With barely any notice, Chris Rock: Tamborine appeared on Netflix early Wednesday morning. The special, taped last November at BAM in Brooklyn—almost exactly a year after he joined Dave Chappelle on Saturday Night Live to give his reaction to Trump’s 2016 victory—is Rock’s first since 2008’s Kill the Messenger.
A decade later, the 53-year-old comedian is slightly more subdued than he was in the pre-Obama era, but no less in command of his stand-up game. Directed by the comedian Bo Burnham, Tamborine opens on the back of Rock’s head as he hangs out backstage with friends; moments later, he’s on stage and ready to preach.
“You would think that cops would occasionally shoot a white kid just to make it look good,” he begins. And from there, he’s off—unnerving the audience up top by saying he wants to see white mothers crying over their dead children as well and noting that “bad apple” is an odd euphemism for “murderer.”
It isn’t until about a third of the way through Rock’s new hour that the president’s name first comes up. A run about the necessity of bullies to build character leads to this revelation: “That’s how Trump became president. We got rid of bullies. A real bully showed up and nobody knew how to handle him.”
“Shit. The cast of The Apprentice is running the world,” Rock says in disbelief. But he is far from hopeful that Trump will “get his” in the end. “You know, some people never get theirs,” he says, laughing. “Some people just fail up.”
He surprises his audience again when he predicts that Trump “might just work out” as president. “Think about it this way: Bush was so bad, he gave us Obama,” Rock says. “I think people overlook George Bush’s contributions to black history.” In the same vein, he says Trump is “so bad” he could be succeeded by Jesus Christ.
That’s more or less all Rock has to say about American politics in his first big special since before Obama was president. He makes some solid and concise points, but it does seem as though there is lot more he could have said about the country’s overtly racist president. The special may have been filmed pre-“shithole countries,” but it did come after Charlottesville.
Rock’s new bits about teaching his kids how to deal with “Whitey” are reminiscent of his early material on being black in America, but it’s the more personal stories he tells about the infidelity that ended his marriage of nearly two decades that feel like a truly fresh evolution for his comedic persona.
Like Patton Oswalt, who saved the darker material about his wife’s death for the second half of his most recent hour, Rock doesn’t broach his divorce until late in his special. “The last few years have been crazy for me,” he tells the audience, some of whom start applauding when he brings it up. “Don’t clap for that shit unless you’re a lawyer,” he ad-libs.
“You don’t want to get divorced,” he says. “You got somebody you love, hold tight. Commit.” Rock frames this section of the special as advice for people in relationships, but you can tell that he’s really telling himself what he wished he’d known before his own marriage fell apart.
After spending several minutes complaining about how you can never really “miss” your partner in the age of smartphones and social media, because they are always “in your pocket,” Rock makes an admission. “I was not a good husband,” he says. “I was fucked up.” Not only was he “addicted to porn,” but he was also unfaithful.
“It’s my fault, because I’m a fucking asshole,” Rock says of his divorce. “I didn’t listen, I wasn’t kind.” He thought because he “paid for everything,” he could do what he wanted. “I just thought I was the shit, man.”
“I cheated,” he admits, finally, stressing that he’s not “bragging” about the three other women he slept with when he was married. “When guys cheat, we want something new,” he says. “But then, you know what happens? Your woman finds out and now she’s new. She’s never the same again. Now you got new, but you got a bad new.”
Then comes the joke. While he imagines every woman in the crowd thinking, “Fuck you, Chris,” he knows the guys are thinking, “Just three?”
From there, he moves on to discuss the custody hearing in which the judge asked him to prove that he had beds for his children to sleep in and food for them to eat in his new house. “I’m like, what have you heard about me?” he remembers thinking. “I’m Chris Rock, not Chris Brown.”
The Chris Rock of Tamborine is a man in the middle of a life transition. He’s less brazenly confident than he was in his younger days, humbled at least a bit by nearly losing the right to see his own children. But while he may have been brought low as a husband and father, Rock’s powers as a comedian have not been diminished.