It’s been ten years since Chris Rock’s last stand-up special, and the big news for him in that time is that he got a divorce. Guess what: divorce sucks. Rock’s able to reframe it in a light that seems at least slightly positive for him, at least in terms of what it says about his professional success, but he doesn’t try to hide the impact it’s had upon his family, or run from his own responsibility for his marriage’s collapse. (Yes, the guy who once said that everything’s on the sexual menu forever if you do it once wasn’t entirely faithful to his wife.) The title of his new special, Tamborine [sic], comes from a bit about his failed marriage—we all have to learn to play our roles in a relationship, even when that means playing tambourine for a song instead of being the lead singer. At a time when so many prominent men are seeing their careers threatened by their own inappropriate sexual actions, it feels almost quaint for one to confess to something as old-fashioned as cheating on his wife on the road.
Considering Rock’s been such an astute (and funny) commentator on the interactions between men and women for so long, it’s no surprise that he’s able to analyze the dissolution of his own relationship with such hilarious insight. It is a little surprising that he doesn’t directly address the #MeToo movement and what it means, though—perhaps the special was shot too long ago for him to formulate any worthwhile material about it (although it was filmed after the massacre in Las Vegas, which was only a couple of weeks before the tidal wave of allegations against Harvey Weinstein first hit). It’s impossible to listen to him talk about his infidelity and his divorce without thinking about the larger conversation around sexual politics, and the fact that he never directly addresses that can feel a bit like a missed opportunity, or, even worse, an intentional omission. After all, the biggest comedian to have his career damaged by this movement was Louis C.K., who’s a friend and frequent collaborator with Rock.
Still, despite what feels like an oversight in that regard, the rest of Tamborine proves that Rock’s comedy is just as smart and sharp as it’s always been. He immediately starts off by talking about cops shooting black kids, wasting no time to dive right into one of the most depressing problems undermining our country. He effortlessly cuts through the feeble “bad apples” defense regularly carted out by police departments when this happens, and calls for a “world with real equality”—one where as many white kids are shot by police each month as black kids. From here he segues into gun control, and then into an extended bit about how one of his main goals as a parent is to prepare his kids for the white man and also making sure they get bullied enough. As he puts it, the main reason Trump is president today is because we no longer know how to handle bullies. Rock hits on one hot button issue after another, regularly flirting with jokes that some might be offended by, but with a perspective that’s so thoughtful, original, and, in its own wicked way, respectful that it would be hard to argue that he ever crosses a line, even if you believe there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed.
There are a few missteps—prison sex jokes were hackneyed when Rock was still a regular on Saturday Night Live—but at a time when legendary stand-ups are using their multimillion dollar Netflix specials to reveal how out of touch they are with today, Rock remains as potent as ever. Hopefully we won’t have to wait until 2028 for more new stand-up from him.
Chris Rock: Tamborine is streaming now on Netflix.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.