Chris Rock and Marlon Wayans in their comedy specials with an image of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock behind them.

We’ve reached the pinnacle of The Slap discourse with Marlon Wayans and Chris Rock releasing dueling comedy specials about it.

The first weekend in March was a weekend unlike any other. Not because of some astronomical marvel or Everything Everywhere All At Once winning yet another record-breaking award. It was because there were two separate comedy specials about the infamous slap carried out by Will Smith against Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars.

The first and splashiest was Rock’s Selective Outrage, a special that heralded the age of live Netflix events. The live-streamed comedy special took place on Saturday, March 4, and was bookended by a pre-show hosted by Ronny Chieng and an after-show hosted by Dana Carvey and David Spade. The actual special was heavily watched because everyone wanted to know what Rock had to say a year after The Slap had become part of the fabric of America’s pop culture. Unfortunately, the Smith commentary only took up the last 10 minutes of his set, while the rest was filled with jokes I swear I’ve heard before 100 times over in other comedy specials spanning the ’90s to ’00s.

The biggest crime of Rock’s special was that it was all so old. Jokes about Black Chyna and the Kardashians, OJ Simpson, and older women wanting their boyfriends to help them with a mechanic are all things we’ve heard before. But even with that being the case, it would have helped if he had told the jokes with some type of panache or humorous delivery. But his way of delivering jokes made them seem even older, even if he was talking about current topics, like Meghan Markle, Caitlyn Jenner’s transition (which is still kinda old news) and Jan. 6.

Chris Rock in a white shirt with a Prince symbol necklace before his special, Selective Outrage (Photo credit: Netflix)
Chris Rock before his special, Selective Outrage (Photo credit: Netflix)

Whether he was talking about past stuff or current stuff, Rock’s jokes were from the point of view of an old man, stuck in his ways, who makes commentary like Andy Rooney from 60 Minutes (speaking of old references). According to Rock, Markle’s poor mental health while in the Royal Family was somehow her fault because she should’ve known about their racist history. Trans women are cool because if a guy watches a football game with them, they know all the plays. Robert Kardashian is somehow blacker than Black people because he freed OJ Simpson.

The jokes were less “jokes” and more non-sequiturs that immediately date Rock as a comedian who, like a lot of comedians of a certain age, have watched pop culture get more sophisticated as they get left behind in the opinions from their heyday. Rock’s joke about trans people might have seemed edgy and radically inclusive in the ’90s or even early ’00s, but when you break it apart and remember that knowing football plays isn’t intrinsic to people born male, then the joke just becomes silly in a narrow-minded, cisgender-privileged way.

Some viewers online felt that Rock’s comedy, particularly jokes about Markle, Serena Williams, and of course Jada Pinkett Smith, were punch-downs on Black women. Indeed, much of the commentary about Rock in the past few months has switched to a contingent of Black women (and men) declaring Rock a misogynist for how he routinely bashes Pinkett Smith and Black women in general. I don’t know if I’d call him a raging misogynist, but I do give him a side-eye for how he used to let Louis C.K. say the N-word and not fight him over it. It’s a sad day when Jerry Seinfeld is the one telling a Black man that allowing a white guy to say the N-word isn’t cool.

But overall, as I watched the live comments roll in on Twitter during Rock’s special, more and more viewers were tweeting how they didn’t find the set funny at all. They complained about it seeming tired, bloated, and not hard-hitting enough. And when it did hit hard–during The Slap jokes–Rock’s commentary also left them with something to be desired. Some felt that Rock was showing how his focus was (and perhaps always has been) on white acceptance and respectability politics, since part of his jokes about Smith was that Smith punched him in front of white people, and that Smith and his wife discussed her “entanglements” in front of a public Facebook audience of viewers that included white viewers.

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While I have my own opinions about Rock and how he’s handled The Slap commentary in the months after the incident, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say that perhaps he didn’t articulate his point about doing things in public the way he meant. A similar point was made in Marlon Wayans’ HBO Max special, God Loves Me, in which he said that it was a travesty for Smith to punch Rock on the night when the Oscars was produced by a Black producer (Reginald Hudlin), hosted in part by a Black comedian (Wanda Sykes) and featured several Black actors and creatives winning Academy Awards. Wayans’ point still rested on the idea of white people seeing Black people acting human and misinterpreting it as stereotypical behavior, but it at least gives Wayans’ joke (and Rock’s for that matter) more context as to why Smith’s behavior was harmful, because if we’re being honest, a lot of Hollywood still unfairly exists within the power of whiteness.

