstep is directing the special itself. Director Joel Gallen’s credits include numerous live award shows, and that was the imagery he used for Rock’s performance. Cameras locked onto Rock’s face, tracking along with his body as he strode back and forth across the stage, blocking out any sense of scale and energy from the audience, despite the crowd’s (stilted, too close) reaction shots that were peppered everywhere. Since the stage has a background of vertical mirrors and lines, that perpetually swinging camera also creates a weird, sickening zootropic effect, like being caught in a failed amusement ride. A more composed still camera would have helped with that, but it could also have shown Rock moving through space instead of frantically swiping with every step. It would have been a better demonstration of physical prowess and his huge, charismatic stage presence. Instead, the direction treats him like a host at the Oscars, where the main goal is to see him clearly at all times, in a medium shot, in the center of the frame.

That kind of visual message is not empty. It shapes the way we receive the story we are told, and in the case of Selective outragecould have been the story Here’s one of the greatest comedians alive, a performer and a master, who takes ownership of this absolutely wild thing that happened to him and reframes it in his own artistic context. Instead, the special’s visual approach Here’s Chris Rock at the scene of the awards show crime show again, profiting naked from all the attention he claims to disdain. Of course it feels like deflation. Rock kind of tries to show us how raw and weird the past year has been for him, but the special filmed it like a re-creation scene from a true crime documentary.

The last ten minutes of the special, in which Rock finally takes on Will Smith and the Oscars, are the strongest part of the show. In fact, the special improves steadily from about the halfway point as the audience begins to relax from the defensiveness it takes on during its piece of guest-comedian-with-a-podcast material and as Rock shifts to a slower storytelling style rooted in anecdotes about his children and family life. By the time he reaches the Slap section, the hour has finally found some rhythm and the energy shift is palpable. Rock appears floating; his typical rhythm of repeating a joke that eventually clicks into place like a puck-like delaying play rather than seeming like a provocation of discomfort. The audience is boisterous and engaged, clearly relieved and excited to finally get to the material they’ve all come to listen to. Jokes about Jada’s “entanglement” and Will Smith’s movie career land, despite Rock wasting a movie title. Rock drops the mic and the whole thing almost sorts itself out… and then that sloppy, excruciating post-show begins. Selective outrage is a special struggle to hold its own against the impossible headwinds of its own live gimmickry, and as a demonstration of Netflix’s live broadcast technology, it’s a success. To show if a live broadcast special is the best way to experience stand-up, Netflix should go back to the drawing board.

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