It’s the dead of winter 2018 and all that can touch me is earnestness. Not irony, not clout. Just that fearful but ever soldiering on urge to not only reveal your vulnerabilities, but to do so without diminishing them. Songs testifying to sadness and TV shows punctuated by laugh tracks have become some of my soundtracks to the season, and fitting nicely within this was Tamborine, Chris Rock’s new Netflix stand-up special.
I didn’t expect vulnerability from a comedian who closely associated with brash, tell it like it is observations about race, relationships, and power. But in Tamborine, for the first time in his more recent career, Rock steps closer to the kind of emotional exposure that pushes comedy into an almost confessional realm. Sometimes jokes in a set don’t have to be funny as much as they have to feel deeply true; the pinnacle of this, at least for me, was Tig Notaro’s 2012 Los Angeles show, in which she spoke openly about having cancer. (The recording of the set was initially released online by accused sexual harasser Louis C.K. and later released on Notaro’s album Live, giving new energy to her career) And while Rock doesn’t come close to her level of openness, the second part of Tamborine still felt like something special was happening on stage. We were seeing a legendary comedian truly reveal himself.
The first half of the show is solid, standard Rock fare. He jokes about police brutality, growing up as a black boy in America, and Donald Trump, whom he speculates might result in an uber-liberal president come 2020. He shows off his signature matter-of-fact realism, such as when he says the idea that Trump will get what’s coming to him is facile: “Sometimes, it’s just keeps going around. Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen to Trump. Nothing’s gonna happen to Trump.”
And of course, Rock courts controversy with his joking decree that bullying is necessary to creating emotionally strong children. “That’s how Trump became president,” he says. “We got rid of bullies. A real bully showed up and nobody knew how to handle him.” He continues with a simplistic, patriarchal view of relationships between men and women, and how much harder men have it than everyone else. His claim that “only women, children, and dogs are loved unconditionally” made me laugh out loud at the absurdity of the claim.
It’s in the show’s second, less laugh out loud half, where Rock gets downright earnest, setting this show apart from the expectation that it would be just another in his library of great, funny shows. We see Rock as a less aggrandized version of himself, more befitting of the dressed down attire and venue. (Here, he opts for a T-shirt and jeans on a smaller stage rather than the suit and tie we saw in his last special, 2008’s Kill the Messenger.) He is older, more tired. He reveals how he ruined his happy marriage, how he has struggled with porn addiction, how he is regretful about cheating while on the road.
Particularly affecting is hearing Rock talk about court proceedings for custody of his children. “That shit was scary, man, to not know if you’re gonna be able to fucking see your kids,” he says. Later: “That shit was like humiliating, man, trying to prove your parenthood.” They are two of the times when we can be sure Rock isn’t joking, simply because why would he? Even so, he never abandons humor. “I’m Chris Rock, not Chris Brown,” he quips when talking about having to show a judge proof that his children would be taken care of in his home.
Rock is obviously well aware of the public’s appetite to see celebrities brought down a peg or two. But while he is still protective of the grittier details of his marriage’s breakdown, the fear of being seen as lesser is a non-issue. “I brought this shit on myself,” he says. He speaks truth to his own emotional journey and finds relatability outside the grander political truths of our day. While Tamborine may not go down as Rock’s best show of all time, it may go down as his riskiest. It’s certainly his most earnest, which is the most precious thing he could have given us.