opinion | Roxane Gay in Chris Rock’s Netflix special

After Will Smith slapped Chris Rock in front of the world at the 2022 Oscars, we wondered how Mr. Rock would react. And then, just over a week before the 2023 Oscars, Mr. Rock entered the fray at a taping for his Netflix special in Baltimore — which happens to be Jada Pinkett Smith’s hometown (a particularly insignificant choice) —.

His response was set as a climax at the end of a live Netflix performance of Mr. Rock’s new show, Selective Outrage. But when he was about to deliver one of his most violent punches, Mr. Rock was apparently still so shaken up by the punching incident that he screwed up the joke I think he had spent a year crafting and perfecting. In a moment, all of our anticipatory energy was gone. Mr. Rock tried to recover and got the joke right before proudly explaining that the reason he didn’t hit Mr. Smith back was because: ‘I have parents, and you know what my parents did to me taught? Don’t fight in front of white people.” And then he dropped his microphone.

In the uncomfortable emptiness of his mistake, I realized how awful the last joke was: silly and inarticulate, not deep at all. By the way he strutted off the stage, Mr. Rock gave the impression that he had nailed the punch line. I almost felt sorry for him. Nearly.

The mic drop could have been a triumphant ending if the comedy that preceded it hadn’t been so uneven and often stale, certainly unfunny. There weren’t nearly enough of the kind of jokes — prescient, hilarious, sometimes uncomfortable, but relatable sociocultural observations — that were once Mr. Rock’s trademark. He had a lot about the Kardashians and poked fun at Lululemon’s $100 yoga pants contrasted with the company’s wax marketing. But while those jokes were amusing, it was a bit disconcerting that he was spending his time on them.

It’s pretty unfortunate, really. Mr. Rock, like many successful comedians of his generation, had a lot to say about wakefulness before. He and his colleagues have achieved immense success, but still don’t know how to deal with the cultural shifts that naturally occur over the course of a long career. Instead, they want to forever preserve the conditions that led to their success, so they can say whatever they want and trust that their audience will love them for it.

As they come to terms with the impossibility of achieving this standstill, they direct their frustration at waking culture and bemoan the freedoms they once had, not realizing that they still have freedoms they believe they do they lost them. They just don’t do comedy in a vacuum. The audience will not always laugh. And audiences will sometimes hold them accountable for what they say.

The best part of the show was a brilliant riff on the January 6 attendees crawling through the Capitol like a scene from the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. For a moment I was reminded of Mr. Rock at his best. But then came the lazy, aloof jokes about trans people — not the worst we’ve heard, but still odd and ill-considered given the alarming rise of gender fascism endangering the trans community. As he often does, Mr. Rock talked about the difficulties of meeting women on a transactional basis (buying shoes or having to pay for car repairs) as if dating women from his socioeconomic background had never occurred to him.

He had a lot of energy for Meghan Markle, claiming that many of her experiences with the royal family weren’t racism, just regular in-laws. He called Ms. Pinkett Smith “slut” (and had something similar to say about Will Smith). He made a half-hearted joke about infidelity, though the Smiths have said they’re in an open relationship. While Mr. Rock would not fight a black man in front of white men, he was perfectly willing to stab black women in front of the same audience.

It’s…interesting that Mr. Rock ends by implying that Mr. Smith wasn’t brought up well, and conjuring up (in front of white people) the trope of the broken black household after mocking (in front of white people) at least two black women and with the best weapon at his disposal to answer Mr. Smith (in front of whites).

It reminded me of a clip that did that social media rounds for years: Louis CK, Ricky Gervais, Mr. Rock and Jerry Seinfeld discuss comedy, and the N-word falls. Mr. CK and Mr. Gervais happily use the N-word with impunity, while Mr. Seinfeld, clearly uncomfortable, tries to steer the conversation to something less ridiculously offensive. And right in the middle, Mr. Rock, grinning, undeterred – in front of white people.

Given how long it took for Mr. Rock to officially respond to The Slap, I’m not sure there was anything he could have done to do justice to the situation given his apparent inability to develop as a comic. Mr. Rock was beaten in front of a huge global audience. No matter what the consequences Mr. Smith faces, and no matter how lucrative it is for Mr. Rock to joke about it, he still has to live with the humiliation and pain.

Instead of sitting around with that vulnerability and turning it into brilliant humor, he resorted to childish schoolyard taunting. It was such a wasted opportunity.

Instead of making me laugh, he made me very sad. For him. Instead of standing up to Mr. Smith – a worldwide live Netflix broadcast is a great leveler – Mr. Rock chose to stay very small.

Roxane Gay is the Endowed Professor of Media, Cultural and Feminist Studies at Rutgers, author of and co-author of the forthcoming Opinions. @RGay

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