Before the world knew and loved Chappelle, and he perfected a brand of comedy that is sublime in its exact timbre of exploration of the darkest depths of Man/Men/America/Racism/Relationships/Identity questions, there was Chris Rock who operated for a while alone in this difficult space.
Chris Rock cut his teeth on SNL during one of their most golden periods with his peers and friends Chris Farley, David Spade and Adam Sandler. He came up in the wake of the Golden God, Eddie Murphy. He made his own films like the ambitious, silly, great (forgotten) CB4, had The Chris Rock show, did a lot of stand up, and appeared on the then thriving talk show circuit which included an unforgettable appearance during a serious cable show panel with extremely straight laced, button downed white politicos and “experts” where he cut through the shit with a Samurai sword.
Whatever the topic was, Rock made a comment about the wider problems of poverty and hunger in African countries that included a reference to American hunger and poverty which exists, but not with “flies on the lips, and shit.” Everyone was agog, Rock’s eyes were aglow with the glee and fire he always had in such settings, and at least two of us watching at home were laughing and would never forget this moment of subversion, of calling out the phonies, their white guilt, their Patriachy, the Colonialist background embedded in charity and interference in developing nations and in the media. Here was Chris Rock’s deceptively smiling, deceptively silly and then shocking one-two punch way of being absolutely great. It was instant love for some of us watching, we got him. We get him. We are white, and we got the joke (while a lot of others didn’t). Whatever side Chris Rock is on, we want to be on it.
Without a doubt, Chris Rock, gaining prominence a little ahead of Chappelle, must have influenced his fine, fine work in this necessary and exalted role of Brilliant, Smiling, Smarter than you think (or smarter than you) American Shit Disturber Extraordinaire. Chappelle has a bit about what a connoisseur of racism he is, that is, like everything he touches, gold. It enlightens and cuts through the confusing, hurtful issue like a hot knife. And, white folks, while you laugh, you better think about what you are laughing about, and where you see yourself in the joke.
U.S. History IS ugly and comedy’s job, like it or not, is to root out ugliness into the light. To challenge it. Even, maybe someday, in incremental steps, to kill it with righteousness. And Chris Rock was the perfect person to step into hosting the most prestigious, most tense, most entitled and most stuffy awards show in American entertainment. His monologue ought to be studied in school and discussed widely.
Long gone are the days of wry, gentlemanly Johnny Carson of our parents and grandparents’ TV Age. Once the perennial Oscars host, all the other experiments have failed, and for 30 years its been a rotating guest slot with always mixed results; always a substitute teacher who gets hazed and bullied if they are not strong. Most refuse to return or are future-fired. The giants in comedy, in TV and film are terrified of this job, some of the greats have spent an entire career declining it. It’s a risky, risky proposition. It’s a great gig and it’s a shit gig. We’ve seen the hot mess of (hash) oil and vinegar that was James Franco and Anne Hathaway co-hosting (or more likely, we’ve blotted it out). We’ve seen Letterman, who we thought could do anything and used to have zero fucks, bomb in the job without his desk and his ice cold studio (“Oprah, Uma, Uma, Oprah”). We’ve seen Neil Patrick Harris fly too close to the sun and steal a bit too much of the FILM STARS’ light with that Birdman bit.
In the year of #OSCARSSOWHITE, and before Jada Pinkett Smith started that protest, Chris Rock was announced as host. No doubt, as the tempest rose in recent months, Rock faced tons of pressure to quit, because, you know, there’s only one way to protest, and that’s by Twitter hashtags! Rock faced this whole issue (and his position within it) head on and fully during his monologue and beyond. If you were paying attention, his monologue was golden (even if some of the “joke” on the subject did wear on slightly through the night in less capable hands). He eviscerated, or if you prefer, he bodied, he slayed Pinkett Smith!
“Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited!”
So great was this joke, so on point, so funny, so expertly aimed, I, for one, forgot to clutch my pearls. (I’m old enough to long for some traditional decorum at The Oscars, while knowing it was all just a censorship fantasy in a room full of well heeled reprobates.)
And you’ve gotta love when the headlines the next day are not fit to print. Post-modernity.
And Chris Rock was off.
