that cadence. That cadence. You know what I mean, but it’s not replicable enough in writing, and that’s more the point. Delivery is important in any form of storytelling, and in observational comedy, cadence is the special engine of wit. Chris Rockian’s prosody features a heavy-footed consonance, a spit-filled “P” in “poor” or an “F” in “fucking”, and unusual syllable emphasis. Such rhythms record in his memory his most famous verses: “I ain’t afraid of Al Qaeda, I’m afraid of Al crack-to.”
Sound bites of that old material were broadcast over images of Rock as he took the stage Saturday night for “Selective Outrage,” a comedy special that aired on Netflix as the platform’s first experiment in live streaming. During the special, Rock’s signature delivery became a lifeline, elevating the slightly amusing single and holding your breath in even the most humdrum of material. None of the jokes will rise to the level of iconic, or even memorable, I’m afraid. However, Rock reminds us of his iconic status just by opening his mouth. His delivery works when nothing else does, and, in “Selective Outrage,” he little did.
The event began at 9:30 p.m. ET, with a preview show. (First, though, viewers had to take care of the business of getting into the virtual venue. Although I was able to follow the “Watch Live” invitation, heralded by a glowing red Netflix button, when I tried to Chromecast the show to my TV I was told that my device didn’t support live streaming, until it did, a few minutes later, after some tinkering). Located at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, the pre-show tasked its host, comedian Ronny Chieng, with working both in person and in a virtual crowd. He was attended by guests including Arsenio Hall and Leslie Jones, who were there, as Chieng put it, to “emphasize how alive we are now” and shower hosannas on Rock: “You’re the shit,” Jones said. At one point, a pre-recorded montage showed a random assortment of celebrities showering rock with praise: Paul McCartney, Ali Wong, Bill Maher, Anthony Kiedis, Jerry Seinfeld, Rosie Perez, to name a few. (Back at the Comedy Store, one of the comedians commented that, “if he dies,” “they’ve got the package live and ready to go.”) I’m not sure what the fanfare was communicating other than anxiety about the state of Rock cultural relevance. His last special, “Tamborine”, also released by Netflix, came out in 2018, and in addition to starring in the fourth season of Fargo, we haven’t seen him in the proverbial marquee for a minute. Maybe the pre-show was meant to prepare all Gen Z-ers, so they don’t think of Rock just as the Oscars joke-teller who got slapped by the husband of that “Red Table Talk” lady.
We will get to that in time. First, “Selective Outrage” has a thesis, which Rock presents early in the set. Tell me if you’ve heard this before: people these days get mad at some things but not at other things, and this ignoble and fickle anger tends more toward cowardice than righteousness. “I’m going to try to put on a show tonight without offending anyone,” Rock says to open the set, with his usual shit-eating grin. “You never know who might be activated.” Yeah, yeah, sure, “words hurt,” he parrots, but “anyone who says ‘words hurt’ has never been punched in the face.” Here’s the first coy reference from him to all-know-what. But for now he’s focused on other things, like “awakening traps” designed for the elderly and out of touch. “I have no problem with the week,” he insists. “I am in favor of social justice. I am for marginalized people getting their rights. What I have a problem with is selective outrage. . . . a person does something; they are cancelled. Someone else does the exact same thing: nothing.” The “N” lands with a guttural thud. Rock speculates, for example, that R. Kelly would have been harder to write off had he made better music, a joke that works (as it does) only because Rock selectively excludes mention of the vocal interracial fandom that publicly supports Kelly’s work for this day.
There may be humor in the ripe fruit. One early joke pokes fun at the way corporate virtual signage now permeates even private conversations. A friend, excited about his new job, tells Rock that he feels “seen” and “heard.” Rock wrinkles his face. “I’m looking at him, like, ‘Nigga, it’s me. What, you think I’m wearing a wire or something?’ Rock smiles at anti-hate signage from a luxury brand like Lululemon: “They sell hundred-dollar yoga pants… They hate somebody.” There are victims in this world, in other words, but our priorities have gone haywire, whether “our,” in Rock’s view, constitutes a specific demographic or encompasses the Internet at large (“writing wake-up tweets on a phone made by child slaves”) is hard to discern.
Rock dressed in white from head to toe, as if freshly bathed in the blood of the Lamb. She didn’t tap the special at one of the usual comedy centers, but rather in Baltimore, particularly Jada Pinkett Smith’s hometown. Make of it what you want, but then again, not that much. Rock still has most of a set to go. It takes us on a tour of the cliché —more (Ukraine, Elon Musk) and less (Caitlyn Jenner, the attention economy)— and the eternal (miscegenation, OJ Simpson). “Didn’t you google these motherfuckers?” Rock asks Meghan Markle, addressing her conflict in the royal house. Dating women “her age,” that is, women at least a decade younger than her fifty-eight years, she clarifies, requires maintenance. “I didn’t get rich or fit to talk about Anita Baker,” she boasts.
“You can’t tell any of these jokes at work,” Rock warns, presumably because of his audacity, or perhaps because whatever office culture is invoked here, like many of Rock’s standards, seems like a holdover from the ’90s. , or because the online conversation drained these feelings long before Rock took the stage on Saturday. Even a seemingly obligatory trans joke lags behind the trans-affirmative and anti-trans rhetoric of the day. A prolonged bit on the supremacy of female beauty seems like a reworking of his own Bush-era bit on whiteness. (From 2004’s “Never Scared”: “A black C student can’t be a manager at Burger King. Meanwhile, a white C student turns out to be the president of the United States.” From “Selective Outrage”: “Beyoncé is so good that if he worked at Burger King he could still marry Jay-Z… Now if Jay-Z worked at Burger King…”) Instead of guffaws, minor diversions should be found at the sentence level, in Rock’s cadence on lines like Markle’s “in-laws shit,” Minnie Mouse’s “rat ass.”
But I’m stalling. The weakness of “Selective Outrage” doesn’t just lie in the specter of obsolescence that hangs over certain aging comedians these days. I saw Rock live in 2017, during his first tour in nearly a decade, crafting material that would take its final form on “Tamborine”; he was a gas, with Rock’s brand of theatrical disgust intact. The problem with the new special is that much of the material feels like mere pretext, a half-hearted prelude to the evening’s main draw, strategically left for last, to better retain audiences. The special does its best to titillate us with side references until finally, almost exactly within the hour, it drops the merchandise. “You all know what happened to me, getting hit by Suge Smith,” says Rock, digging up Smith’s early identity as a rapper to awkwardly move on from the Jay-Z theme. “Everybody knows. Everybody knows. . . . I got hit, like, a year ago.” His posture is tired. His vocals sound fed up, and yet, isn’t that why we’ve gathered here, on the eve of a new Oscar? Isn’t that what this is all about?