The introductory anecdote in Matt Rife’s Netflix special, Natural Selection, occurs at a restaurant in Baltimore, a city labeled “ratchet.” In this setting, Rife humorously observes a hostess with a black eye, sparking banter among his companions about her suitability for a front-facing role. While the audience reacts with a mix of shock and amusement, the joke sets the tone for an hour filled with daring and boundary-pushing content, though not without its controversies.
Throughout the performance, Rife maintains a defensive posture, testing the audience’s receptiveness and questioning whether they will be “fun” or potentially adversarial. This defensive stance shapes the entire hour, oscillating between timidity and aggression as Rife grapples with the expectations of the 3,000-seat Constitution Hall crowd in Washington, D.C. Despite his desire for approval, Rife finds the audience’s judgment and worldview suspect.
The routine delves into a familiar territory of dick jokes, exploring various facets of sexuality with a focus on size, masturbation, and the challenges of pleasing women. While providing a reliable source of laughter, these jokes lack depth and originality. Rife’s material, which previously ventured into more contentious issues in YouTube specials, now leans towards safe premises, possibly reflecting a retreat into defensive conservatism for broader appeal.
As the performance progresses, Rife’s defensiveness transforms into antagonism, particularly in the latter part of the special, where he addresses online haters. A flight to Vancouver becomes the backdrop for his grievances, highlighting clashes with a flight attendant and fellow passengers. Rife’s real frustration surfaces when he engages with online trolls, deviating from the lighthearted tone seen earlier in the dick jokes. The narrative lacks humorous reframing or thoughtful construction, presenting Rife as a frustrated individual who struggles when people don’t understand him.
Natural Selection emerges as a special in conversation with Rife’s audience, showcasing a guarded and self-justifying response to the fan base that propelled him to fame. However, this interaction is one-sided, as Rife no longer allows the audience to respond directly. The editing deliberately avoids clear shots of audience reactions, reinforcing Rife’s desire to stand alone on stage without needing validation.
In the final moments, after a mic drop and credits, Rife briefly returns to the audience in a post-credits scene, revealing a desire to engage and connect. Despite his defensive stance, he cannot resist returning to the crowd, acknowledging their presence, and seeking their approval. The unique leaves an impression of an artist torn between asserting independence and the persistent need for audience validation, ultimately revealing a complex and conflicted relationship between Rife and his fans.