-Read Chris Rock’s full opening monologue here:-
As Dave Chappelle once did so well on two seasons of Chappelle’s Show more than a decade ago, Chris Rock here operated within the machine, funded by the enemy, right under the nose of the Establishment, and for a global audience, fearlessly and confidently, OWNED. Here, at last, Rock had the platform that no one man gets anymore in the social media noise; blowing the lid off the #OSCARSSOWHITE controversy (and its dubious merits as he sees it) performing at times directly to fellow comedians, to Black America, and to Black Twitter and not giving one shit if White Twitter (not to mention the totally oblivious older, less savvy, and especially racist whites off social media) gets the jokes, if they land, if they bomb, if he amuses only his friends. We got Louis CK. We got a bit with Tracy Morgan! We suffered Sarah Silverman. Comedians took over. As it should be. Chris Rock and his friends roasted The Oscars and the Establishment. And it was time. The show was a bore, but Chris Rock’s show was a great time. Look at which of the stars felt ok enough in their consciences to laugh, and applaud, and who sat their with a scowl. Look at who was cool and who wasn’t. It matters.
— Good Morning America (@GMA) February 29, 2016
Chris Rock is a successful black man in entertainment in America. One who has never been driven/labelled “crazy” by the industry, who’s managed not to get burned. And so, he’s been an expert double/triple agent, one fluent in several cultural languages, and a master of American comedy for over 20 years. Stand up, applaud, and take your hat off to this fine entertainer, who dances as well as Fred Astaire.
Hosting awards shows today means being up on the memes, jokes, preoccupations, pitfalls, and currency of our bizarre culture. It’s something mercurial, travelling through the vastness of the various Twitter and other social media worlds, through in-jokes big and small, through osmosis. Maybe hosts still read the papers as well to prepare. But after that monologue, they work on the fly, live, under impossible pressure, and they don’t perform in 5 minute bursts of adrenaline like a pro athlete, but rather, take on as much as they can handle. In Rock’s case, he stayed and steadied the ship for the whole evening. No one who took that stage dared to shade him, even if they were unhappy. Probably his presence and leadership made others feel less alone than they normally do in that sea of white (male) privilege.
Rock had time to tweet the following picture during a commercial break:
If Chappelle was back there in the wings, among other friends, helping Rock out with the jokes (as hosts do have a team of writers helping them on the fly) than I can think of nothing greater for culture at this time and place to happen to an awards show. I had felt Chappelle there in the monologue, and so was delighted to see him.
Comedians are a separate, very weird species that have the power to truly scare or teach the rest of us. As Chappelle explained so well in a stand up during his comeback a few years ago when discussing “Kramer” (Michael Richards of Seinfeld) bombing on stage using the N-word, Chappelle found out that he’s “only 20% black and like, 80% comedian” (a smaller part of him was angered, a much bigger part of him was delighted watching Kramer die on stage, a hell only comedians understand and that can happen to anyone (though rarely so spectacularly and on film). But note: we’ve never seen Chappelle bomb. He held his own before Oprah herself who clucked at his choice to walk away from a big paycheck. For his integrity that baffled her.
Chris Rock went for it at The Oscars. He was the perfect host for this year, a fact that will stand despite whatever happens in future years. He played to all of the world, to America and to Black America, but also played with them. He’s a black man, but he’s also a comedian. Interviewing patrons outside a Compton movie theater was an absurd (read: wonderful) waste of expensive TV time. In that segment, he made the (broad) point that perhaps, The Oscars as they exist currently aren’t for Black audiences, aren’t relevant to their lives, as none of the people interviewed had heard of any of the nominated films Rock asks about (including eventual Best Picture winner Spotlight). They think he’s playing. One expresses that her favourite movie of the year was By the Sea, the Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt film that died a quiet and quick death. Hollywood so white, give this man a late night (or daytime) talk show.
The Compton segment serves to call out Pinkett Smith as a Hollywood elite (who married well) out of touch with the street, with Hollywood problems (her husband failed to get a nomination this year). It pokes at the #OSCARSSOWHITE campaign as well, for the same reason. Yes, thinking people know that real, true diversity is a big, urgent issue in media representations of colour. But as Rock reminds us casually as the credits roll at the end of the show “Black Lives Matter”. This was a year of so many terrible acts of power abuses with law enforcement and senseless killings of American citizens who were black, some of whom were sitting in church, who deserve the same life and liberty as whites. And do not.
Black Lives Matter (an important movement that is constantly co-opted, disrespected and disrupted by ignorant calls of “All Lives Matter” or attempts to make it a meme about animals or commercialize it as a slogan) was the story of the year. By contrast, #OSCARSSOWHITE is a specific situation about one awards show at a point in time too late to change anything. It’s largely slactivism. It’s given so many unskilled, lazy reporters fuel to annoy people in interviews and caused pointless witch hunts as soundbites are taken out of context. It’s a mess.
