Chris Rock: Ego Death review – taking the temperature of a ‘near-destroyed’ America

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“I’m OK, if you’re wondering …” Of course, Chris Rock broaches right at the start of his show the incident we’re all thinking about: The Slap, as administered to Rock onstage at the Oscars by a wayward Will Smith.

The disappointment – expected, but disappointing nonetheless – is that he does no more than that. “I’ll get to it at some point, on Netflix,” says the 57-year-old, and fair enough – unless you nurse any attachment to the idea of standup as an art form more fleet-footed than that.

Not that The Slap’s spectre can be easily exorcised, mind you. At least one joke in the show gains added potency in light of that recent dust-up. I’m thinking of Rock’s attack on the snowflake spirit of the age (a favoured topic among wealthy-middle-aged comedians), when he jokes that “anyone who ever said ‘words hurt’ has never been punched in the face”. No doubting here that Rock knows whereof he speaks.

But for the most part, this show snapshots Rock’s thinking before Will Smith’s handprint was impressed on his face. At its best, it finds our host taking the temperature of an America he describes as near-destroyed, its Republican party lost to lies, its Democrats very selective with the truth.

So “who is responsible for the downfall of America?” he asks. The answer will surprise and amuse – and beyond that, there’s droll material on the Capitol riots (“what kind of white, Planet of the Apes bullshit is that?!”), Joe Biden (back from the dead to save the country) and the iniquities of woke corporate virtue-signalling.

Sometimes, in the philosophising that tees up the gags, if not in the gags themselves, there’s overreach. One marvels at Rock’s suggestion that, had a global crisis not come along, Donald Trump might have governed America perfectly well. And it’s hard to love the conclusion he reaches, for comic effect or otherwise, after surveying his country’s experience of Covid-19, which is that “people are pieces of shit”.

It’s probably just as well that this is when Rock pivots, as his recent live shows usually do, to more domestic material – even if his family and dating shtick is less compelling than the social and political commentary that precedes it.

It kicks off with a routine on bringing up rich kids as a man who “identifies as poor”. He can be amusingly unsentimental about his spoilt eldest daughter, but the section’s closer, about her expulsion from school, isn’t strong, and finds Rock engaging in some virtue-signalling himself.

That routine, and others in the second half, loudly advertise Rock’s streak of devilry, as he plays with our expectations of his stance on abortion, and tries to justify why men apparently all want to date younger women. (An earlier Meghan Markle routine is equally – gleefully – contentious.)

As ever, your enjoyment of Rock’s battle-of-the-sexes material will depend on your stomach for his assumption that men are all after “pussy”, women are all after money, and cleaning the pillowcases is a woman’s work. Sample line: “Money does for men what women think plastic surgery does for them,” the teasing spirit and retro premise of which is representative of this final quarter of the show.

There are still great jokes here, including a fine one about classifying neighbourhoods by who’s visibly idle at any given time of day. And even the weak material is elevated by Rock’s expressive voice, all those sonorous repetitions and high-pitched “goddams!” to accentuate his dismay.

One might wish The Slap has been addressed not glossed, and lament the old-school sexual politics. But this new tour still finds Rock on fine form. Whatever else it was, The Slap clearly wasn’t a knockout.