The last time Chris Rock released a special, Barack Obama was vying for the White House, the comic was married and HBO was the still the preeminent platform for an hour of stand-up. So, yeah, it’s been awhile.
Netflix on Wednesday released Rock’s new stand-up special, “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 kind of Chris Rock than you’re probably 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 a T-shirt and jeans open up about his most painful life experiences in an 800-person theater.
Rock’s last release was HBO’s “Kill the Messenger” in 2008. It 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.”
Commanding giant audiences and being able to tailor material to specific locations takes expertise, and Rock has long shown he’s one of the best at it. But “Tamborine” represents a different kind of ambition, of exploring new ground after so many years in the game.
The second half of the special gets into the personal stuff. 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 how he’s speaking from his own particular lived experience. In “Tamborine” 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 those 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 Trump before moving along.
Some of the strands directly tie back to his 2008 special. Then, Rock joked “George Bush has f-ed 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 mind of 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 instead 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.
“A big part of this – and it was something that Chris really wanted – was to feel the intimacy of the space and feel how close the audience was to him,” Burnham told Splitsider.
Although it’s his first special in a decade, Rock hasn’t been absent from the spotlight. Aside from his 2017 tour, during which he refined the material for “Tamborine,” Rock lent his voice to “Madagascar” movies, acted alongside Adam Sandler in the “Grown Ups” franchise and wrote, directed and starred in “Top Five.”
Rock brought his stand-up to TV in shorter bits during his 2016 Oscars hosting gig (where he got some flak for a joke about Asian-Americans) and “Saturday Night Live” in 2014. He’s also helped put TV shows on air, getting executive production credits on “Everybody Hates Chris,” based on his childhood, and BET’s “The Rundown with Robin Thede.”
But putting together a stand-up special is a different beast. 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) and the money from a tour was too good to pass up. “That’s what alimony will do to you,” Rock quipped at his first tour stop, in South Carolina.
Whatever the reason, now anyone with a Netflix account gets to experience a new kind of Chris Rock.