Chris Rock is set to strike back on his own terms and on his own turf: a comedy special that will air live on Netflix a week before the Oscars.
Since Will Smith beat him to the Oscars last year in front of their Hollywood peers and an estimated 15 million viewers on US television, Mr Rock has avoided the forums where celebrities typically go to vent. No prime time interview with Oprah. No magazine covers. No secrets on Instagram. In short, no current deals.
The only platform Mr. Rock has gone to is the stage he controls. The comedian has spent the last year touring arenas and theaters almost nonstop, where he gradually launched a series of jokes about being mugged by Mr Smith. Mr. Rock is set to finally go the distance with his take on the slap in the Netflix special scheduled for March 4. Raising the stakes is the first live show — starting at 10 p.m. Eastern Time — the streamer has ever offered to its 231 million subscribers worldwide. That makes Mr. Rock a test pilot for new tech on the service and a push into event programming by the company that trained us to binge on content on our own schedule.
“Watching live on Netflix is a real shift in the construction we have with our members,” said Robbie Praw, vice president of stand-up and comedy formats at Netflix. The streamer tapped a performer “on the Mount Rushmore of comedy” to create a mass moment that will elicit reactions from viewers in real time, he said.
The incident that rocked the Oscars last year is also likely to be the subject of jokes at the Oscars on March 12, judging by a recent “Top Gun: Maverick”-style promo that spoofed ABC’s search for an “infallible and infallible”. “host. (Jimmy Kimmel has the job for the third time.)
Alongside that TV show, Mr. Rock’s special might come full circle on a truly bizarre episode of pop culture, which has turned into an ongoing case study of how celebrity inappropriate behavior is dealt with. in public.
Mr Smith, who was banned from Oscar events for 10 years, apologized to Mr Rock and others on his social media accounts and demanded atonement during promotional appearances at the end of last year for his film “Emancipation”.
Mr. Rock, saving his ammunition for Netflix, has put together a rare thing: a stand-up special with a timely hook. How he lands could determine whether he can reframe the incident that, in an instant, overhauled the story of his four-decade career.
The preparation for the special may also have served another purpose for Mr. Rock himself, said his colleague George Wallace. “You’ll never forget someone slapped you. But laughter heals the soul, and that’s what it gets up there…and in the long run, it gets paid for it too,” he said. said Mr. Wallace, who went a little bit on how the slap turned him against all the Smiths (Granny Smiths, Locksmiths, Smiths, Smith Brothers Cough Drops and so on).
Netflix will capture the set of Mr. Rock at the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore. The title of the live special, “Selective Outrage”, is a phrase he has riffed on in relation to Mr Smith during recent performances. These shows included material on the men’s height disparity, his reasons for not hitting back in the moment, and what he thinks really triggered the slap.
It’s unclear how much of this material Mr. Rock will include in the hour-plus special. On two of his recent shows (a Journal reporter was in the audience for both), this volley of jokes was only about five minutes into the sets, but drew the biggest laughs and cheers from both audiences. Mr. Rock linked this material to close (the term “victim”) and distant (the dating habits of women of different ages) topics.
Whatever observations he chooses to share in the live stream, don’t bet on them to include introspective gleanings from a therapist’s office.
“Chris is a very sharp commentator. That’s why pundits will refer and quote things he said. But it’s not the same as him talking about his deepest dark feelings. He doesn’t is not like that,” said Noam Dworman, owner of the New York-based Comedy Cellar, a home ground for Mr. Rock where he worked on material (including during walk-ins during the last year).
The slap and resulting tsunami of notoriety came just as Mr. Rock was beginning one of his busiest tours ever. Prior to the Oscars, he had already announced an eight-month series of performances, called the Ego Death Tour, and a handful of co-headlining shows with Kevin Hart. A series of joint performances with Dave Chappelle would follow in December and January.
In logistical terms, the Oscars incident did not disrupt the schedule Mr. Rock had already mapped out, according to those involved in his planning. Since last March, he has given more than 100 shows, including dates in England, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. His one-man shows have brought in around $700,000 a night in ticket sales on average, according to data submitted to trade publication Pollstar. The last time he spent this much time on the road was in 2017, ahead of his first Netflix special, “Tamborine.”
Last year, Mr. Rock was slow to offer his own take on the subject everyone was talking about. Three nights after the Oscars during a show at the Wilbur Theater in Boston, he told a rowdy crowd that he was sticking to the routine he had planned, adding: “I’m still processing this that happened.”
He got into it more in May when his friend was assaulted during a stand-up set. At the Hollywood Bowl, Mr. Chappelle was tackled by a man armed with a knife. In the aftermath, Mr. Rock appeared on stage and jokingly asked if the attacker was Mr. Smith. A few nights later, he and Mr Chappelle jokingly compared their experiences in front of an audience at an LA comedy club, according to a report of the surprise appearance.
“At least you got hit by someone big name,” Mr. Chappelle said.
“I got slapped by the sweetest n- who ever rapped,” Mr. Rock replied.
Netflix and Mr. Rock have committed to doing the special live together in early September, according to people familiar with the situation. The show represents the second of two comedy specials Mr. Rock signed on for Netflix when he signed with the streamer in 2016. The $40 million deal was Netflix’s first deal with a top comedian. plan as the company moved into stand-up programming, a business previously dominated by HBO and other networks.
Netflix’s live-action special follows the streamer’s first in-person comedy fest last spring. The 11-day Netflix Is a Joke event in Los Angeles featured 336 comedians at 35 locations, including Gabriel Iglesias at Dodger Stadium.
Typical stand-up specials are produced using footage gathered over multiple performances and edited to feature the best joke deliveries and audience reactions. Mr. Rock’s live special will be more like seeing the comic perform on any given night on tour, where his set varies from show to show. He will perform in front of 13 cameras overseen by director Joel Gallen, a veteran of TV concerts, comedy specials and roasts who also directed Mr. Rock’s 2004 HBO special, “Never Scared.”
Netflix is also planning pre and post show programs. Starting half an hour before Mr. Rock’s set, there will be a comic book lineup at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, hosted by Ronny Chieng. A wrap-up show hosted by David Spade and Dana Carvey (with guests including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) will follow Mr. Rock’s set. Although his special will be available on Netflix after the live event ends, the pre and post show programs will not.
As for the decision to do “Selective Outrage” just before the Oscars, Netflix’s Mr. Praw says the timing amounts to coincidence.
“It was really a factor of when Chris felt ready and when the technology was ready,” he said. “I know you’re looking for a funnier answer than that, but that’s really what this is about.”
Write to John Jurgensen at John.Jurgensen@wsj.com
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