Chris Rock made a few missteps: having Asian kids come out as the Price Waterhouse-Cooper Accountants and doubling down on a bad joke with a sweatshop reference, during which he was actually played off and cut from the broadcast briefly, was one. (The orchestra seemed to have been trained at the school of Whiplash and were on an annoying nevous hair-trigger all night). The Stacey Dash appearance seemed deliberately designed to bomb, as at least 90% of the audience had no idea who she is or why she was there. Rock’s comedy takes no prisoners. Being invited, Dash didn’t appear to know or care that she was simply a punchline (and a question mark). Here, Rock was calling out the ridiculousness of some aspects of debate today even within the culture. I bet more people of colour turned that broadcast on in that moment than were planning to watch. And Stacey Dash looked lovely. Who is she wearing?
And then there was the Girl Guide cookie campaign. There is a space now for silly subversion of the rules of stage and seated as Comedians have always known. Ellen’s famous group selfie was one. On the other hand, and I am not qualified to make assumptions about this, but do wonder, was Rock making a self-reflective cultural critique about appropriate codes of public behaviour, classism, parenthood, competition, and exploitation? Was he turning this multimillionaire prom into a cookout? Or maybe he just thought it was funny to confound everyone. But it felt like real, dangerous improv. It led to some great formality breaking moments: “Not you Lou Gossett Jr! You’ve got diabetes!” Come on now, give this man an Emmy.
The Academy scrambled to up the ratio of black artists present, and the host surrounded himself with some supportive friends. But instead of giving the milquetoast Chris Evans more air time, a man who will never get an Oscar, maybe a place should have been made for Michael B. Jordan, the young star of Creed (a.k.a. “Black Rocky”) who many thought should have gotten a nod and quite likely will earn a statue in years to come? Could not Idris Elba have been invited? He is not only finally globally beloved, endlessly charismatic, and gorgeous, but immensely gifted. Both he and Jordan came to greatness on screen out of the narrow roles of the black thug in one of the best TV shows ever, The Wire. Have paid dues. We could go further, much further: Sam Smith and Lady Gaga are both performing a kind of music that is not universally loved, and, like so many, borrows a lot from black music. There cannot only be only three good songs this year. These are glaring omissions, Oscar producers.
The feedback loop is constant, we are in a dialog with this event, no longer passive observers. We are all armchair psychiatrists, Monday morning quarterbacks, Fashion Police, and dreadfully, we are all Simon Cowell now.
We are all self-styled experts, and we trust almost no one anymore. Who won, who lost, who’s phony, who’s anorexic, who’s looking beat. Whose exes (how many) are in the room. Who’s deserving, who are we tired of. We need to be shaken off, shocked, shook, surprised. We are jaded, like Simon Cowell now.
Rock was always good for our culture(s) and he was a trailblazer in the fuzzy, can’t we all just get along optimistic early ’90s, where he succeeded yet never dropped his guard for a second. He knew then that racism lurks behind some of the laughter when you are operating before, being hired by, and performing for white audiences. Some people with no talent, no gift, lots of power, and no sense of humour may control an actor’s entire destiny and survival. He knew that comics live on the edge or not at all, and they always risk bombing out or being driven out with pitchforks. Driven “Crazy”. Labelled. Driven to drugs, to drink, to plastic surgery, to Kanye. And he grins gamely and never loses his inner cool, which in some ways has no chill. And we love him for it. We love our true comedians, we need ’em.
As the closing credits ran, Morgan Freeman took his girl guide cookie and bolted, like the immense, lovable, wonderful treasure, and black man, and senior citizen he is. And so Chris Rock created comedy out of the traditional mold as well as for the vine generation.
WATCH MORGAN FREEMAN LMFAOOOO pic.twitter.com/9fom9ihLbZ
— young metro (@Curvables) February 29, 2016
And Fight The Power, a timeless overlooked film song from an important Oscar overlooked film, black cultural watershed Do the Right Thing, played in its entirety, and Chuck D. was moved to respond after stating earlier that this show was of no more interest to him than an industry trade show. Stacey Dash trended on Twitter all night. If people hated it, it was probably successful. Comedians are supposed to make you uncomfortable. Think about what was said, think about how it made you feel. I laughed, applauded, and felt both enlightened, challenged and entertained (by Chris Rock). It was a yes for me. And I’m right.
By Jacqueline Howell (find me on Twitter @JacksStepOn) where I live tweeted The Oscars, lurk on the better places on Twitter and comment and grouse about culture regularly.)