A commanding theater performer who sets up bits as well as anyone, Rock picked up momentum midway through, while always hinting at the Smith material to come, with a reoccurring refrain of poking fun at Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z before making clear it’s just for fun: “Last thing I need is another mad rapper.” Another running theme is his contempt for victimhood. His jokes about Meghan Markle are very funny, mocking her surprise that the royal family is racist, terming them its originators, the “Sugarhill Gang of racism.”
On tour, his few jokes about Smith were once tied to his points about victimhood. But here, he follows one of his most polished and funny jokes, comparing the dating prospects of Jay-Z and Beyoncé if they weren’t stars but worked at Burger King, with a long, sustained section on the Oscars that closes the show. Here, he offers his theory on Will Smith, which is essentially that the slap was an act of displacement, shifting his anger from his wife cheating on him and broadcasting it onto Rock. The comic says his joke was never really the issue. “She hurt him way more than he hurt me,” Rock said, using his considerable powers of description to describe the humiliation of Smith in a manner that seemed designed to do it again.
There’s a comic nastiness to Rock’s insults, some of which is studied, but other times appeared to be the product of his own bottled-up anger. In this special, Rock seemed more raw than usual, sloppier, cursing more often and less precisely. This was a side of him you hadn’t seen before. The way his fury became directed at Pinkett Smith makes you wonder if this was also a kind of displacement. Going back into the weeds of Oscar history, Rock traced his conflict with her and Smith to when he said she wanted Rock to quit as Oscar host in 2016 because Smith was not nominated for the movie “Concussion” (the title that he mangled).
That her boycotting that year’s Oscars was part of a larger protest against the Academy for not nominating Black artists went unsaid, implying it was merely a pretext. Rock often establishes his arguments with the deftness and nuance of a skilled trial lawyer, but he’s not trying to give a fair, fleshed out version of events. He’s out for blood. There’s a coldness here that is bracing. Describing his jokes about Smith’s wife at the ceremony in 2016, he put it bluntly: “She started it. I finished it.” But, of course, as would become obvious years later, he didn’t.
Did he finish it in this special? We’ll see, but I think we’re in for another cycle of discourse as we head into the Academy Awards next week.
At one point, Rock said there are four ways people can get attention in our culture: “Showing your ass,” being infamous, being excellent or playing the victim. It’s a good list, but this special demonstrates a conspicuous omission: Nothing draws a crowd like a fight.