Chris Rock knows you want to hear about that slap, and with his standup special Selective Outrage, the comedy legend is finally ready to talk all about it.
The first-of-its-kind live-streamed Netflix event, which aired on Saturday night, was heavily hyped as Rock’s rebuttal to Will Smith’s 2022 Academy Awards meltdown. It’s been nearly a year since Smith interrupted Rock’s presentation of best documentary feature by storming the stage and striking him across the face in response to a joke directed at Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. A shock to viewers of the broadcast, the altercation overshadowed the night’s winners and completely shattered the facade of awards-season camaraderie. Smith’s experiences post-slap have been well documented—the actor has since released a public apology, undergone a formal inquiry by the Academy, and received a decade-long ban from the ceremony for his conduct—but Rock, a master of the comeback, has remained mum. During his recent Ego Death Tour, he addressed the incident by assuring audiences that he’d unpack it all later. “I’m still kind of processing what happened, so, at some point, I’ll talk about that,” Rock said onstage at Boston’s Wilbur theatre mere days after the Oscars. “It’ll be serious, and it’ll be funny, but right now, I’m going to tell some jokes.”
Throughout his Netflix special, Rock teases his retort. “The last thing I need is another mad rapper,” he says as he ponders Snoop Dogg’s excess of endorsement deals and pokes fun at Jay-Z’s ability to attract a woman as sublime as Beyoncé. Smith is the main event, but he’s far from the only one on Rock’s hit list: Meghan Markle, wealthy private school parents, Lululemon, and the January 6 rioters all receive tongue lashings over the hour. The severity of their actions may differ—blindly marrying into royalty is considerably less destructive than attempting to overthrow the government—but Rock’s targets are united by what he considers hypocrisy. The selective outrage that allows luxury brands to tout their anti-racism stance while using exploitative labour practices, and allows bad actors to shield themselves by co-opting the language of social justice.
Like many comedians in his age bracket, Rock bemoans “woke” culture, particularly the seemingly arbitrary rules about who is eligible for cancellation. Still, the threat of backlash doesn’t deter him from weaving a healthy dose of misogyny into his work. The show’s segments about dating younger women due to their lack of expectations and imagining if Rock’s father were to transition seemed like excerpts from a mid-2000s set. Problematic messages aside, jokes about the Kardashian sisters’ sexual partners and Caitlin Jenner’s gender identity are lazy relics unworthy of Rock’s talents, much like the dusty G.I. Jane crack that led to the slap. Far more interesting are the moments when Rock gets personal, sharing stories about his relationship with his ex-wife, his mother’s experiences living under Jim Crow, and how he navigates parenthood.
When Rock finally gets to Smith, he doesn’t hold back. Tackling the incident with indignation and self-deprecating humour, he points out their David vs. Goliath size difference. “I know you can’t tell on camera, but Will Smith is significantly bigger than me; we are not the same size,” Rock says. “Will Smith does movies with his shirt off; you will never see me do that. If you see me in a movie getting open heart surgery, I’m gonna have a sweater on. He played Muhammed Ali. Do you think I auditioned for that part? I played Pookie in New Jack City.”
In Rock’s view, the cause of the slap was Smith’s misdirected anger over his wife’s affair with musician August Alsina, and the humiliation of it becoming public knowledge. “I didn’t have any entanglements,” Rock says, nodding to the phrase Pinkett Smith used to describe her relationship with the singer. As he hashes out the gossipy details, Rock notes that he wouldn’t be bringing it up if it hadn’t already been the focus of an ill-conceived confessional on Pinkett Smith’s web series Red Table Talk. “We’ve all been cheated on, everybody in this room has been cheated on—none of us has ever been interviewed by the person that cheated on us on television,” he says. “She hurt him way more than he hurt me.”
Though he claims to have taken the hit like Manny Pacquiao and refuses to accept the label of victim, Rock’s anger reverberates through the final moments of his set. Decrying Pinkett Smith’s role as an instigator, Smith’s decision to punch down, and the implication that he should have responded in kind after being slapped, Rock touches on a meatier subject. “I’ve got parents,” he says. “And you know what my parents taught me? Don’t fight in front of white people.” A mic drop and a standing ovation from the crowd follow the statement. While it provided a suitably pithy ending to the special, it also offered a glimpse of what could have been, had Rock talked a bit more about what it means to be a Black man beneath the crushing glare of the spotlight.
This article was originally published on Vogue.com.