In his Netflix special, “Tamborine,” Chris Rock says Donald Trump might just work out as president, then takes a moment to listen to the silence of the crowd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “Yeah, I said it,” he adds, in what has become something of a catchphrase for him.
Wearing a simple black T-shirt and jeans, Rock, 53, made his case based not on Trump’s potential, but rather on how his disastrous tenure could lead to something better, reminding the audience that the mistakes of George W. Bush led to Barack Obama. “People overlook George Bush’s contribution to black history,” he joked.
This was one of the few bits in this triumphant comeback special, posted Wednesday, that I don’t recall from his show in Durham, North Carolina, exactly one year ago, the opening night of his “Total Blackout” tour. Major chunks of material were the same, yet the comedy still seemed transformed.
This special, his first in a decade, is more searching and confessional than his previous work, digging into the end of his marriage after 16 years. He has honed this material, beefing up jokes and cutting out fat, and his comedy has become tighter, funnier if also slicker, shifting from a story of a comic struggling with demons to one describing how he once was lost and now he’s found.
Rock’s humor has long married a supremely controlled craft with an appealing sense of danger. “Yeah, I said it” lets you know he wasn’t supposed to. When he started in New York clubs in the 1980s, he closed some sets by saying: “I was in South Africa the other day. Or was it Boston?” After telling that joke on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” the host asked him if he ever worried that his jokes would upset people. Rock responded that his next target would be Johnny Carson because of a tabloid report that he had a black grandchild he did not financially support. Hall cut him off, abruptly ending the interview.
Rock rocketed to fame in the next decade with virtuosic specials that were full of intellectual provocations that would probably cause more controversy today when the politics of comedy are more scrutinized. But as he got older, Rock chose his spots more carefully, calibrating his gibes when he was host of the Oscars in 2016 (though there was a backlash to one about Asian-Americans) and releasing specials infrequently.
One of his few peers, Dave Chappelle, who also recently returned from a long hiatus to make a Netflix special, provides a contrast.
It’s hard to imagine Rock releasing a club set after hardly any time to refine it, the way Chappelle did over New Year’s. Rock is too much of a perfectionist. And while Chappelle shows up at clubs and spends hours onstage riffing, gathering ideas through free association, Rock’s process is much more focused and linear, like his comedy.
Whereas Chappelle escapes tricky territory through sweeping history lessons or literary flourishes, Rock builds forceful arguments that culminate in precise and memorable epigrams. “Pressure makes diamonds, not hugs” is the pithiest defense of bullying you will hear.
Rock’s booming act has always been built for bigger rooms, but he goes smaller for this special, with the help of comic Bo Burnham, whose artfully idiosyncratic direction emphasizes intimacy and studiously avoids cliché. The show begins with a casual shot of the back of Rock’s head while he is chatting backstage and ends abruptly. When the star drops the microphone, Burnham fades to black before we hear the familiar sound of it hitting the floor. Crisp images of the front row of the theater, juxtaposed with smoky backdrops and ghostly lighting, make the audience appear on the same level as the performer, creating unusually striking images for stand-up comedy.
In filming just the first joke — “You would think that cops would occasionally shoot a white kid, just to make it look good” — Burnham shifts angles four times, but he also knows when to stop moving the camera. As Rock confesses he cheated on his wife, Burnham goes in for the close-up and lingers.
This risks heavy-handedness but displays a perceptive eye for the importance of a pivot point where the star could lose his audience. Kevin Hart, who recently confessed to cheating on his wife before announcing a tour called “Irresponsible,” might face a similar onstage moment soon.
When I saw Rock play Madison Square Garden in December, he took a few glancing shots at Matt Lauer, the “Today” host who was fired over allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior, but the comic mostly avoided #MeToo as he does in the new special. Though Rock evoked the movement at one point by shifting from his mistakes with his wife to a broader question: “What is wrong with men?”
Over the course of his career, mixing the voice of a preacher with that of a litigator, Rock has built up an authority skewering the foibles of the world while keeping his own offstage. This special represents a shift in that dynamic. In describing his flaws, Rock says he was hooked on pornography. There is a lot of comedy about pornography, but to hear a superstar break down how watching it made him “sexually autistic” is bracing, and may even provide grist to certain warnings against online pornography.
In that North Carolina show, Rock went into more detail about his affairs. That was cut from the special, leaving nothing to invite jealousy. His tone is contrite, but it also suggests he has recovered, both from pornography addiction and cheating, which he says he’s done with. In an hour dense with jokes, he gets serious. “When guys cheat, we want something new,” he says, still in close-up. “But you know what happens? Your woman finds out and now she’s new. She’s never the same again. You got new but you got a bad new.”
Offstage, Chris Rock is soft-spoken, thoughtful, even shy — an alter ego to the strutting superhero he becomes in his stand-up specials whose titles (“Bigger & Blacker,” “Never Scared”) telegraph swagger. In the age of Trump, Rock has shifted to something quieter, more humble, and yet, with the same old confidence, with lessons learned at the end.
He does not wallow in melancholy and regret over lost love. He turns them into a great comedy special, just in time for Valentine’s Day.