“So how was your weekend?” Chris Rock asked the sold out crowd at Boston’s Wilbur Theater Wednesday night, his first public appearance since Sunday’s calamitous Academy Awards ceremony. Earlier in the day, 3,000 miles away, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ board of governors held an emergency meeting to initiate disciplinary measures against Will Smith — who, as most of the world knows by now, stormed the stage and slapped Rock in the face on live television after taking exception to a lame G.I. Jane joke aimed at his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Only 16 million Americans tuned in to see the slap during the second-lowest rated telecast in Oscars history, but the viral moment has mutated into the most talked-about live TV debacle since the Janet Jackson Super Bowl halftime show.
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Rock, however, has remained uncharacteristically silent on the matter — which is why the comic’s three-night, six-show stand in Boston has been greeted by the media with the same fanfare usually reserved for visiting heads of state. Ticket prices for Wednesday’s performances skyrocketed into the thousands of dollars on secondary sales sites. A phalanx of paparazzi sat perched for hours outside of the Ritz Carlton, where Rock was staying. Reporters nearly outnumbered fans in the crowd assembled on Tremont Street in front of the Wilbur. The same 15-second clip of the comedian walking into the historic theater was rerun constantly on local evening news broadcasts, offering at least a slight change of pace for those tired of watching replays of the slap on every talk show for the past three days.
There is a moment just after the Oscars altercation — in footage that’s been obsessively analyzed, like a Zapruder film for our idiotic age — where it seemed as if Rock had a comeback teed up in response to Smith’s assault. Instead, viewers saw the comedian decide to let it go, collecting his composure and getting back to the business at hand. On Wednesday, fans packed the Wilbur, paying obscene amounts of money in the hopes of finally hearing the comedian’s take on the slap heard around the world. But Rock, once again, played the consummate professional.
“Nothing about Will Smith. You guys just wasted all your fuckin’ money,” an angry audience member exiting the 7:30 p.m. show barked.
Indeed, after warmly receiving a standing ovation, Rock — resplendent in an all-white suit and basketball sneakers — explained to the rowdy, audibly inebriated 10 p.m. crowd that he was “still processing” what happened at the Oscars. “I have a comedy show I wrote before all this shit,” he said, confessing that, as far as he’s concerned, the worst thing that happened to him over the weekend was finding out his daughter didn’t get into the University of Southern California. And that was that.
What followed instead was a riotous 75-minute set, constructed much like his most recent 2018 comedy special Tambourine — a barrage of bracing, topical humor in the first half, shifting into more personal, confessional reflections in the second. Given all that’s occurred in the world since Rock last toured, he’s got more than a few outrageous, heretical insights, still delivered in the same, staccato shouts, saving his conspiratorial, Cheshire grin for the most offensive of them all.
Ticket holders wait to enter the Wilbur Theatre for a performance by Chris Rock, Wednesday, March 30, 2022, in Boston.
“America’s done,” Rock repeated, punctuating his riffs with the phrase. “Closed for business.” He lamented that COVID-19 “wasn’t deadly enough” to unite this fraught and divided nation. In a moment of mock-nostalgia, he stated AIDS “took out a lot more A-Listers,” and was so scary he “wore a mask over his dick for 20 years.” It was screamingly inappropriate and quintessentially Rock — a moment to remind attending that, if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not paying attention. (A genuinely hair-raising series of jokes about abortion, however, stirred up some of the evening’s angriest hecklers.)
Most of Rock’s fury was focused on performative outrage and empty, politically correct gestures, spitting fire at corporations like Lululemon, which put up signs in their stores congratulating themselves for standing against racism while selling $100 yoga pants. Most folks, the comedian countered, would be fine with $20 yoga pants that said the n-word once in a while. A bit about his all-white neighborhood in suburban New Jersey becoming overrun with Black Lives Matter signs was interrupted with one of his more exquisite taunts: “I suppose this isn’t an issue in Boston.”
A couple of riffs didn’t land, as rants about Hillary Clinton and the Kardashians feel exhausted in 2022. Rock seemed to have the most fun kidding around with the audience, asking how many had used fake vaccine cards to get into the show, before wondering aloud if, in 1956, people insisted it was their God-given right as Americans to contract polio. Admitting that he’d ingested far too many drugs purchased in strip club bathrooms to ever question the efficacy of a vaccine, Rock bragged about using his celebrity status to cut the line and get his shots first. “I was like Billy Zane in Titanic,” he cackled. “Remember, Billy Zane lived!” (Cue that Cheshire grin.)
Rock later moved into a segment featuring a more exploratory, domestic kind of comedy, telling longer stories about life with his daughters and dating while rich single dad in his late 50s. Most moving was an admission that he loves his daughters, but can’t relate to them at all; their privileged upbringing means he’s stuck with the kind of spoiled kids he hated growing up. The pacing of these stories lost some of the late-night audience after a rapid-fire first half — but Rock was never the kind of comic who allowed us into his home life. It’s fascinating to see him trying a new approach at this stage of his career.
There’s a restlessness and an appealing insecurity to how Rock has tackled this personal material — as evidenced by his recent re-cutting of his 2018 special into 2021’s Total Blackout: The Tambourine Extended Cut, which completely eliminated the contributions of original director Bo Burnham to add 40 minutes of messier footage. A lot of Rock’s jokes are about feeling older in a world that’s passing him by — but to watch the comedian on stage is to see an artist challenging himself to find new ways of staying current and connected to his craft. Rock might be ruminating what happened on the Oscars stage, as he said at the start of Wednesday’s set — but it seems there’s much more that he’s “still processing” as he enters the next stage of his career, too.
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