Chris Rock’s first new stand-up special in ten years is called Tamborine, but it could have been called This Is How You Do It. He’s a veteran now, an avatar of the craft. There’s no fanfare or self-regard to be seen here. He just walks out onstage to the (seemingly mandatory) standing ovation, asks the audience to sit, and delivers his first line: “You’d think every once in a while the cops would shoot a white kid just to make it look good.” That’s a hand grenade that would be devastating no matter who dropped it, but it has more force because Rock skips the usual pleasantries, and because of his distinctive delivery. He repeats “you’d think” three times, as if thinking of how to end the sentence, and pauses after “kid,” so that the line gets two laughs instead of one, the second bigger than the first.
All comedians worth talking about refine their material so that they pause for laughter in the right place and for just the right amount of time. But the greats go the extra kilometer, thinking not just about the content of the jokes but the shape of the language itself: the sound of the words, the rhythm of the sentences. Rock is as good a writer as it’s possible for a comedian to be without sounding written. He’s in fine form in Tamborine, and you can hear it in his delivery of a punch line in a bit about the inconceivability of real gun control in the United States. Riffing on “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and the corresponding idea that murderers use knives, too, Rock concludes, “If 100 people ever got stabbed at the same time, in the same place, by the same person, you know what that would mean? Ninety-seven people deserved to die.” Along the way, he slips in an acknowledgement of how guns and the cult of machismo are inextricably tied together by recounting the time his grandfather took him hunting in South Carolina, after he shot a squirrel and cried. “He called me a faggot,” Rock reports, then his eyes brighten and he adds, “And he’s a preacher!”
Rock never makes the mistake of treating his routine like a dumpster for every bit of social commentary that pops into his head. He keeps things focused. Much of this special is about racism, double standards, and the unrealistic expectations of a white-male-dominated society that thinks the playing field is level because they have an unobstructed view of everyone else’s head. “Ever since my kids were born, I’ve been getting them ready for the white man,” he says. “Everything in my house that’s the color white is either hot, heavy, or sharp. My kids know that when they deal with anything white, they gotta think about that shit. They gotta contemplate this shit. ‘Ooh, this napkin, okay, should I wipe my mouth with it? Or is that what whitey wants me to do?’”
The really brilliant stroke here is the way Rock refuses to isolate racism as a separate, special outrage, instead presenting it as another manifestation of toxic self-interest and a corresponding indifference to the needs and wishes of others. We see this in the section about his eldest daughter attending freshman orientation in high school: He blasts institutions of higher learning for telling incoming students that they can be anything they want to be — which for all sorts of reasons is self-evidently untrue — and notes that every parent thinks their child is “special,” but that he himself, like all parents, ultimately cares more about his own child and less about everyone else’s. This is a subtle condemnation of tendencies that exist in every person to some extent, but Rock flips it so that it becomes an acknowledgment of hard reality rather than merely a lament that the world isn’t nicer. When his daughters leave the house, Rock says, he wants them to realize, “As soon as you leave this door, nobody gives a fuck about you […] nobody thinks you’re cute, nobody thinks you’re smart, nobody gives a fuck about your opinion, nobody on the whole Earth outside of this door gives a fuck about you.”
Rock veers into “old man yells at cloud” territory when he suggests that schools “need bullies” because they “do the other half” of the life-shaping work done by teachers, forcing other children to toughen up. Everything a comedian says on a stage is tinged with hyperbole, of course — it’s doubtful that Rock would respond to somebody bullying one of his daughters with a philosophical shrug — but he cancels out his material about America’s non-level playing field when he insists that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg became who they were because other people were mean to them. “Pressure makes diamonds, not hugs,” he says, then suggests there’d be fewer “fat kids” in school if there were more bullies around to take their lunch money. But then he brings it back around, and suddenly the special is on-message again: “That’s how Trump became president. We got a rid of bullies. A real bully showed up and we didn’t know how to handle him.”
If you subject that argument to real-world logic, it falls apart from the beginning. But in the alternate universe of stand-up rhetoric, its architecture is unassailable. Rock pulls off many similar examples, pushing Aristotle through the looking glass and transcribing his reports from Wonderland. It’s a universe in which Donald Trump will never be punished for anything, because what goes around does not necessarily come around, but it’s also a universe in which Trump might also be good for the country in the long run because “George W. Bush was so bad, he gave us Obama […] George Bush is a black revolutionary. Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, George Bush. They need to honor him at the Essence Festival.”
Rock is very sly in the way that he drops a sharp observation, often one that condemns everyday awfulness, and then reflexively paints himself as a hypocrite or fool. It throws the wisdom of Tamborine into sharper relief and keeps sanctimony at bay. Things take a metaphysical turn as Rock considers the arrogance inherent in humanity’s relationship to God: “The act of helping God is sacrilegious,” he says. “If you think that you can help God out, then you don’t believe in God.” But here, too, Rock punctures the hot-air balloon: “I haven’t been to church in ten years. Now that’s believing in God!”
His material on relationships, sparked by his own divorce, is also tough, and it rings true. He doesn’t spare himself in his discussions of lack of commitment, whether monogamous or emotional. “If you’re gonna love, love hard or get the fuck out,” he says. And if you’re in a relationship, he says, “All you should be doing is fucking and going places. Sex and traveling. Coming and going.” Relationships, he explains, are “only tough when one person’s working on it. Two people can move a couch real easy. One person can’t move it at all.” There’s genuinely excellent advice in here, the kind that could be printed in a self-help book for couples, though probably without all the 4- and 12-letter words. “Stop competing,” is one bit. “Her success is your success and your success is her success.” Another truism is that no problems ever really arise in relationships, because they’re all present from the beginning, “but you were fucking, so you forgave.” Sex is everything, Rock says, even when — maybe especially when — you’re not feeling “the Holy Ghost” but need to maintain a certain standard for the good of both parties. “Hell, I ate pussy on 9/11,” he says.
Then he pauses, looks out at the audience, and innocently asks, “Where were you?”