“They don’t recognize comedy, and you don’t see a lot of black people nominated, so why should I watch it? Where’s my in?”
That was Chris Rock, talking about why he rarely tunes into the Academy Awards, in a 2005 interview with Entertainment Weekly before hosting the Oscars for the first time. A couple of months after that hosting gig — which was criticized by some who thought the comedian’s jokes were disrespectful — Rock was asked by David Letterman if he would ever consider hosting again.
“Yeah,” Rock told his fellow former Oscar emcee. “If there’s a lot of black people on it, I will do the show again.”
Fast-forward 11 years and here we are, about a week away from Rock’s second turn as the host of an Academy Awards show that, as it turns out and has been repeatedly established, will not have “a lot of black people on it.” In 2005, during his opening monologue, the future Top Five star referred to the ceremony as “the Def Oscar jam” because there were four black nominees that year in the acting categories — technically five if you count Jamie Foxx twice, since he was nominated as both lead (for Ray) and supporting (for Collateral). This year, with a slate of nothing but white acting nominees and all the controversy that has come along with that, the Academy Awards ceremony looks more Downton Abbey than Def Jam.
Given the state of the conversation about the Oscars and race in Hollywood, it seems like Rock is being teed-up pretty perfectly to slam down the comedy hammer when he walks onto the Dolby Theatre stage a week from Sunday. Since “bringing the pain” is Rock’s thing, I’m guessing his approach to the Oscars won’t depart radically from what he did before. But what has been different is the way the second Rock Oscars have been promoted. I also suspect that his Oscar night jokes may be received differently as well.
In 2005, the country and the FCC were still recovering from having seen Janet Jackson’s naked breast for maybe half a second during the 2004 Super Bowl broadcast. The possibility that Rock might say a swear word or something else that would qualify as the oratory equivalent of bare nipple was something that ABC — eager to capitalize on the Oscar TV ratings boost it had gotten the year before, during the reign of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King — attempted to use to its advantage. Promos for the show emphasized the idea that anything could happen during an Oscars with Chris Rock in charge; as Frank Rich noted in a New York Times column, one spot that aired during the then-heavily watched Desperate Housewives featured Rock “fondling the Oscar statuette (in all its gold nudity) and declaring, ‘You won’t believe the halftime show!’ ” In the blitz of press before the ceremony, Rock also said some things that generated chatter, in particular about the Academy Awards’ audience. “What straight black man sits there and watches the Oscars?” he rhetorically asked Entertainment Weekly‘s Josh Wolk. “Show me one.”
This year, the marketing of Rock has been much more subdued. After the #OscarsSoWhite furor prompted some to suggest that he should step down as host, Rock, ABC and the Academy have kept things pretty chill. Rock has done few interviews and the promos have been pretty standard. This”Let’s Do This” Oscar teaser, for example, hints that he plans to come out with his gloves off, but doesn’t exactly confirm that he plans to throw punches.
His more recent Shonda Rhimes-themed Oscar commercials are designed to draw in viewers who regularly watch Scandal or How to Get Away With Murder; a smart approach, but hardly controversial.
Maybe Oscar planners will crank up the volume about Rock in the coming days but for now, their promotional strategy is the opposite of what it was last time: all calm, no firestorm. It almost feels like they’re setting no expectations so that Rock can easily exceed them. Or, perhaps after all the lack-of-diversity chatter, they’re just trying to lay low so that Rock can make maximum impact.
When it comes to the subject of race, Rock can’t possibly plan to lay low on Oscar night. Back in 2005, he didn’t avoid the subject, either. In his opening monologue, he riffed on the difference between white movies and ones made for black audiences. “At least they make movies for white people to enjoy,” he said. “Real movies with plots. With actors, not rappers. With real names like Catch Me If You Can or Saving Private Ryan. Black movies don’t have real names. You get names like Barbershop. That’s not a name, that’s a location. Barbershop, Cookout, Carwash: They’ve been making the same movie for 40 years.”
In a pre-taped piece that was Rock’s funniest bit of the night, he interviewed actual moviegoers at a Magic Johnson Theater in L.A., highlighting the discrepancy between the movies that get nominated for Oscars and what real people see at the multiplex. (Read: real people saw White Chicks and The Chronicles of Riddick, but not Sideways or Finding Neverland.) Honestly, all Rock has to do is change the names of the films referenced and this bit — which would have killed on Twitter, had there been a Twitter in 2005 — could easily work again this year.
Criticism of Rock’s performance tended to focus on the things he said that were perceived as disrespectful, including jabs at specific actors like Tobey Maguire and Jude Law. But the race-based humor was the stuff that felt more pointed.
Writing for the L.A. Times, Paul Brownfield said Rock’s material generally “felt indecorous, if not dangerous,” but noted the movie theater piece was the one that really landed: “You could feel the self-congratulatory air back at the Kodak Theatre being sucked out of the room, and for a brief moment it felt as though Rock had blown the show open.”
In an admittedly dialed-down way, Rock, in small bursts, was forcing Hollywood’s elite to confront their blind spots. To some, that made him seem out of touch with grand, dignified Oscar tradition. (“Chris Rock jokingly welcomed viewers to ‘the 77th, and last, Academy Awards’ last night but this Oscar show … will more likely turn out to be the first, and last, to be hosted by Rock,” wrote The Washington Post‘s Tom Shales, who also called the comedian’s performance “strangely lame and mean-spirited.”) To others, it felt like a breath of fresh, slightly subversive air, even if it wasn’t quite unbridled Rock.
Looking back at it now, his emceeing approach seems a little ahead of its time, or at least as ahead of its time as something can be while pointing out issues that have persisted in Hollywood for decades. If Rock’s 2016 material is in the same vein, something tells me it will be received more warmly in the room and beyond it this time, not because every member of the Academy has become more self-aware, less biased or more capable of laughing at themselves than they were 11 years ago. but because media and celebrities’ media awareness has changed.
Everyone knows that cameras will be all over the Dolby, capturing reactions to Rock’s barbs in real time. They also know those reactions will be freeze-framed, GIF’d, Instagrammed and tweeted seconds later, where they can be shared and preserved to a much greater degree than they were in 2005. If Rock starts getting real about the lack of diversity in Hollywood, every actor in the room knows he’d better laugh or nod his head, or do some real acting and at least pretend he’s genuinely laughing and nodding his head, unless he wants to be ridiculed. In that way, it feels like Rock has the upper hand as Oscar host in a way that he didn’t last time. In 2005, he had to prove himself; this year, it feels like the broader Oscar audience — the millions watching from their sofas and posting about it on social media, the same way they hash-tagged the lack of diversity on nomination day — may be more vocally on his side and more likely to crave dissent and change instead of Oscar tradition. Instead of wrinkling their noses, as a number of critics did, when Rock has the “audacity” to good-naturedly let Hollywood have it, there will be plenty of people applauding and “YASSSING,” whether the ones seated directly in front of the stage do or not.
That doesn’t mean that Rock won’t ultimately be criticized for not being funny enough, or biting enough, or respectful enough. Literally no one can host the Oscars and expect universal praise the next morning. But in a year when the Academy Awards already compelled SNL to do a skit lampooning the Oscars’ inability to recognize black talent, Chris Rock seems like the best man imaginable for the hosting job. And if it were possible for Chris Rock to simultaneously host the show and be a viewer, 2016, ironically, also feels like a year when he finally has a reason to watch … at least for the opening monologue.