Critic’s Notebook: Chris Rock Kicks Off Comedy Tour With Uncharacteristic Vulnerability
He looked like an angel.
When Chris Rock walked out onto the bare-bones black box stage at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre tonight, kicking off his first tour in five years, he appeared as a beacon of light, dressed head to toe in white. White sneakers, white pants, white button-down shirt. The fabrics looked like linen — breathable, calming, beatific.
It’s not surprising that Rock might have leaned into the imagery of purity and innocence for his first public appearance since Will Smith smacked him across the face at the Academy Awards on Sunday for cracking a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s appearance. As the Academy considers sanctions against Smith for the assault and the court of public opinion both rails against and rallies behind Smith’s actions, the normally mordant, outspoken Rock has remained uncharacteristically silent about the matter and has refused to press charges.
The Wilbur crowd was buzzing even before Rock entered the proscenium a little after 8 p.m. The show was sold out, and not one seat in my section was empty. People were pumped. A woman sitting next to me admitted she spent $2,200 for her two seats. Apparently, someone on her Twitter feed offered to pay her double what she’d shelled out for her tickets. She joked that she bought them on an impulse because she thought the show would make for good social media content; her live-tweeting dreams were dashed when she realized the theater would be locking down our phones for the duration of the show. (A security guard attempted to intimidate me when he noticed a notebook in my bag, threatening to kick me out if I was seen writing in it.) When I asked my seatmate if her purchase was motivated by the now-infamous Oscar slap, she shot back, “One hundred percent.”
As soon as Rock stepped out, a thousand people scrambled to their feet, whooping, clapping and hollering. The standing ovation lasted a little more than two minutes. Rock could barely get a word in edgewise, but he seemed touched. “You got me all misty and shit.” I’ve never heard so many loving hecklers. The crowd remained happily agitated all night and much more vocal and responsive than any comedy show audience I’ve ever witnessed in person. (In fact, halfway through his one-hour act, Rock had to stop the set completely for a few moments because of a disturbance among the patrons involving security. “Is this how the tour is going to be?” he asked with a laugh, clearly a little unsettled.)
Once the din of the salutatory standing ovation softened, Rock sheepishly addressed why many in the room spent the equivalent of a month’s rent on this single performance. “How was your weekend?” he opened with a shit-eating grin. Folks lapped it up. “I don’t have a bunch of shit about what happened, so if you came to hear that, I have a whole show I wrote before this weekend, and I’m still kind of processing what happened,” Rock shared with surprising vulnerability. “So, at some point I’ll talk about that shit. And it’ll be serious, and it’ll be funny.”
It felt like a promise. Still, I’m sure many in the room were disappointed, no doubt hoping for the kind of foul-mouthed, real-talk diatribe Rock has built his nearly 40-year career on. They wanted the hot tea, but perhaps they would settle for something a bit on the tepid side. For an artist who has crafted an entire comic persona around curmudgeonly ire, his new material, at times, makes him instead seem downright endearing.
There’s nothing particularly innovative about Rock’s new show, but then you don’t necessarily need to break ground to be funny. Rock’s strengths are not in his ideas, which we’ve generally heard before in the ether, but in his taut punchlines and legendarily screeching, preacher-like delivery. The words “motherfuckin’ ” and “goddammit!” are rarely transported to my ears with such delightful vim. He touches on the usual — politics, pop culture, privilege — bouncing from topic to topic before he really gets going with any one theme. There’s no spectacular crescendo that elegantly knits together all his loose threads; the more ideas Rock introduces, the more his amusing peeves and judgments entangle in a frayed knot.
Every time Rock made a grand, cutting statement about the dark truths of American society, he would undercut himself by zipping along to the next subject instead of really digging deeply into his own opinion. He blasts through comments on COVID; phony corporate anti-racism efforts; nature vs. nurture; his disgust with the Jan. 6 riots; impregnating Billie Eilish; the problem with Republicans and Democrats; not being able to relate to his rich offspring; Meghan Markle’s alleged hypocrisy; the meteoric rise of Lil Nas X; Elon Musk’s semen volume; and the overly welcoming nature of the Kardashian family (“They love Black people more than Black people — their daddy freed O.J.!” Some of it, but certainly not all of it, felt like low-hanging fruit. The audience was howling.
With piercing thesis statements like “The problem with COVID is that it didn’t kill enough A-listers” and “The Ukraine is better off than us,” I felt myself gearing up for majestic invectives that would redefine my own miserable little loser opinions, but Rock would then just meander to the next thought only tangentially related to the previous one. (And after he had to momentarily pause the show because of audience misbehavior, he seemed to lose some of his initial flow.) I imagine this zigzagging is a natural consequence of this being his very first show on tour; no doubt his rhythms will tighten in time.
Ultimately, this is a humbled Rock staring down late middle age. As he reflects, he’s 57, single and so fundamentally lonely he sometimes wants to massacre all the happy couples going to brunch together. During one bit, he pulls out his reading glasses to narrate a series of NC-17 text messages on his phone. He tells the woman in question (and the audience) that he’s an older and wiser version of himself now. He’s learned his lessons from philandering. But he’s also learned the hard way that love between romantic partners is temporary compared to the love a parent has for their child. “Your kids — it’s like the only real love you have.”
Over the past few days, the media has been abuzz with frank discussions of misogynoir, violence, violence in the context of race, and all other sociological nuances that The Slap has stirred up. The themes of Rock’s show, though clearly unintentionally tied to the Oscars controversy, are pertinent to these larger cultural conversations, with Rock positing on everything from “fake empathy” and “fake outrage” to gender politics and the battle of the sexes. (He jokes that it’s better to date younger women because all they want are Louboutins; older women want things like new roofs. “I have to get estimates for this pussy?!”) Have we heard much of these gender-based observations before? Yeah. Did I laugh? Yeah! Although it was a bit of a stretch when Rock declared, “I think patriarchy is a system to oppress men,” citing his ex-wife, who’s now got “as much money as me and she ain’t never told a joke.”
Honestly, it’s hard not to imagine Pinkett Smith’s face when Rock makes claims like “Women are the greatest gift God ever created” and “Everyone’s so fucking offended.” During Will Smith’s best-actor acceptance speech Sunday evening, as he attempted to indirectly address slapping Rock onstage earlier, Smith kept calling himself a defender and protector of his family. Rock adds another layer to this statement when he shares that if his teenage daughter Zahra ever revealed to him that a man had sexually harassed her, Rock would “get my gun and shoot him in the head.” However, he might question this move if his daughter Lola did the same. “You can’t go killing people over some shit Lola told ya,” he counters. Paternalistic protection isn’t so simple in Rock’s world, for better or for worse.
I look forward to when this show is eventually perfected, filmed and streamed as a comedy special. Much like the shocking slap that may well forever mire Will Smith’s reputation, it will make for good television.