Netflix’s approach to cornering the standup comedy market has been, shall we say, aggressive. The monolithic streaming platform has commissioned hours from just about every comic who’s moved beyond open mic status and it has doled out seven-figure sums for the heavyweights. Along with picking up specials from the likes of Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, and a pre-disgrace Louis CK, Netflix also secured the long-awaited returns from some of the all-time greats: Dave Chappelle, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Ellen DeGeneres.
While Chappelle’s specials have been bogged down by controversy and overabundance (there are FOUR of them), and Seinfeld’s sank like a stone, Tamborine–the just-released special from Rock–finally delivers on the expectations of a comedy Jedi master dropping his first special in a decade.
Tamborine’s predecessor, Kill the Messenger from 2008, was kind of a comedown from Rock’s late-’90s heyday, when Bring the Pain begat Bigger and Blacker, a perhaps unrivaled one-two punch of standup comedy. He still looked the same. He still sounded the same. But something was missing in the material. Perhaps it was a muse.
In the years since Messenger, Rock made a well-reviewed film (2014’s Top Five) in which he interrogated his own fame, appeared in some Adam Sandler movies, and put his producer’s clout behind TV shows like Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, and The Rundown with Robin Thede. He also got divorced. After teasing a return to standup for several years, he embarked on a successful tour in 2017, and then surprise-dropped Tamborine this week on Netflix, with only a slightly longer lag between announcement and availability than the instantaneous new Cloverfield movie on February 4.
Of course, the novelty of surprise can’t prop up a lack of quality. (As we saw with The Cloverfield Paradox. Woof.) When a mega-famous comedian does a surprise set at a comedy club, he or she gets 5-10 minutes of guaranteed laughs, because the audience can’t believe its good fortune. After that point, though, the material has to stand on its own. In the case of Chris Rock, there is no leaning on goodwill at the top of his first special in 10 years. He storms the stage and immediately takes some big swings. He doesn’t miss.
Tamborine lingers only briefly on standup lightning rod Donald Trump and instead mostly explores two issues: race and that recent divorce. The race material comes first, and finds Rock in peak form. He throws out a Fox News-baiting line while addressing police brutality–“We need more dead white kids”–and then makes it seem like the most reasonable idea in the world. When he moves on to explain his outlandish (hopefully fictitious) approach to preparing his kids to move through the world as people of color, it’s at once hilarious and poignant. He probably didn’t actually take the extreme measures he describes to teach his kids to be wary of whiteness, but the bit betrays that he–along with most nonwhite parents–did have to warn them about certain dangers that far too many white people aren’t even aware of.
But even while talking through these heavy issues, there’s a spark in Rock’s eyes, a lilt in his voice, palpable joy at performing his craft, and the confidence of knowing he’s still great at it. The world has changed spectacularly since his last special. Barack Obama wasn’t even president yet! But unlike Dave Chappelle and Jerry Seinfeld, who’ve both publicly griped about the scourge of so-called PC culture, Rock’s return finds him not chafing against the strictures of what he can and can’t say anymore. For better and worse.
Anyone looking for signs of Rock not being woke enough will find it. His brag about keeping his daughter “off the pole” is stuck in outdated attitudes about sex workers. Describing the compromises of marriage as “your success is her success and her success is your success” reveals a heteronormative worldview. There are antiquated notions about money defining men’s status while looks define women’s. In fact, a feminist reading of the second half of this special will likely earn Rock some online pitchfork mobs–and those mobs will definitely have a point. However, Rock’s unenlightened opinions, which reflect the culture he came up in, are balanced out by the refreshingly self-deprecating and vulnerable moments in the material about his divorce, which takes up the entire second half of Tamborine (and lends it its title.)
Although this is not the funnier half of the special, it’s easily the most personal and mature he’s ever gotten. This is Chris Rock’s 4:44, a deeply revealing examination of his marital failures and what he’s learned from them. Imagine the man who glided through Bigger and Blacker in a chrome leather suit talking in earnest about his porn addiction and cheating on his wife, or admitting that he is currently on Tinder under his real name and that Rihanna brushed off his advances at a party. It is something to behold.
Rock walks us through his divorce like a tour guide from the Museum of Broken Relationships. He talks about what he did wrong, sparing his ex-wife any fault in the matter. (Any good-guy points from this tactful approach, though, are squandered later in a retrograde bit about housewives.) He talks about the entire process of getting divorced, highlighting elements many viewers may not have considered–like having to prove to a court of law that he’s a good parent. It’s more illuminating than funny, mostly. But it’s still funny.
Overall, Tamborine adds an exciting new notch to Rock’s legacy and bodes well for what’s next when he has more to say. It may not be the best special he’s ever done, but it’s exactly what he needed to do at this moment in his career and his life.