“Woke culture” isn’t ruining comedy — it’s comedians themselves who are choking the life out of it. And if you need any proof of this downward spiral, then look no further than Chris Rock's latest comedy special, Selective Outrage.
Billed as Rock’s triumphant return to the stage after a year of silence post-Will-Smith-slap, what the veteran comedian served up was actually just a boring string of admonishments against woke culture and how you can’t say anything anymore because everyone is a victim these days. That, followed by a slew of meandering and offensive jokes like the one about how he prefers trans women because they can “read defences when you're watching the game.” (My eyes rolled so hard on that one I think my pupils are stuck in the back of my head now.)
Listen, it’s not that conversations about “cancel culture” have no place in comedy. But if comics are going to tackle these fraught issues on stage then it’s not too much to expect that their takes are thoughtful, and at the very least for goodness sake, FUNNY. And if we’re going to have to endure lazy bits that sound like they were pulled from the worst annals of 90s misogyny, then audiences at least deserve to walk away with a couple of laughs to sweeten the deal — and I surely didn’t.
The problem with Rock and other comics who have made “woke mobs” their target is that they don’t actually have anything new or interesting to say about their supposed silencing.
The problem with Rock and other comics who have made “woke mobs” their target is that they don’t actually have anything new or interesting to say about their supposed silencing. The end result is commentary that just amounts to whining about how they don’t get to exert their social power the way they’re used to.
What was once really fun, incisive commentary on the culture has been replaced with the sarcastic “my pronouns are…” format and it's simply boring and played out. But I guess that’s what happens when privileged people are more absorbed with preaching about their self-styled victimhood than actually telling good jokes.
And when it comes to this “woke culture” obsession, Rock is certainly not alone. In the last few years, we’ve seen comedians completely shift gears to face this issue squarely. From Rock to Dave Chappelle, to legendary figures like British icon John Cleese, it seems like a lot of famous people are losing their shit at having to treat and talk about all people like actual humans.
And they haven’t gone uncontested. In a New York Times guest essay, author Roxanne Gay described Chappelle’s 2021 Netflix special The Closer as a “72-minute display of the comedian’s own brittleness.” Chappelle, she says, “deliver[ed] five or six lucid moments of brilliance, surrounded by a joyless tirade of incoherent and seething rage, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia.”
But the problem isn’t just that the sets are unfunny or objectionable. There are many frightening realities that these comics choose to ignore when they complain about “wokeness.”
When trans Netflix staff put their livelihoods on the line to push back against their bosses about airing The Closer, their issue was clear and unequivocal — ridiculing trans people isn’t just offensive, it is materially dangerous. 2021, the same year The Closer aired, remains the deadliest year on record for trans people in America. So to position them — and the allies who speak up for them — as being thin-skinned isn’t just ignorant and morally reprehensible, it’s also violent.
And for Chris Rock to say “everyone just wants to be a victim nowadays” (a paraphrased quote from his special) betrays how completely out of touch he is with the day-to-day realities of society’s most vulnerable, even in a time when those very people’s rights are being bulldozed daily. There is something to be said about cis white people co-opting language from marginalised groups to position themselves as the victims, but Rock didn’t get to the nuance — or the potential comedy — in that reality. Instead, he inserted himself into the analogy, and completely ignored the ways that he himself is now trying to take up space as some kind of “victim.”
The best comedy punches up at people in power, not down at unprotected people — these comics have been in the game long enough to know this.
Still, Rock and Chappelle have supporters who don’t think any of this is much of a big deal. When I joined culture critics Hunter Harris and Kathleen Newman-Bremang (who is also the deputy global director at Unbothered) to speak about Rock’s special on CBC Radio’s Commotion the Monday after the special, Twitter users said our “comments were utterly toxic on a number of levels,” and took issue with the fact that we called his old-school misogyny exactly what it was; stale. The fact that listeners were more upset that three Black women critics called out Rock for berating Jada Pinkett-Smith and placing his fury on a Black woman instead of her husband (who was the one who actually slapped Rock in case anyone forgot) is telling. Rock reverted to tiresome misogynoir that, at this point, is just exhausting and repetitive – not provocative.
The best comedy punches up at people in power, not down at unprotected people and these comics have been in the game long enough to know this. Dave Chappelle made it easy to find humour in the Black experience and let’s be real, remains one of the funniest people on the planet. So, to see him and Rock reduced to the kinds of caricatures they would have once mocked with scorn is not just disheartening, it almost feels like a betrayal of that sacred trust between artist and viewer.
In an act of self-preservation and class-solidarity with their wealthy friends, Rock and Chappelle have chosen to go the path of the Bill Cosbys of the world — pandering to their white privileged peers who are just as harmful if not worse than them, while shaking their fists at vulnerable people who don’t want to be victimized as a consequence of their callousness.
A very telling move, Rock closed off the special with a mic-drop moment where he revealed that the reason he didn’t hit Smith back was because his parents taught him, “you don't fight in front of white people.” This transparent aching for respectability feels even worse when you consider that Rock had no problem calling a Black woman a bitch in front of said white people. But it also makes sense when you realize that both Rock and Chappelle clearly don’t seem to care about Black women — or Black audiences for that matter.
Chris Rock, the only person practising selective outrage is you.