Wayans’ special, which dropped Sunday, the day after Rock’s, was also about The Slap, but he made it the central focus instead of just a period at the end of a sentence. After I saw Selective Outrage, I wrote how even though I thought I was tired of hearing about The Slap, I wished Rock had just made it his entire special. Wayans actually did that, and for me, it ended up being the most successful out of the two specials.

Marlon Wayans wearing black in his special, God Loves Me. (Photo credit: HBO)
Marlon Wayans in his special, God Loves Me. (Photo credit: HBO)

Wayans provided much more personal context than Rock, even though Rock was the one who got slapped on stage. Wayans’ storytelling ability also eclipsed Rock’s, with Wayans taking the audience on a journey through his early days in Hollywood and how Rock bullied him in the vein of an “evil stepbrother,” according to Wayans. Wayans even included how he knew and crushed on Pinkett Smith before she became involved with Smith, and afterwards, he wondered if Pinkett Smith was the one that got away. But, as he framed it, he was able to get divine revenge on all of them in the guise of Smith’s slapping Rock.

To be fair, some of Wayans’ jokes could also be seen as punching down on Black women, by saying that his sisters would staple and then pull out hair from Pinkett-Smith’s head if she or Smith ever messed with their brother (and subsequently miming the throw-down by slinging his microphone on the ground). Adding that those older sisters were being kept in cages for juts such an occasion doesn’t help matters for some viewers. [To be fair to Wayans, he said in his March 2 interview with The Hollywood Reporter that he did his special in Atlanta specifically for Black women to give him the chance to tell him he was going too far, and, as he said, they gave him “a standing ovation.”] There were also some tired stereotypes, such as Black families not having two parents, were also trotted out. Let’s not forget the entire special was about stuff that happened in the ’80s and ’90s.

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But, where Wayans’ set differs from Rock’s is that Wayans’ met the audience where they were–they were eager to know about The Slap, and that’s it. And he was eager to talk about it. That dynamic created a bond similar to a friend gossiping to another friend, or your favorite co-worker telling you all about their wild night out. Or, even more intimately, your family member explaining the latest ridiculous situation that coincides with stuff they’ve endured in the past. Wayans was that friend we’ve been analyzing The Slap with for the entire year. That dynamic, complete with his lived experiences and unique framing, helped the set feel current and funny. Funnier than Rock’s, despite Rock being the one of the central players of the story.

With all of this said, I hope we’re coming to the end of The Slap discourse. As Wayans said in his set, both Rock and Smith were wrong. Smith was wrong for getting up and slapping the man, and Rock was wrong for telling a joke about something Pinkett-Smith can’t control.

As Wayans said in his Hollywood Reporter interview, “That’s a condition and that’s something that I won’t say I’m making fun of. Nobody knew she had it. Jada is a very stylistic person. She’s fashion-forward. I don’t think Chris saw the episode of Red Table Talk where she talked about that. So I think Chris is just kind of commenting off the top, and I think they were dealing with the condition of it, and Will was being protective. I just felt that would weigh down the special. That needs its own 10 minutes. And I think that’s a separate piece. And that takes investigation. It’s not what I knew, and I don’t want to be insensitive to anybody that’s going through that.”

Smith was dead wrong to slap Rock, but while Smith used physical aggression, Rock used his weapon of choice, his mouth, first. It might be entirely true that Rock didn’t know about Pinkett-Smith’s alopecia, but even still, there was nothing in Rock’s Oscar set that warranted him to unleash an improvised joke on Pinkett-Smith, and since it came out of nowhere, it was clearly a joke that should have stayed in the tank. Overall, the joke said more about Rock than it did Pinkett-Smith, no matter how many entanglements she’s had.

With these two specials now under our belt, hopefully we can finally move past this as a nation, or at the very least, dissect the real villain of the story, white feelings. The Slap showed in real time how a Black person’s cache can immediately crash in white America once you stop playing the part of the “lovable” and “acceptable” Black person. On Rock’s side, it showed how some Black people in Hollywood eat up white validity and acceptance to an annoying degree–between the pre- and after-shows, I’ve never seen more white people gassing up a Black man in my life, and all because he fit a well-worn narrative of a Black man living by a white person’s standards for acceptance. But if we aren’t ready to have that conversation about how white feelings still police our actions and our image of our own humanity, then at the very least, I hope we can remember that we have all had bad days. Let us be thankful no one is making whole comedy specials about them.

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By Monique