Chris Rock Brought The Wrong Kind Of Pain To His Live Netflix Special

27 years ago, Chris Rock resurrected his career with one of the greatest hours of stand-up comedy I've ever seen. I was a month away from graduating college when "Bring the Pain" aired after the HBO Saturday night premiere of "Congo" or something less sublime when Eddie Murphy's once-prized protege, who'd been ignominiously fired from "Saturday Night Live" after three underwhelming seasons, took the stage in Washington D.C. and became the George Carlin of his generation. It was a set fueled by fury at white folks pandering admiration of Colin Powell ("He speaks so well!"), Black folks' support of crackhead Marion Barry ("I can be Mayor!"), and, to put it diplomatically, racial anti-intellectualism. Sandwiched in between all of this was a brilliantly random rant about an HBO prison documentary in which a prisoner waxed poetic about the pleasures of "salad tossing." It was like watching Greg Maddux throw a complete-game shutout. Rock worked the corners, inviting outrage, but never hung a single pitch.

It's hard to top a set like that, but in his subsequent specials Rock has never lost the strike zone. Like many successful comics, he's struggled to remain grounded. Once you're earning millions of dollars producing television shows and movies, your gripes are not those of the common working person. You can kvetch about your wife siphoning off half of your income via a divorce settlement, or keenly observe that the richest African-American person in the U.S. couldn't begin to touch the wealth of Bill Gates, but marriages break up every day in this country, and our country's wage disparity is a worsening crisis that affects everyone. These things are relatable.

Getting slapped by Will Smith during the live telecast of the 2022 Academy Awards is something none of us could possibly comprehend. It's surreal. It's also so belittling of the person who delivered the slap that the best revenge is to shrug it off and move on to weightier matters. I figured an A-plus comic like Rock would understand this and attack his first stand-up set in five years with a fiery indifference to this embarrassment. Instead, he chose to embarrass himself.

A stand-up spectacle unworthy of the hype

Chris Rock's "Selective Outrage" was Netflix's first live streaming event, and the outlet treated it like a coronation. Rock's friends and admirers, young and old, turned out for a pre-show presentation that portended a stand-up set for the ages. The sight of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was particularly encouraging, given his vehement support of the trans community in the face of a right-wing-driven campaign disputing their very right to exist.

Rock, perhaps leery of his colleague Dave Chappelle's TERF-friendly dismissal of trans people, made a glancing joke about the Kardashian family's acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner before explaining how his blue-collar brothers would lose their minds if their father pursued gender reassignment. The bit was meant to enlighten "wokes" — and, yes, he disappointingly used that term as a pejorative during his routine — as to the difficulty of getting regular people to adjust to the concept of transgenderism. Amazingly, Louis C.K., Rock's disgraced former writing partner, was more gracefully understanding of gender fluidity — which he compared to playing a fretless bass — in his most recent stand-up special.

The title "Selective Outrage" prompted hope that Rock would train his ire on our social-media-addled obsession with tabloid sideshows like the Kardashians and the British Royal Family. Instead, Rock sunk undue minutes of his set into celebrating Robert Kardashian's role in exonerating O.J. Simpson of murder (when he was merely a periphery player in the legal soap opera) and excoriating mixed-race Meghan Markle for marrying into a famously exclusionary lily-white clan.

If you seek revenge, bury two or three graves

These jokes fell pitifully flat, but they were beacons of enlightenment compared to Rock's lengthy tirade about getting his daughter kicked out of her upper-crust Manhattan high school. When he learned that the young woman cut out of a field trip and got drunk at a nearby bar, he crows that he went to the principal and demanded her expulsion to teach her a lesson. She's now attending a culinary school in France, and he marvels that his mother, who was raised in such racist poverty that her dental care was left to a veterinarian, can sample her granddaughter's haute cuisine in a wildly posh setting.

From here, Rock veered into a pointless, oddly mean-spirited riff on why it's better to date younger women (spoiler: they're less worldly and unlikely to put a hurt on your wallet). This stretch was reminiscent of Eddie Murphy's alienating "Bush B****" rant in "Raw," only Rock lacks his mentor's natural charisma to mine laughs out of mindless misogyny.

Then Rock guided his audience into the nadir of his set, which turned out to be its stunningly toxic point. Just when you thought he was going to remain above the fray, he dialed up the launch codes and unleashed a full-scale nuclear strike on Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith. They're not undeserving targets, but they're so grotesque — e.g. Will interviewing Jada regarding her extramarital affair with her son's best friend — and culturally irrelevant that you can't believe Rock, a socially conscious comic who's lived to see a resurgence of the racism his mother experienced throughout her childhood, wants to end the most vital special of his career since "Bring the Pain" by shaming a couple of Hollywood kooks.

"Don't fight in front of white people," Rock exclaimed as he threw down the mic. Ultimately, that's all he did.