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As a Live TV Experiment, Chris Rock: Selective Outrage Bombed Big Time

Selective Outrage may as well have been a pre-taped hour of stand-up.
  • Chris Rock in his live Netflix special Chris Rock: Selective Outrage (Photo: Kirill Bichutsky/Netflix © 2023)
    Chris Rock in his live Netflix special Chris Rock: Selective Outrage (Photo: Kirill Bichutsky/Netflix © 2023)

    Part of what makes live TV exciting is the feeling that anything can happen. In live sports, you don’t know the outcome of the game until the final play is made in front of your very eyes. On the news, a breaking story can come in at any second or a man’s family might barge in on an interview. During award shows, you never know what the winner might say in a speech — or what someone in the audience might do.

    But Netflix’s experiment in live TV seemed to forget all that. With Chris Rock: Selective Outrage, the streamer created a whole lot of hype around an evening that might as well have been pre-taped. Its commitment to comedy has always been admirable, and in recent years Netflix has become the go-to brand for stand-up comedy specials, releasing 64 in 2022 alone. The streamer's even dabbled in live in-person comedy events with its Netflix Is a Joke Fest, which debuted in 2022 and will return in 2024. Selective Outrage is an extension of that identity. "Our goal is to deliver the best stand-up comedy to our members and this live streaming event further reinforces all the ways we continue to invest in the genre,” said Robbie Praw, Netflix’s Vice President of Stand-up and Comedy Formats, in a press release.

    More than that, Chris Rock: Selective Outrage was a way for Netflix to stand out in an ever-growing field of streaming services. Broadcast and cable networks still draw in millions of viewers during singular live events like award shows, as well as live sports and news programming. Amazon and Apple TV+ have gotten in on the action with agreements to stream NFL and Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer games, respectively. But stand-up comedy isn't really live in the same way that awards shows and football games are. By the time a comic is ready to present their hour-long stand-up special, it’s with a set that's been rehearsed over and over and over again, not something that’s a surprise or reacting to a specific moment. Even any riffing or interacting with the audience is planned to a certain extent — and sometimes moments that break from the script, as in Rock’s March 4 special, are a sign that something’s gone wrong.

    On the night of the live Selective Outrage event itself, which included a pre- and post-show to really emphasize just how live this whole thing was, the experience was pretty seamless for at-home users. There was no big app crash as everyone logged in and waited for things to kick off. The pre-show kicked off at 9:30 PM ET on the dot, Rock’s special started at exactly 10:00 PM ET, and when the comedian walked off the stage, a post-show started streaming directly after. Similarly to a DVR recording, viewers could pause, rewind, then go back to watching live. But the purpose of the evening was confused from the beginning.

    The pre-show, hosted by Ronny Chieng (who proved himself to be worthy of a talk show of his own), featured a long list of special guests — like Paul McCartney, Wanda Sykes, Matthew McConaughey, Rosie Perez, and Jerry Seinfeld with some obvious product placement for his upcoming Pop-Tarts movie Unfrosted — but the majority of them appeared in a montage of low-quality front-facing videos they recorded for Rock on their phones. The sequence, which felt more like a eulogy than an opening act to a stand-up show, added nothing to the live feel of the program.

    After Rock left the stage, hosts David Spade and Dana Carvey and commentators J.B. Smoove, Yvonne Orji, Arsenio Hall, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tried to emulate sports commentary programming, picking apart each of Rock’s jokes on stage. The post-show was easily the part of the evening that felt the most live, but also the most unnecessary. Chieng nailed it while roasting the entire concept in his pre-show opening monologue. “This is extremely expensive and difficult and irritating,” he said. “We could have pre-taped this whole thing and no one would have cared.”

    Chieng, who’s done a few Netflix specials himself, was responsible for some of the best moments of the entire evening. “We’re doing a comedy show on Saturday night … live,” he said, name-dropping one of Netflix’s inspirations for the special — and one of its competitors for viewers that night — with a straight face. It was also a reminder that sketch shows like Saturday Night Live have long harnessed the power of being live, which gives performers the ability to react to things quickly and nearly in real time. If the president says something ridiculous on a Saturday morning, it can become a punchline hours later. There’s a messiness to the performances that’s forgivable because it’s clear (and impressive) how quickly the whole thing comes together.

    The same rules don’t apply to major stand-up specials. Selective Outrage had been billed from the beginning as the special that would address the slap heard ’round the world, when Will Smith smacked Rock on stage at the 2022 Academy Awards. By the time Rock addressed it in the final moments of his special, it had been discussed to death by the media and other comedians, including Marlon Wayans who made “slapgate” the main focus of his own recent stand-up special, God Loves Me. This wasn’t a spontaneous, “let’s see where he goes with this one” joke that would have been exciting to hear during a set in a club a week or even a month after the fact. This was a joke that was carefully rehearsed and reworked and tweaked and edited over the course of nearly a year. Rock’s Ego Death World tour kicked off on March 30, 2022, just three days after the Oscars — it was then that he first talked about it on stage. And while the joke's execution was one of the only moments in the special that truly felt live, that was only because Rock botched the setup. It was proof that presenting stand-up live instead of in a more curated package that takes the best moments from multiple tapings can derail even a well-rehearsed set. Despite the surprising element, Rock’s stumble left the final moments of his special feeling anticlimactic.

    Maybe it was the pressure of knowing just how many people were watching in real time that got to Rock. His energy throughout the entire night was more live-wire than usual; highly excitable in a way that caused him to step over his own jokes. It was a stark contrast to his presence in his 2018 Netflix special Tamborine, when Rock was much more successful in channeling that over-the-top energy for emphasis in between moments of vulnerability and more subdued joke delivery. That might not have been as “exciting” as knowing the comedian was delivering the jokes in real time in front of you, but in the end, it was a better representation of Rock at his best.

    “It’s here and gone, just like live comedy should be,” Chieng said of Rock’s special during the pre-show, trying to highlight what’s magical about going to a club or a theater to see stand-up in person. But Selective Outrage isn’t actually “here and gone.” Subscribers who missed it “live” can still watch it on Netflix. — the streamer didn’t completely abandon its original model in this experiment.

    There are ways to make pre-taped specials feel live while still allowing comedians to deliver a polished performance. Joel Kim Booster’s Netflix special, Joel Kim Booster: Pyschosexual, involves a running bit in which Booster checks in on one specific member of the audience, involving those in the front row at various points throughout the special. Even though it was taped months before streaming, the bit felt organic and full of potential — any other crowd, even with the same material, would deliver a different result. Comedians who are selling out stadiums like Rock are less likely to trust the audience to do anything or try much to break from their tightly rehearsed hour. Booster’s style might better serve Netflix’s next big live experiment.

    Ultimately, this experiment gave Netflix the chance to experience what it’s like to be a stand-up comedian firsthand. In order to succeed even once, you have to bomb a lot along the way. There will be many more failed experiments in Netflix’s future — though the 2023 SAG Awards seem to have gone off without a hitch on its YouTube channel —before it gets its own version of live TV right.

    Chris Rock: Selective Outrage is now streaming on Netflix.

    Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R. 

    TOPICS: Netflix, Chris Rock: Selective Outrage, Chris Rock: Tamborine, Saturday Night Live, Chris Rock, Ronny Chieng