Chris Rock Jokes About Will Smith's Slap In His New Special, But It's Not Very Funny

9 months ago 6

It makes sense that Chris Rock is still thinking about the Slap. Getting smacked by Will Smith on live TV while presenting at the Oscars is a more outrageous situation than most people will ever have to face in their lives. It was weird! Rock has a right to be confused and upset.

But it makes no sense to extrapolate a larger argument about so-called cancel culture out of this extremely specific situation. Unfortunately, that’s what Rock did in his latest special, Selective Outrage, which premiered live on Netflix on Saturday. In it, Rock jokes that Smith epitomizes the “wokeness” disease currently afflicting America, wherein everyone practices “selective outrage,” taking aim at whomever it is fashionable to dislike while ignoring inconvenient truths about other people. Rock likens Smith to hypocritical music fans. Even though Michael Jackson and R. Kelly committed the “same crime,” people have only “canceled” Kelly. Even though “everybody called [Smith] a bitch,” Smith only slapped Rock. 

It’s a weak argument all the way through. Other writers have already pointed out that the first example requires its own selective ignorance; Kelly retains plenty of outspoken fans. But even if Kelly were a good example of an unfairly deplatformed artist, his situation translates poorly to Rock’s. Kelly sexually abused minors; Rock made a joke in poor taste about Smith’s wife. Kelly was sentenced to 30 years in prison, after which some fans stopped listening to his music; Smith slapped Rock, which most people agreed was unwarranted even before Smith himself apologized. The offenses and punishments at play are so different that it barely makes sense to put them in adjacent sentences. These situations only seem related if you strip them of context and present their skeletal remains as evidence of “cancel culture” — or, as Rock rebrands it, “selective outrage.” 

To be fair, he does try to differentiate his perspective from the usual right-wing talking points. He emphasizes the problem of selectivity more so than outrage; he tries to make his special cohere around the ridiculousness of hypocrisy, rather than the plight of censorship. Some of his better jokes hit that note precisely, as when he makes fun of Lululemon for saying it’s anti-hate — if they sell $100 yoga pants, Rock quips, “they hate the poor.” But it remains unconvincing that Rock’s real problem with Smith is his hypocrisy. Rock’s problem with Smith is that he slapped him on live TV. 

And that’s fine! It’s fine to be upset about that, and it’s even fine to milk that moment for all it’s worth and then some until you get an hourlong special and a fancy Netflix deal. But it’s annoying to pretend that this schoolyard spat says something about society’s ills. Smith acted in a way that was unpredictable and entitled, but he did so at a closed event for the Hollywood elite, which Rock was presenting at because he is a member of that aristocracy. This is not the behavior of a prototypical brainwashed leftist, on a continuum with “typing out woke-ass tweets on a phone made by child slaves.” It’s the behavior of one guy, one time, under a highly unique set of circumstances. 

Rock’s attempt to make the Slap into a cultural referendum betrays his class anxiety, common among aging comedians who insist they aren’t out of touch. In some jokes, Rock makes his cognitive dissonance explicit, like when he tells the audience, “I’m rich, but I identify as poor.” In others, it seeps into his parenting. Though he brags that his kids are “fucking spoiled” and “go to the best schools on earth,” he also laments that they don’t understand what it’s like to be “normal people.” When his daughter Lola gets in trouble on a school trip and doesn’t even care, he admits, “I kind of snapped.” He begs the dean of Lola’s “crazy rich white school” to kick her out so that she’ll have to write about it on her college application. By the end of the joke, Rock triumphs; he manufactured adversity for his privileged daughter, and “it worked,” he says. “The whole thing humbled Lola.” But underneath this ridiculous setup is the sincere belief that rich kids know nothing if they don’t know suffering.

Therein lies Rock’s artistic quandary. He made a name for himself “as a voice of the Black middle class,” and he was at his sharpest and most celebrated when he spoke frankly about the imperfect, divided world he came up in. Now he’s been rich and famous for decades. The insularity of his wealth has cost him legitimacy as a participant in and observer of the culture. Because he’s a smart guy, Rock knows he’s too rich to be relatable, so he waters down the specifics of his actual life until they resemble something normal people can rally behind. He presents “getting slapped at the Oscars by Will Smith” as “falling victim to selective outrage” because the latter seems class-neutral. It’s a savvy tactic, but it’s also dishonest. 

Rock’s personal grievance with Smith is legitimate, but by trying to mash it into the shape of a cultural cautionary tale, he does himself and his comedy a disservice. It might be true that Smith’s outburst is indicative of a culture in which some celebrities increasingly believe they ought to be immune from critique. It might also be true that Smith’s outburst was the result of a pent-up, yearslong Oscars feud between these two. But blaming Smith’s behavior on the culture writ large is unspecific and unconvincing; more than anything, it feels like a cynical way for Rock to cash in on the one-year anniversary of his virality. ●

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