After Will Smith slapped Chris Rock in front of the entire world at the 2022 Oscars, we wondered how Mr. Rock would respond. And then, just over a week before the 2023 Oscars, at a taping for his Netflix special in Baltimore — which happens to be Jada Pinkett Smith’s hometown (a particularly petty choice) — Mr. Rock entered the fray.
His rejoinder was set up as a climactic moment at the end of a live Netflix performance of Mr. Rock’s new show “Selective Outrage.” But when he was supposed to deliver one of his fiercest blows, Mr. Rock was apparently still so rattled by the slap incident, he flubbed the joke I imagine he spent a year crafting and perfecting. In a moment, all our anticipatory energy dissipated. Mr. Rock tried to recover, and retold the joke correctly before proudly declaring that the reason he didn’t hit Mr. Smith back was because, “I got parents, and you know what my parents taught me? Don’t fight in front of white people.” And then, he dropped his mic.
In the awkward void of his mistake, I was struck by just how terrible the last joke was: silly and unartful, not at all profound. By the way he strutted offstage, Mr. Rock gave the impression that he nailed the punchline. I almost felt sorry for him. Almost.
The mic drop might have been a triumphant ending if the comedy that preceded it wasn’t so uneven, and often stale, certainly unfunny. There were not nearly enough of the kind of jokes — prescient, hilarious, sometimes uncomfortable but relatable sociocultural observations — that were once Mr. Rock’s hallmark. He had a good bit about the Kardashians and poked fun at Lululemon’s $100 yoga pants juxtaposed against the company’s woke marketing. But while those jokes were amusing, it was a bit bewildering that this is what he was spending his time on.
It’s quite unfortunate, really. Mr. Rock has previously had a fair amount to say about wokeness, like many successful comedians of his generation. He and his peers have achieved immense success, but still don’t know how to cope with the cultural shifts that naturally occur over a long career. Instead they want to keep the conditions that gave rise to their success forever preserved 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 that stasis, they direct their frustrations at woke culture and lament the freedoms they once had without realizing they still have freedoms they think they’ve lost. They just aren’t making comedy in a vacuum. The audience isn’t always going to laugh. And the audience will, sometimes, hold them accountable for what they say.
The best part of the show was a brilliant riff about the Jan. 6 participants crawling all over 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, out of touch jokes about trans people — not the worst we’ve heard, but still, just strange and ill-considered given the alarming rise in gender fascism that imperils the trans community. As he often does, Mr. Rock discussed the tribulations of dating women on a transactional basis (having to buy shoes or pay for car repairs) as if it never occurs to him to date women from his socioeconomic milieu.
He had a lot of energy for Meghan Markle, claiming that many of her experiences with the royal family were not racism but just standard in-law troubles. He called Ms. Pinkett Smith “bitch” (and had something similar to say about Will Smith). He made a halfhearted joke about infidelity even though the Smiths have said they are in an open relationship. While Mr. Rock wouldn’t fight with a Black man in front of white people, he was perfectly willing to take jabs at Black women in front of that same audience.
It is … interesting that Mr. Rock ends by implying that Mr. Smith wasn’t raised well, conjuring (in front of white people) the trope of the fractured Black household, after deriding (in front of white people) at least two Black women and using the best weapon at his disposal to respond (in front of white people) to Mr. Smith.
It reminded me of a clip that has been making the social media rounds for years: Louis C.K., Ricky Gervais, Mr. Rock and Jerry Seinfeld are discussing comedy, and the N-word comes up. Mr. C.K. and Mr. Gervais gleefully use the N-word with impunity as Mr. Seinfeld, visibly uncomfortable, tries to steer the conversation toward something less ridiculously offensive. And in the middle of all this is Mr. Rock, grinning, unflinching — in front of white people.
Given how long it took for Mr. Rock to formally respond to The Slap, I’m not sure there was anything he could have done to rise to the occasion, given his apparent inability to evolve as a comic. Mr. Rock was slapped in front of a massive global audience. No matter what consequences Mr. Smith faces and how lucrative making jokes about it may be for Mr. Rock, he still has to live with the humiliation and pain.
Instead of sitting with that vulnerability, turning it into brilliant humor, he resorted to puerile schoolyard taunts. It was such a wasted opportunity.
Instead of making me laugh, he made me feel so very sad. For him. Instead of standing up to Mr. Smith — a live, global Netflix broadcast being a great equalizer — Mr. Rock chose to stay very small.
Roxane Gay is an endowed professor of media, culture and feminist studies at Rutgers, the author of the forthcoming “Opinions” and a contributing Opinion writer. @RGay
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