These days, deciding what to joke about in public is almost as important as the quality of the joke itself. Sometimes more important — an offensive quip can open a comedian up to grave disapproval, a social-media firestorm that leaves a performer burned beyond recognition. You can feel some of this pressure coming off of Chris Rock in his new Netflix special, Tamborine. The hour-plus standup set was taped in a Brooklyn theater and surprise-released on Valentine’s Day. Over the course of Tamborine, Rock talks about what you’d expect him to talk about — the state of racism in America, being a dad, being a citizen in the age of Trump — but he also talks, sometimes with intentionally minimal humor, about his divorce, his infidelities, even his self-proclaimed porn addiction.
The material about being a black American is Tamborine’s gold mine, which is probably why it leads off the special, to get you hooked. To be sure, it’s heavy-duty stuff: Rock wonders aloud about the simple common sense that racist police officers avoid, suggesting that they ought to “shoot a white kid every once in a while” to make the statistics look better for themselves. He also talks about raising black children and preparing them for “a white world.” The jokes here are tight and sharp — they pierce your sensibilities while making you laugh, sometimes out of shock, sometimes out of ruefulness, and sometimes out of the rough wisdom that he’s just shared.
Rock stalks the stage, looking trim in a T-shirt at age 53. Yes, 53: The perpetually boyish Rock is showing little outward sign of aging, but his material is that of a man who’s resigned to late middle-age. Or as he puts it far more profanely than I’m phrasing it here, he’d have a much better chance romancing Aretha Franklin than he would Rihanna. Married for 16 years and now divorced, he is consumed with discussing and disseminating everything he’s learned about relationships, whether it’s dating, marriage, or parenthood. When he starts to discuss the divorce, the roaring energy of his performance ebbs and slows. He measures his words very carefully. This isn’t just a matter of honing his material for maximum comedic effect — it’s for maximum societal effect: He’s concerned that his remarks about being unfaithful in a myriad of ways not be interpreted as boasting or hostility. “I didn’t listen; I wasn’t kind,” he says, taking responsibility for the failure of the marriage.
I wasn’t kind: This is not the thought of a slash-and-burn comedian such as Rock used to be. It’s the phrasing of a sensitive man — that’s one of the images of himself that Rock wants to leave you with. That’s not the most productive way to create laughs on a stage, though, and some of this material begins to feel more dutiful than fully fleshed-out as comedy. The man we see in Tamborine — the title comes from a punch line to a joke here, as well as from the Prince song that closes the special — is a man who’s changed since we last saw him in performance. He’s a complicated guy, as can be heard in his musings, and in the list of thank-yous that unrolls during the closing credits: This is the only comedian, I feel safe in saying, who will ever thank both essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates and the porn star Phoenix Marie. But Rock is putting it all out there, hoping we’ll both laugh at him and forgive him.
Chris Rock: Tamborine is streaming now on Netflix.
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