When last we saw a Chris Rock standup special — HBO’s Kill the Messenger in 2008 — it brought us the comedian as we were used to seeing him: Sharply dressed in shades of black, walking back and forth across the stage relentlessly as he pummeled the crowd with sharp observations about race, class, and a presidential candidate named Barack Obama. (“In America, that’s about as black as a name can get,” he noted wryly.)
Now, after a 10 year break, Rock is back with the new Netflix special Tamborine, and the comedian we see before us today has changed. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say he’s more developed — not necessarily as a comic, but as a man. Dressed casually in a t-shirt and jeans, his trademark pace slowed to an amble, the 53-year-old comedian spends a good portion of Tamborine ruminating on the “man lessons” he’s learned over the last 10 years — a decade which featured his very public divorce from his wife of 18 years, Malaak Compton-Rock, in 2014.
After opening with a somewhat perfunctory bit on police brutality and gun control, Rock pivots to the subject that’s been keeping him so busy: “I’ve been trying to raise some kids. That sh**’s a job, man.” With his oldest daughter starting high school, Rock has plenty of thoughts on the hazards of the “everyone is special” style of parenting — which he finds particularly dangerous for black kids. “You gotta get your kids ready for the white man,” he says, noting that every morning before his two daughters head off to school, he gives them the same message: “As soon as you leave this door, nobody gives a f*** about you… and even some of the people inside the house are a little on the fence.” Rock’s comedic exaggerations about how he prepares his daughters to be black in today’s America (“Everything in my house that’s the color white is either hot, heavy, or sharp”) are layered with searing asides, as when he takes issue with the idea that young black men are an endangered species: “That’s not true – because endangered species are protected by the government.” The line elicits an approving Ohhhhh from the crowd.
Now an official Elder Statesman of Comedy, Rock has earned the right to riff on somewhat threadbare topics like our Participation Trophy culture or religion, and his skill for drawing deceptively simple connections between topics keeps this 64-minute set moving with an easy momentum. (I won’t spoil it here, but the way Rock transitions from a bit about God making mistakes into a blistering observation of the hypocrisy of Caribbean tourism is sublime.)
The second half of Tamborine deals almost exclusively with marriage, relationships, and, particularly, Rock’s 2014 divorce — its causes, and, more importantly, its aftermath. The special’s title, in fact, comes from Rock’s post-split relationship advice. “There’s no equality in a relationship. You’re both there to serve,” says the comedian, who equates marriage to being in a band: “Sometimes you sing lead, and sometimes you’re on tambourine.” Rock discusses his divorce, his cheating, and even his self-proclaimed porn addiction in a manner that is both matter-of-fact and tinged with melancholy. An intense silence falls over the crowd as Rock recounts being unfaithful to his wife while on the road: “When guys cheat, it’s like we want something new. And then you know what happens? Your woman finds out, and now she’s new — she is never the same again.” Director (and fellow comedian) Bo Burnham leaves the camera on Rock’s face as he talks here, giving viewers no escape from the uncomfortable truth of what the comedian saying.
But fear not, Tambourine never goes too dark, nor does Rock ever truly blur the line between stand-up set and therapy session. Whether he’s talking about Trump, marriage in the era of cell phones, or a humbling chance encounter with Rihanna, Rock never loses sight of the comedy — even as he distributes the hard-earned wisdom that comes from regret. B+