The last time Chris Rock released a stand-up special, Barack Obama was vying for the White House, the comic was married and HBO was the still the pre-eminent platform for an hour of stand-up. So, yeah, it’s been awhile.
On Valentine’s Day Netflix released Rock’s new “Tamborine,” adding it to the growing list of high-profile stand-up specials from the streaming service. And unless you caught the comic during his 2017 Total Blackout tour, this is a different Chris Rock than you’re used to seeing.
Gone are the flashy suits, big set pieces and giant theaters that marked his previous specials. Instead, we get to see Rock in an 800-person theater, wearing a T-shirt and jeans and opening up about his most painful life experiences.
Rock’s last release, 2008’s “Kill the Messenger,” was a massive production combining performances in London, New York and Johannesburg — part of what the opening title called “the biggest comedy tour on the planet.”
This tour — which came to the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis last March — represents a different kind of ambition after so many years in the game. Rock has always opined about relationships and what he views as differences between men and women. But now he’s letting the audience in on his experience.
He lays it out all out there: He cheated on his wife, had a porn addiction, got divorced and went through a brutal custody battle. You may not like his conclusions, but these confessions lay the groundwork for the kind of intimate comedy that’s thrilling to hear a stand-up as masterful as Rock tackle.
“I was not a good husband. I was addicted to porn,” he says as he launches into a bit about how much pornography desensitized him. Later, Rock announces his divorce and tells those clapping in the audience to stop “unless you a lawyer. You don’t want to get divorced, let me tell you right now. I’m talking from hell.”
The first half of the special is familiar Chris Rock territory. He jokes about raising kids, racism and how America treats black men. He gets into politics too, and devotes just a couple of minutes to Donald Trump before moving along.
Some of the material ties back to his 2008 special. Then, Rock joked that “George Bush has [messed up] so bad, he made it hard for a white man to run for president.” In 2018, Obama has come and gone, and it’s now Trump that dominates the nation’s psyche. But Rock picks up where he left off, quipping that Bush’s failures gave America its first black president. “I think people overlook George Bush’s contributions to black history.”
The presentation of Rock’s hour stands out among comedy specials, too. Bo Burnham, a comic himself who also shot Jerrod Carmichael’s “8,” directed “Tamborine.”
Instead of crane shots of the audience, we see the crowd as the comic sees it, just a few feet away from the stage. The camera shifts from one shot to another during certain jokes, but when Rock really addresses his cheating, Burnham holds a tight close-up on Rock’s face for quite some time, forcing the audience to stay with a man as he fesses up to unforgivable behavior.
Usually comics spend a year or so touring with the material before filming the final product. Perhaps the lure of a lucrative Netflix deal (reportedly $40 million for a pair of specials) was too good to pass up. “That’s what alimony will do to you,” Rock quipped at his first tour stop.