In the ten year interlude since Chris Rock’s last stand-up performance, the cultural climate has undergone significant change. His return to the stage, in the form of a Tambourine for Netflix, adequately reflects those stark differences, and he too has undergone development.
The sartorial flashiness seems to have disappeared – the suit has gone, exchanged for a more humble jeans-and-t-shirt look. Gone too is the garish stage set design, arena, several-thousand-strong audience, and Rock’s flamboyant, hilarious and over-the-top joke delivery. Instead, he stands bare and vulnerable, in a theatre that seats fewer than one thousand people, and delivers much more considered comedy.
Audiences over the last two decades became accustomed to Chris Rock’s raucous comedic style, full of jokes that were poignant, political, sometimes offensive, and cut close to harsh truths. While Rock does not abandon his political drill (in fact he opens with a joke that is exactly where he left off ten years ago: “George Bush was such a bad president he gave us Obama”, and now, “Trump is so bad…who are we gonna have now?…Maybe Jesus!”) the root of his jokes seem deeper, and he is now far more committed to properly exploring the topic before impetuously leaping to the punch line.
While the air is always filled with a comedic scent, Tambourine is packed with a deeper punch and a far more serious undertone. Now divorced, Rock seems to have a different outlook on life – one that is less rambunctious, more critical, and that radiates with a keen sense of newfound awareness and a deeper understanding of those proverbial life lessons that one can only learn after epochs of great adversity. Having just won a brutal custody battle, Rock is vulnerable and honest, reflecting on his future as a good parent and his past as a bad husband.
Eloquently woven into his jokes are piquant observations and social critiques, as well as a slew of brilliant pieces of life advice. The opening minutes focus on Black Lives Matter and the brutal police killings of unarmed black men: “you would think…the cops would shoot just one white kid to make them look better,” but then shifts into something far more personal, something that is seemingly foreign to Rock’s previous brand of comedy. He discusses what it’s like to raise black daughters, the grueling “hell” of getting divorced, and even touches on his past addiction to pornography. Through dwelling on his past, he provides scintillating relationship advice for all those watching, to resist the urge to constantly stay in contact with your partner by texting and social media, for example, exclaiming, “in 2017 you can’t miss nobody!”
By the end of the special, we’re left with a new kind of Chris Rock. He is a comedian who has changed with time, who perhaps has become more pessimistic, but whose comedy nonetheless provides a sagacious reflection on the complexity of human existence. Tambourine is brilliantly crafted to evoke philosophical contemplation while simultaneously leaving us smiling and laughing. Chris Rock doesn’t go for the cheap or easy laugh. Instead, he searches ten years for the punchline that resonates. And that is why Tambourine was worth the wait.
Image: David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons