Chris Rock's Live Netflix Special Was A Polished Production Of A Sure-To-Be-Divisive Standup Act

Netflix just aired its first-ever live special, and from a pure production standpoint, it went off nearly without a hitch. "Chris Rock: Selective Outrage" will surely grab headlines for its final ten minutes, as the comedian capped off an intermittently funny hour with an extended tirade during which he delivered low blow after low blow aimed at Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. There's plenty to be said about those anger-filled moments and all the good, bad, and ugly that came before them (look out for more coverage from /Film that will dig into the details), but it's also worth unpacking the live production elements that mark a brand new step for the streaming giant. Did Netflix pull this whole thing off? Should they keep experimenting with live TV?

On first pass, the answers to this seem obvious: yes and maybe. The special, which began at 6:30 P.M. PT with a live pre-show filmed in Los Angeles before moving to the Baltimore stage where Rock delivered his set, was rather seamlessly presented. In terms of coverage, editing, and coordinating the timing of many moving parts, the special was leagues ahead of other major live events like New Year's Eve broadcasts, award shows, and sporting events. Each of the comedians appearing on the pre-show, including Deon Cole, Arsenio Hall, and Leslie Jones kept their sets tight and on track, so that the switchover to Baltimore came at 7:00 P.M. on the dot.

A tightly paced live event with very few flubs

Rock's actual performance lasted roughly 70 minutes, 10 minutes longer than the average hour-long Netflix special. It was in those last 10 minutes that he made his only real live show flub, accidentally citing the Will Smith film "Emancipation" for a punchline that actually called for the film "Concussion." He admitted that he "f***ed up the joke" and carried on with what would turn out to be the most incendiary — and least funny — part of the show.

The rest of the stream featured only a few quirks: during a 20 minute aftershow panel that included Hall, J.B. Smoove, Yvonne Orji, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Smoove had microphone issues but was quickly handed a new mic. Within a minute of Rock taking to the stage, a man in the audience began yelling — likely not a surprise for a comedian who was booed two minutes into his most famous special, "Bring The Pain" — and Rock quieted him quickly, calling, "N****, sit down!" before moving on.

As a live show, it was also impossible for comedians to flatter themselves with edits that might cut down on moments to which audiences weren't receptive. Both Hall and Rock mention Dave Chappelle in passing. Chappelle is a comedian who's by now as famous for his stubborn transphobia (and big Netflix deal) as for his actual comedy. Both references were met with near silence. "LA, y'all be acting weird sometimes," Cole said early in his own set, seemingly in response to a muted crowd.

Ronny Chieng kept it real

Live show moments that could've been awkward were smoothed over well by pre-show host Ronny Chieng, who made a point to call out Netflix itself for its less-than-transparent viewership numbers and attempts to reinvent the wheel by putting on a live TV show on a Saturday night. "All these moments will be lost like tears in the rain or a d*** pic on Snapchat," Chieng said, an ironic observation given the way streaming has recently eroded the TV preservation landscape. Chieng also managed to transition quickly past a rough bit involving David Spade and Dana Carvey, responding with a slightly judgmental look while quipping, "Thank you for representing white people on this one, guys."

While "Chris Rock: Selective Outrage" will obviously gain attention for Rock's comments about the Smith family, it's worth noting that it's unclear how many people actually watched the show, and may remain unclear even as Netflix releases audience numbers. As Chieng points out, Netflix's self-reported viewership data is notoriously confusing, plus — in my own experience — the streamer didn't seem too sure about how to get viewers on board. 

The title for the special appeared on Netflix days ago with a banner indicating it would be live, although its poster listed a 7:00 P.M. start time with no word of the pre-show. It also included an option to be reminded about the event. I signed up for the reminder, and received a nudge via email at 6:21pm, just nine minutes before the pre-show began. Even weirder, when I checked Netflix a few moments earlier, the title wasn't displayed on the top of the page: that slot belonged to the drama "Sex/Life." I only found the link to the live show after scrolling down to "New and Popular."

What's the point of a live Netflix show, again?

So if Netflix does choose to bring more live shows to subscribers, it still has some kinks to work out. The show's production was impressively put-together, but the system for tuning in wasn't especially clear. The pacing and direction were fantastic, and Rock is clearly a polished performer who can deliver a punchline well when he's not tied up in petty, angry knots. But all of this still asks the question: why even do this? Will Netflix live shows earn the service the new subscribers the streamer is always hungry for? And is the show truly a special event if you can click on it anytime you want after it airs, as you can with this one?

It seems as if, by choosing to platform a comedian who they know will be shocking, streaming execs hoped to cultivate a massive watercooler moment akin to something from the golden days of prime-time television. In the end, this felt like a trial balloon, designed to gauge viewer reactions as much as it was meant to actually function as a comedy special. Aside from Chieng's enjoyably balloon-popping digs at Netflix, everyone involved in the pre- and post-shows hyped the live-ness of the special to no end, as if comedians aren't live and in person on stage every night. The only difference may be that in this case, more people can say they were "there" when it all went down.

Netflix's first live event was a surprisingly polished production. Just as viewers will inevitably wait with bated breath to see how the Smiths respond to Rock's new round of insults, the streaming world will have to wait and see if this special shapes the future of Netflix and its competition going forward.