When funnyman Chris Rock strode onto the Lyric Opera House stage this weekend, he practiced a humane, catch-and-release brand of comedy - with one omission.
Rock cast about for his usual targets, from overly assertive black women to Britney Spears, from clueless white liberals to O.J. Simpson. All were snared in Rock's satiric net, but all benefited in some measure from his empathy. Everyone in the audience had reason to squirm, but no one squirmed for long.
Except for Republicans. And not even all Republicans, just supporters of President Bush.
"Is America ready for a black president or a woman president?" Rock rhetorically asked the sell-out crowd. "We should be - we just had a retarded one."
Rock has made no secret of his support for Barack Obama, and, with Maryland's primary election scheduled for tomorrow, a sizable portion of his 75-minute set was devoted to political observations, though he restricted his comments to the main candidates.
On John McCain: "McCain was too old to be president 10 years ago. His vice president will have to be a nurse."
On Hillary Clinton: "I think America is ready for a woman president. I really do. But does it have to be this woman? The only thing Hillary Clinton is really good at is forgiveness."
And on Obama: "He's a black man with two black names: Barack. Obama. He doesn't let his blackness slip up on you. But he's so cool, he doesn't seem to realize he's the black candidate. He acts like he can win this thing fair and square."
The Lyric audience - by my guess, 40 percent white and 60 percent black, and largely younger than 40 - ate it all up.
Rock is among the least physical, the least actorlike of comics. He doesn't use humorous mannerisms or facial expressions, portray different characters or adopt a persona markedly different from his offstage self. Instead, Rock is a storyteller, and the audience's considerable pleasure derives entirely from his trenchant observations of American life and culture.
It perhaps explains why he languished for several seasons on Saturday Night Live, not finding real success until he returned to the stand-up circuit and started making specials for HBO.
Rock quickly won favor with his Baltimore fans, when, at the beginning of his show, he sang the praises of the locally produced television show The Wire and, in particular, of local actor Robert Chew, whose recurring character recently met a bloody end.
"They killed Proposition Joe!" Rock exclaimed in disbelief. "Marlo must be stopped! Whoever doesn't watch The Wire get out! It's the best show on TV."
For a man with such progressive social beliefs, Rock is something of a throwback when it comes to relations between men and women. At times, he is genuinely funny, as when he elaborates on the marriage game:
"They say that marriage combines two lives. But what really happens is that the two of you figure out who has the best life, and you live that one."
But he seems to view the complex dynamics between men and women as that hoariest of stereotypes - trading sexual favors for worldly goods. Men can't go back sexually, Rock told his audience. Once a woman wears high heels in the bedroom, the man's going to say: "I never want to see the bottoms of your feet again."
And women, he says, can't go back in lifestyle. "Remember the first time you dated a man who owned his own car?" he asked. "You decided then and there that you'd taken the bus for the last time."
An attitude that limited and false is unworthy of someone of Rock's intelligence. Still, it's hard to stay mad at a guy who, with great candor and charm, tells 2,500 strangers that he isn't very good in the sack. Can a man make a more humbling admission?