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On ‘Tamborine,’ Chris Rock Gets Personal for the First Time

In his first stand-up special in a decade, the usually detached comedian talks about divorce and examines his own mistakes

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Chris Rock and his fans have a lot to catch up on. The last time the superstar stand-up released a comedy special was nearly a decade ago, and in the time since, both the world and Rock’s personal life have undergone some drastic changes. Kill the Messenger was recorded in the midst of the 2008 election, when both Rock and a good portion of his audience were flying high on the near certainty that the United States would soon elect its first black president. (“George Bush fucked up so bad he made it hard for a white man to run for president!”) It did, and Rock seemingly graduated from the working-comic phase of his career to the elder-statesman one — making an assortment of charming indies and populist monstrosities, hosting the Oscars, and hitting pause on touring.

Then, in 2014, Rock announced his divorce from his wife of nearly 20 years. Soon after, he embarked on what he referred to, before anyone else could, as his “alimony tour.” (Meanwhile, the country turned itself over to a demagogue who appeared to have lifted Rock’s ’08 line about John McCain: “He a war hero. He a war hero. He a war hero … that got captured!”) A year to the date after the start of the Total Blackout tour, Netflix has premiered Tamborine, the first of two specials the streaming service has commissioned from Rock for a reported $40 million. Filmed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year and directed by fellow performer Bo Burnham, the hour is Rock’s first chance to narrate recent events in his own voice for the public, lasting record.

Rock is notoriously diligent when it comes to preparing and refining his act for mass consumption. Unlike Dave Chappelle — Rock’s longtime friend and a fellow member of Netflix’s pricey comedy strategy — it isn’t Rock’s style to release four full, often unpolished hours of material in a single calendar year. In the words of Rolling Stone’s Stephen Rodrick, Rock began the 16-month process of crafting what would eventually become Tamborine as “a wound that had not been cauterized.” The version of Rock who now appears on subscribers’ screens is significantly less raw, if more personal, than he’s ever been. For Rock, however, that’s not a particularly high bar. He’s always been happy to get graphic about sex, but no one would ever call him a confessional comedian. Tamborine lets the audience in precisely as much as Rock allows, which is just enough to get the extra juice of a laugh that comes from empathy as well as intellect.

Tamborine takes its time to get to the material most viewers will be waiting for. Rock doesn’t start tame, opening with riffs on police brutality and the necessity of bullies. But there’s a perceptible shift in the room when Donald Trump is finally mentioned by name, about a third of the way through the special, and again when Rock turns to his divorce, at around the halfway mark.

Those who’ve followed Rock’s career already know he can produce insightful, absurd, provocative thoughts on race and other social issues. (“If you don’t punch your black son in the face, that’s child abuse!”) Throughout Tamborine, there are momentary homages to previous highlights. Introducing a story about his daughter’s high school orientation, he proudly notes that he successfully “kept her off the pole”; after a punch line, he gives a smirking, “Yeah, I said it.” The nods are subtle, and I almost certainly would have missed them if I hadn’t revisited other Rock specials in preparation for Tamborine’s release. The cumulative effect is still reassuring: I’m the same Chris Rock I always was.

The Chris Rock he’s always been, though, has never had to explain a divorce. There was some reason to believe that Rock wasn’t up to the admittedly monumental challenge of coming across as sharp and not bitter. His body of work includes many routines that characterize women as materialistic gold diggers who judge men solely on their net worth, and it’s easy to imagine how the division of his assets could encourage that retrograde streak in thinking. Hints of it certainly linger around the edges of his monologue: “Only women, children, and dogs are loved unconditionally,” he observes ruefully in Tamborine’s final minutes. “A man is loved under the condition that he provide something.”

Fortunately, Tamborine largely downplays such reductive dichotomies in favor of an honest accounting for his own flaws. “I’m a fuckin’ asshole,” he admits. “I wasn’t a good husband. I didn’t listen. I wasn’t kind.” Rock cheated. He was addicted to porn. He had to go to family court to prove to a judge that he was able to provide housing and food for his children, a humiliating process that bruised his ego. Rock’s vulnerability is admirable, but this is stand-up comedy, not a one-man show; it’s his ability to spin those revelations into bone-deep laughs that impresses. “Every woman in here is like, ‘Fuck you, Chris,’” Rock acknowledges after recounting how he slept with three women on a tour. “Every guy in here is like” — pause — “THREE?!?!” The joke is a masterpiece of suspense and comedic timing, fueled by where-is-he-going-with-this tension and putting Rock’s old “women are like/men are like” angle to much fresher use.

Such moments of candor stand out all the more for how cloaked the rest of Rock’s post-divorce epiphanies are. Most of them are framed as generic relationship advice, offered without detailing said advice’s roots in Rock’s personal experience: “Love hard or get the fuck out”; “Sometimes, you gotta suck a melancholy dick.” Tamborine gets its name from an analogy Rock makes comparing a relationship to filling roles in a band: “Sometimes you sing lead, and sometimes you’re on tamborine. And if you’re on tamborine, play it right.” Rock will only say that he wasn’t willing to play tamborine when he should have, refusing to put his partner’s needs above his own, but he won’t say exactly how. Nor does he have to: Rock’s biography isn’t necessary to underline the truth of his lessons, or achieve the physical comedy of Rock miming a percussion routine while chanting “tamborine, motherfucker, tamborine.”

Rock has thus made his most personal special without ever getting that personal — a testament to his talents, not a criticism of them. Brought out of stand-up semi-retirement and a five-special, multidecade relationship with HBO by personal circumstance and, yes, financial incentive, Rock has successfully resisted the potential temptation to phone it in or refuse to evolve. Strolling the BAM stage in a T-shirt and jeans (not a suit, as he’s customarily worn in previous appearances, or even a snazzy leather jacket), Rock appears to be enjoying some especially hard-won confidence. He’s had a bruising few years, but he’s learned to see the silver lining, even when surrounded by his ex-wife and six divorce lawyers. After all, they all wanted something from him, a 10th-grade dropout from Bed-Stuy. That meant he had something worth wanting.