Chris Rock’s latest Netflix special is the revenge of the slapped.
Nearly a year after hosting the Oscars ceremony, where he was assaulted on stage by Will Smith on live television, the superstar comedian hit the road for his biggest world tour with sell-out dates including in New York, London and Sydney.
Selective Outrage is a result of that global trek. While millions around the world tuned in to see the fireworks, it does raise the question of whether Selective Outrage will ultimately be viewed more as a publicity stunt than a comedy special.
Here, The National ranks his seven stand-up specials and where his latest fits in.
7. Chris Rock: Big Ass Jokes (1994)
Rock's debut special is not bad at all. It is just viewed more as a curiosity than a full-blown production.
At a breezy 30 minutes, we see hints of Rock's burgeoning talent with a lean and relatively clean (by his standard) set featuring his childhood and family. Did it hint that a new star is born? Not exactly, which makes Rock's career rise even more remarkable.
6. Chris Rock: Selective Outrage (2023)
There is a telling moment in what could possibly be the most hyped-up comedy special when Rock lets his mask slip.
It is in the crescendo of the one-hour piece in which he finally shares his thoughts regarding that infamous slap by Smith while Rock was presenting an award at last year’s Oscars ceremony.
As Rock is in full steam, brutally describing Smith's actions as a case of misplaced rage, he fluffs the punch line. For such a perfectionist, that falter really brought home the pain and anguish Rock feels regarding the incident.
That 10-minute section is electrifying because it was as unpolished as Rock gets with his rage, seeming to almost spiral out of control. It was also memorable for all the wrong reasons.
While Rock certainly told us what we wanted to know, those revelations masked a weak set based on the increasingly tired notion of the dangers of political correctness. With targets both predictable (Prince Harry and his wife Meghan) to outdated (The Kardashians, really?) Selective Outrage doesn’t break any new ground and leaves Rock in an unfamiliar position of following the comedy pack instead of normally leading the way.
5. Chris Rock: Kill the Messenger (2008)
With this globe-trotting special, Rock wants us to know that he is a big deal. Expertly spliced from three shows in Johannesburg, New York and London, Kill the Messenger is both impressive and rather deflating.
While it shows how tightly rehearsed Rock's routines are, the fact that the material — in which he takes a more bawdy approach to discussing issues of race — can be performed in different parts of the world without losing a step, robs the audience of some of the spontaneity we hope to see from a gifted comic like Rock.
While television and streaming have turned comedians into superstars, Kill the Messenger shows how their material is often more polished rather than being conjured up in the moment.
4. Chris Rock: Never Scared (2004)
This can be viewed as an interesting companion piece to Tamborine as Rock spends a lot of time in Never Scared exploring various forms of relationships, from being unfaithful to a seasoned marriage.
Released 12 years before his divorce, Rock already cuts a cynical figure and describes marriage as a zero-sum game in which husbands are reduced to being treated as pets.
While the faux irate delivery is always appealing, some of the subtle observations and nuances characterising Rock’s acclaimed specials are lost here and Never Scared suffers as a result.
3. Chris Rock: Tamborine (2018)
More than the laughs, the ability to deliver a gripping narrative is what defines the best stand-up comedians. Rock shows why he is viewed as one of the art form’s finest practitioners with this personal and slow-burning set.
His bitter divorce after an 18-year marriage forms the crux of this special, in which Rock admits to his infidelity. Blending puns with pathos, Rock recalls his experience in family court “fighting for my kids", where he discovers his celebrity and wealth is of no value to the judge.
Shot in an intimate theatre, Tamborine was Rock’s first special in a decade. His Netflix debut reasserted his vaunted credentials and introduced him to a new generation of fans.
2. Chris Rock: Bigger & Blacker (1999)
Rock’s zany and revelatory takes on social ills define this slick special.
A bonafide star by this time, Rock takes the stage in New York’s Apollo Theatre with an extra swagger, with material expertly blending big social issues with intimate recollections of family life.
In a withering assessment of the US healthcare system, he describes how cough syrup was used in his childhood home to cure all maladies. As for gun violence, his solution is a “bullet control” policy in which each item should cost $5,000. That way, he says, there will be “no innocent bystanders".
1. Chris Rock: Bring the Pain (1996)
One of the greatest stand-up television specials was released during a particularly lean period for Rock. Despite the relative success of the 1993 hip-hop comedy CB4, opportunities for bigger projects failed to materialise for him. So, he went back on the road for an intensive two-year tour before recording the special in Washington DC.
Bring the Pain is a result of that intensive effort with Rock crafting a set tackling hot-button racial topics with the precision and structure of an essayist. It is here where Rock really begins to develop some of the themes, from race to relationships, that he explores in all of his subsequent specials.
In one of his finest bits, he manages to breathe new life into seasoned subjects, such as the challenges of relationships, with a devastating quip on how men "are only as faithful as their options".
Rock’s career bounced back with Bring the Pain and the special went on to win two Emmy Awards. However, he rarely has been so consistently on point as Bring the Pain.