At least one way to fully grasp just how radical a departure Chris Rock’s 88th Oscars' monologue was is to go back and watch Billy Crystal’s from the 62nd.
“There were 330 films in that opening montage,” said Crystal back in 1990. “And what’s remarkable, according to Paramount, not one is yet to go into profit ...”
Rock -- finding his own opening and borrowing from that line -- said “Man, I counted at least 15 black people in that montage.”
From the consummate insider to the consummate outsider, Rock and the Oscars had traveled a quarter-century to that point last night. It was also abundantly clear at least half the people in the Dolby -- guessing a few more at home -- were not quite ready for this particular trip.
Oscars hosts have traditionally served three roles. Foremost, the host allows the industry to laugh at itself. This serves an important function because TV audiences could see that if you laughed at yourself, than you were bigger than your manifold faults. If you were cool enough and hip enough to take a joke at your own expense on national TV, then you must be pretty cool and pretty hip.
Second, hosts may mock the industry, but hosts must also honor the industry. This is the Oscars, darnit, not the Golden Globes. Tribute must ultimately be paid.
Finally, hosts are supposed to calm everyone down. Fabulously rich, fabulously beautiful people get nervous, too. They’re only human, after all.
Then came Rock.
He was brutal as opposed to genial. His monologue was more of an emetic than anything remotely resembling comfort food. He was more inclined to gut an audience’s expectations instead of offer assurances or -- especially -- reassurances.
He was the anti-Billy, and essentially the anti-every-host -- those insiders who arrive here over the years armed with a set of laugh lines that reliably play off Hollywood’s self-image, as the benevolent dictator of American culture, with its left-leaning politics and reliably liberal embrace of reliably liberal causes.
There were lots of lines that brought the house down, literally down, but this one really struck hard: “I’m like, ‘Mr. President, you see all these writers, producers and actors? They don’t hire black people – and they’re the nicest white people on Earth.’ They’re liberals! CHEESE!”
The audience at the Dolby seemed to laugh -- or was that just the sound of two thousand people wincing at the same time?
Rock was relentless. No one came out of there without getting splattered, except maybe Kevin Hart:
In what may have been the best line of the night, he asked, “Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood is racist. But it’s not the racist you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like, ‘We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.’”
“This year, things are going to be a little different. This year, in the In Memoriam package, it’s just going to be black people that were shot by the cops on their way to the movies. YES. I said it!”
Rock got a little instant social media flak for this line -- blacks didn’t protest during the early ‘60s, when there were other slates of all-white nominees, “because we had real things to protest at the time. We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematography. When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short.”
The horror of the imagery alone, followed by the slam-dunk of the punchline, made that the single most memorable sound bite of the entire night. But social media exploded because of that “we had real things to protest” throwaway, which seemed to suggest that there was nothing to protest about right now.
Rock closed the show last night with a hurried “Black Lives Matter!,” indicating he may have felt the blowback, too.
What finally should really be remembered about Sunday, Feb. 28 at the Dolby? Simply that Rock did exactly what he set out to do -- wake people up, get them angry, both at him, and at the words he was deploying, but especially get them to see what’s on the other side of that gilded curtain.
The attack -- which this was -- was on limousine liberals, and a self-congratulatory industry along with its self-congratulatory denizens. It was a call to action -- action on THEIR part. Will an entire industry heed the call? Who knows, but you can be certain they’ll never forget the night they heard it.