LOS ANGELES — Dressed in white from head to toe with a Prince symbol dangling from a chain around his neck, there were signs that Chris Rock was ready to let his guard down enough to open up inside the Dolby Theatre on the first night of his four-night stand in L.A. to close out his Ego Death tour.Nine months ago, it was the stage where he made Hollywood history — or where history was made for him in the form of Will Smith’s slap heard round the world at the Oscars after Rock made a joke about the bald head of the actor’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.

Now setting foot again on the same stage, Rock looked revived and unafraid as he paced in front of a simple all-white backdrop, telling jokes to a packed crowd. But one thing was hard to ignore, his larger-than-life shadow silhouette looming behind him that often looked more like a chalk outline as it followed him around the scene of the crime.

There were times when the shadow took on a life of its own, much like the controversy that danced around him, which he hasn’t said much about publicly. He’s been touring with the silhouette behind him during multiple stops on his Ego Death tour, but it felt like it carried significantly more weight on stage at the Dolby, lightened up only by the roaring laughter of the audience watching a master comedian at his craft.

There have been plenty of reviews about the tour that signaled very little slap-centered material for L.A. fans over the nearly two-hour set. But his opening salvo felt like the beginning of a man ready to begin letting his ego die long enough to address the shadow hanging over the last nine months of his life.

“People say words hurt,” Rock said. “But anyone who says words hurt has never been punched in the face.” It’s a line he’s recited many times in recent months and was effective at loosening up the crowd (it helped that the front rows were thoroughly roasted by the warmup act, Comedy Store regular and crowd-work king Rick Ingraham). Rock’s opening jokes about censorship and cancel culture likely achieved the desired wake-up effect Rock was going for early in the show — so long as the audience didn’t get too woke.

Rock quickly pivoted away from his assault to take swings at “the woke police.” To him, this term doesn’t just refer to an amorphous mob on social media but the people we all know in real life who’ve been indoctrinated into the cult of selective outrage. “The kind of people that play Michael Jackson songs but won’t play R. Kelly,” he joked. “Same crime, one just has better songs.”

As he paced back and forth, there were times when his shadow on the wall loomed large, other times it shrunk down to almost life-size. It felt emblematic of how the show ebbed and flowed, with Rock bobbing and weaving through jokes steeped in parables, politics and personal stories. When it came to addressing the shadow of the Oscars that still follows him, he only let his guard down a few times. One line in particular, in which he described being hit by “Suge Smith” — a reference to infamously violent Death Row Records exec Suge Knight — lets you know where he still stands on his relationship with the embattled actor, despite Smith’s unanswered public apologies to Rock.

”People were like, ‘Did it hurt?’ You’re goddamn right it hurt,” he said. “Will Smith is significantly bigger than me. I am not the same size, OK? This mother f— played Ali! I played Pookie from ‘New Jack City’!”

A lot of Rock’s material dealt with the notion of victimhood in many forms. When it comes to applying the label to him, the comedian says he’ll never accept it. “I went to work the next day, f— that s—!”

However, Rock did mention that when the media and many celebs weighed in on Pinkett-Smith’s past affair with R&B singer August Alsina in 2020, the comedian made a point to stay out of it. “Everybody talked about it but me … 50 Cent talked about it … he didn’t slap him!”

On the subject of retaliation in the moment at the Oscars, Rock said on stage that his family raised him better than that.

”People asked me ‘Why didn’t you hit [Smith] back?’” Rock said. “Because I got parents, I was raised, you know? You know what my parents taught me? Don’t fight in front of white people!”

If you’re looking for more insight on how Rock feels about the incident, that’s about all you’re going get from him on this tour (but there are still three more shows to go this weekend, so who knows?).

For the rest of the crowd who simply wanted the chance to see one of the world’s top comedians kill, Rock was still happy to deliver. He touched on current event highlights (and lowlights) of the past two years, including pandemic punchlines, roasts of Trump, Biden, Meghan Markle and the Kardashians. In a lesser comedian’s hands, the material could have felt a little stale. Yet Rock found a way to keep things spicy, burning not just the usual suspects, but people in general.

”Everybody’s full of s—,” he said. That includes athleasure companies like Lulu Lemon espousing “yoga pants politics” slinging slogans about inclusiveness along with their $100 pairs of trendy tights, or people who spend their time “writing woke-ass tweets on phones made by child slaves.”

Our social media obsessions with “likes” over real love and our addiction to attention was another subject Rock spent a lot of time on. Sure, as a superstar comedian who’s gotten on stages for thousands all over the world over the several decades now, he might sound a little hypocritical. But the way he addresses these cliche topics is the way it should be done — his way. With a buzzsaw tenor that dispatches punchlines as deftly as Jay-Z spits verses, every joke seemed to annihilate the eager L.A. crowd. Quotable lines make age-old material about Hillary Clinton losing elections to Obama and Trump suddenly feel relevant again.

Veering into current terrain about abortion, Rock was quick to remind us that the repealing of Roe v. Wade is not just a women’s issue. “I paid for more abortions than any woman in this room!” adding that if they came with a punch card, he would’ve definitely earned a free smoothie by now.

Rock says he’ll continue to not say much more about the slap stuff — yet. There’s still a chance he’ll wade into it deeper during his December-slated shows with Dave Chappelle. But if Thursday’s performance was any indication, he’s conquering the darkness behind him.

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