Appearing on Hannibal Buress’ podcast back in September, Chris Rock talked shop about the relatively small venue he’d chosen for Tamborine, his first stand-up special in a decade, and his first in a lucrative two-special deal with Netflix. Rock told Buress that the Brooklyn Academy Of Music’s comparatively homey auditorium was a better match for his new material than, say, the three sold-out arena shows (on three separate continents) from which 2008’s Kill The Messenger was assembled. There, 2008 Rock stalked the stage with his signature conviction, sharp-suited and confident in manner and material. Tamborine, in contrast, sees the now 53-year-old comedian dressed down in comfortably worn jeans and T-shirt, addressing his self-selected smaller audience with both less volume and more intimacy.
And Rock is right that his new set isn’t the sort of material to knock stadium crowds back on their heels, especially in Tamborine’s more personal second half. Not that Rock, still indisputably one of the best stand-ups ever, couldn’t fill an arena at this point, or that an arena crowd wouldn’t come away from Tamborine feeling more or less satisfied. He is still possessed of a finely honed and unerringly potent stage presence, where his material, vocal affect, and physicality enhance each other to irresistible effect.
The first half of the show finds Rock mining for outraged laughs in topics like police shootings, racism, bullying, and (inextricably linked to all three) the rise of Donald Trump with practiced skill. Rock at his best evokes grudging laughter with surprise attacks, his brashly outrageous punchlines too good at evading carefully rational audience positions to be denied. His occasional defiant “Yeah, I said it” reappears throughout the set, underscoring positions that Rock has staked out in territory that his audience might have thought safely settled. He leads off the show with the broadside, “You would think that the cops would occasionally shoot a white kid, just to make it look good,” hacking his way through what at first seems provocation for its own sake to reveal more and more resonance as the conceit plays out. Mocking a grieving white mother appealing to Al Sharpton for “justice for Chad” is the sort of darkly funny, righteously pissed off stuff that Rock rides all the way home.
Through this first half, Rock lands a similarly fine joke about his position as a black man who owns property, defining his position regarding the police with the laugh line that he’s “famous, but not famous from miles away.” His rebuttal to the “bad apples” theory of police shooters lands hard, too; Rock’s facility with illuminating analogies continues to be one of his most potent weapons. He speaks both feelingly and pointedly about the experience of raising black children in a world in which, as he tells his daughter on her way to school, “As soon as you leave this door, nobody gives a fuck about you. And even some of the people inside this house—a little on the fence.” Speaking of black boys, Rock is even harsher, exclaiming that, if parents aren’t waking their sons up with a punch to the face every morning, it’s setting them up to get killed. Rock has always had a “kids today are soft” theme going on, and his jokes about the necessity of school bullying here don’t say anything particularly new on the subject. (Apart from how he applies the premise to Trump, claiming that, having gotten rid of bullies, “A real bully showed up and nobody knew how to handle it.”) Still, Rock keeps returning to his theme with sustaining anger, snapping off lines like the cliché about young black men being endangered species being untrue, since the government protects endangered species.
The second half of Tamborine is both weaker and paradoxically more riveting. Segueing to the subject of his recent divorce from his wife of 16 years, Rock states plainly, “I was not a good husband.” And he elaborates, dropping revelations about pornography addiction, infidelity, and an overall entitled attitude toward marriage that repeatedly quieted the otherwise appreciative crowd. “I’m talkin’ from hell. You don’t want this shit,” he rebuffs one scattered outbreak of applause, and, indeed, Rock isn’t fucking around, as he makes himself more vulnerable onstage than we’ve ever seen him. Dropping rules he says the breakup of his marriage has taught him, he deftly blends bluntness and earnestness in a stretch that emerges like crude, hard-won wisdom about sacrifice, selflessness, and, perhaps most vital, sex. Even, as he puts it, when long-term partners aren’t feeling it like they used to. (The phrase “suck a melancholy dick” should enter the glossary of all-time evocatively funny Chris Rock lines.)
But it’s here also, where there’s an uneasy mix of self-excoriation and Rock’s most regrettably hacky go-to relationship material that keeps pulling the jokes back from real excellence. Director Bo Burnham overdoes a few of the revelatory close-ups at Rock’s most potentially revealing moments, but those moments are often undercut by Rock’s retrograde battle-of-the-sexes stereotypes. It’s always been Rock’s biggest weakness: the portrayal of male-female relationships as an unending war between nagging, grasping women and beleaguered—if untrustworthy and complacent—men. Rock’s self-recrimination here plays as deeply sincere—he doesn’t let himself off the hook for being a cheat or for being “a fucking asshole” in various ways. But he also can’t help but reveal that his deeply felt ordeal has left him falling back on some of the same comedically tired conclusions. (His self-pitying statement that only “women, children, and dogs are loved unconditionally” suggests the sort of hidebound thinking Rock himself warned against earlier in the set.) He does continually find ways to bring his audience back with solidly surprising lines, though. His anecdote about bringing in famous “guest stars” to spitefully win over his daughters (“Lady Gaga made me a grilled cheese sandwich!”) is a rawly funny summation of the lingering bitterness that marks shared custody. And even when the “women just want a man to provide” material is stale, Rock can spit out a guaranteed laugh line, like his speculation about Michelle Obama’s attitude toward her husband’s newfound free time.
But as a centerpiece to this long-awaited special, Rock’s insights into his pain are fighting a disappointingly wobbly tone. For all his winning, cocksure bluster, Chris Rock has always been strongest in original thought. But Tamborine sees this more subdued Rock uncertain how to pump up some lesser material. In the metaphor that gives the special its title, Rock talks about marriage being a band where you have to accept that you’re not always going to be the front man (or woman). Urging the paired-up members of his audience to give the tambourine some Tina Turner-like enthusiasm when it’s their turn to step back, Rock counsels wisely, “Nobody wants to see a mad tambourine player.” The thing is, when turning his keen comic mind to the subject of men and women, Rock too often plays the same bitter notes himself.