Chris Rock is back, and ready to face the world as a new man.
In his first stand-up special in 10 years, Chris Rock: Tamborine (streaming now on Netflix), the comedian isn't pretending to be the man we remember from his last special, before Black Lives Matter, before the 2016 election, and before his very public 2014 divorce from his wife of 18 years, Malaak Compton-Rock. In 2008, in an HBO special, he riffed on then-candidate Barack Obama. Now, in a special filmed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year, he's more focused on his own limitations as a man.
Tamborine is rife with political humor and pointed observations on race in Rock's usual style, but the special is mostly about Rock himself, a reflective piece in which he owns up to his mistakes in marriage and tries to turn his pain into humor. Whether you're ready to forgive his transgressions is a matter of personal taste, but Rock doesn't hold back, skewering himself with the same knife he uses on the rest of the world.
Rock opens Tamborine with what seems like a perfunctory bit on police violence and gun control that feels like his earlier work, slightly updated for the modern era with references to last year's mass shootings in Las Vegas and a cringe-worthy name-drop of a rising rapper.
“You would think the cops would occasionally shoot a white kid, just to make it look good," he says in his opening joke. "You would think that every couple of months, they would look at their dead (N-word) calendar and go, ‘Oh my god, we’re up to 16! We gotta shoot a white kid, quick!’ ‘Which one?’ ‘The first one you see singing Cardi B.’ ”
He then moves on to a bit about why America needs bullies, blaming a friendlier culture for the rise of Donald Trump.
"That’s how Trump became president. That’s exactly what happened. We got rid of bullies, a real bully showed up, and nobody knew how to handle him.”
The 64-minute special really picks up, however, when Rock starts candidly discussing his divorce. The comedian, 53, is raw and emotional as he recounts his infidelity and addiction to porn, admitting flat out he was "not a good husband." The jokes don't come quite as fast, but his admissions are relentless and enthralling, his guilt and regret evident in every line.
“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.”
The special's misspelled title comes from advice Rock doles out after his tough divorce. Relationships are like a band, he says, and "sometimes you sing lead, and sometimes you’re on tambourine."
Rock was not good at playing tambourine.
“I didn’t listen. I wasn’t kind. I had an attitude; I thought, ‘I pay for everything, I can do what I want.’ I didn’t play the tambourine.”
Rock still finds room for the funny during his self-flagellation. Opening up about the dark parts of his life, and admitting that some people might hate him, allows him to ease into jokes about his new reality: being a black man in family court fighting for custody of his kids, or going on the Tinder dating app with his own name and photo.
Tamborine is the first of two planned Netflix specials, and it feels like a necessary step in Rock's evolution as a comedian (and as a man). It's not 2008 anymore, and Rock realizes it's not worth pretending that it is.