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Chris Rock’s First Standup Special in a Decade is a Smaller, More Personal Return from an All-Time Great

The comedian's first Netflix special "Tamborine" may not be as ambitious as his best past work, but it shows the skills he has that few others can equal.

Chris Rock Tamborine Netflix

Netflix

One of the first things that’s striking about “Chris Rock: Tamborine,” the latest special from the legendary comedian, is the audience. Filmed in Brooklyn, the venue for this hour of introspection, observation, and occasional absurdity has a smaller-sized crowd that feels more in line with its Netflix streaming home. Gone is the to-the-rafters approach of arena-sized performances like Rock’s various Apollo sets. This is a grand re-entry with a smaller focus, but still anchored by all the skill that’s made him essential.

Like Dave Chappelle, another icon who made a Netflix return after a decade away, there’s a good amount of material in “Tamborine” about dealing with fame and a changing relationship to what comes with a high-profile life. Rock’s attitude here is less to revel in the luxuries of his life and more to acknowledge the things that more opportunities put someone in danger of ignoring.

Rock’s chosen topics of conversation for “Tamborine” aren’t that far afield from those in many other specials, whether headlined by breakouts or established favorites. The American justice system, divorce, school bullying, and religion have all been broached before, even in titles available right next to Rock’s on Netflix’s standup category menu.

But there are few comics with as much instantaneous presence and command of an audience than Rock. Even in the way he’s able to take a word or phrase, repeat it with varying levels of enthusiasm, all giving way to a wry smile, it’s the same Rock touch that’s blasted the roof off of thousand-seat theaters from coast to coast (and even across continents in “Kill the Messenger”). With the back row a little closer this time around, his physical work (accentuating a bit about driving through a neighborhood to get to a Jamaican resort, for instance) is more refined than ever.

And that doesn’t change when Rock goes to his more introspective material. As he relives his past infidelities and the recent dissolution of his marriage, you can tell that it is not an insignificant thing to him. But he knows that he’s there to be a comedian, not to air out a decade-brewing personal therapy session. For every joke about the nature of divorce attorneys, there’s the added layer of Rock acknowledging what that says about how he’s changed since the last time the cameras rolled on him holding a mic.

For the format of the special itself, it’s not a huge departure for Rock. Aside from an ambient intro of him looking at a crowded room, it’s an hour of him on stage, done without a credits gag or on-stage antics. Bo Burnham’s direction, paired with his excellent work on last year’s in-the-round “Jerrod Carmichael: 8,” solidifies him as the most exciting person working behind the camera in the world of standup. Whether it was his idea or Rock’s, the uncomfortably close closeup when Rock is talking about is crumbling marriage is a genuine bit of storytelling that doesn’t just come from the jokes or delivery itself. When that moment of tension gets cut and it’s back to a wide shot of Rock laughing it off, there’s a release that mirrors exactly what rock is doing with his written stuff.

Another thing that’s deemphasized here is crowd reaction shots. From the opening shot, as Rock makes his stage entrance, it’s the audience bathed in light and him in the shadows. That’s the kind of approach “Tamborine” takes that sets it apart. The purpose isn’t to shore up his bona fides and maintain a reputation as a world-conquering master of punchlines. It’s more of a personal expression of what matters to Rock in a moment of great change, that search to connect with people in a fundamentally different way.

Chris Rock Netflix Tamborine

On matters outside the personal, “Tamborine” doesn’t reach the incisive heights of some of his past efforts. But it’s not because he’s incapable (the early, out-of-the-gate talk about police shootings finds him right back in familiar territory). It’s because a lot of the political anxieties that he summed up so succinctly in “Never Scared” are as relevant today as it was in 2004: nationalist anti-immigrant ideologies, the impossibly polarized conservative/liberal divide, and a rash of policies diminishing the U.S. on a global stage. To revisit that, in a bizarre way, would be treading on familiar territory that’s not in line with an hour more focused on the interpersonal.

Rock has always drawn his strongest, most iconic moments from studies in contrast, whether it’s men vs. women, white vs. black, or rich vs. poor. All of that is here too, including jokes about conditioning his children to be wary of the white people in their lives. With divorce as the overriding theme this time, a lot of those jokes eventually fall into relationship roles and shifting expectations. When Rock talks about the way that cell phones have changed the sheer amount of times that couples interact, he offers up this information like a dagger rather than the raw, chainsaw-like approach of some of his older material.

There are the occasional self-referential nods to that past work. “I kept her off the pole,” he says of his daughter, harkening back to the stripper-themed opening of “Never Scared.” But this isn’t someone who’s trying to live in the past, much less regain it. There’s less topical humor here, an increasingly wise choice for all comics. (How quickly that Omarosa joke flew right out the relevancy window.) That more inward look points to a man looking less for validation from an audience and speaking more from a position of someone who’s come back from a rocky life vacation with some stories to share.

Part of those stories come with advice. “Love hard or get the fuck out” becomes a mantra around the “Tamborine” midway point. For the Rock of past years, that would come across as a fierce directive, but “Tamborine” is more of a look at what can be rather than what is. Looking to the future isn’t what we’re used to, but there are few better masters of the form to help offer a way forward.

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