“It’s ‘Mr. Rock,’ bitch!” Chris Rock breaks himself down

Boy, does Chris Rock look different.

He’s been my favorite stand-up forever (though now he has competition from John Mulaney).  I’ve devoured all of his previous specials, and the man had a visual brand – goatee, close-cropped black hair, fly suit.

Seeing him take the stage in “Tamborine,” his first special since 2008’s “Kill the Messenger,” is a mild shock.  Rock is clean-shaven, as if he couldn’t be bothered to maintain the goat anymore.  His hair has grown out, and he wears a black t-shirt and jeans.  He isn’t visibly older, but he channels more average-joe schlubbiness than he ever did.

Rock is never not going to be funny or wildly inventive.  Callbacks and running jokes abound – telling the audience to “sit your asses down” when they stand to applaud him; “Yeah, I said it!”; and the reveal that he did, in fact, keep his daughter off the pole – although she IS in high school according to him, so time is still to tell, but why ruin a good decade-long continuity joke.  Such rehashed material could be read as phoning it in, but we’ve spent a lot of time with Rock at this point, and he’s earned some goodwill.

Still, though … even at his most cynical, younger Rock always crackled with manic energy.  This older Rock is much more curmudgeonly – never more so than in his complaints about millenial entitlement, and how young people call out to him on the street (“‘Great work, Chris!  Love your show, Chris!’  I’m like, ‘It’s Mr. Rock, bitch!'”)  He’s still hilarious, but some of the sizzling sense of fun is gone.

This is never more apparent than at the midpoint where Rock gets serious about the end of his marriage and bares his soul about his marital infidelity.  He doesn’t let himself off the hook.  When he speculates that the women in the audience recoil from that revelation (“‘Fuck you, Chris!  I thought you was a’ight!'”) there’s a genuine pain in the speculation, a sense that he agrees with the women.  He’s blunt about how tough divorce is – “I’m talkin’ to you from Hell, guys!  You don’t want none o’ this shit!”

But then there’s the lighter side of divorce – how he keeps trying to outdo his ex on his weekends with his daughter, even recruiting guest stars – “Mommy, Drake made me lunch!”  Or his response to the realization that everyone there in the divorce court is more educated than him, came from privilege, and dressed up in a suit that day to come in and take his money – “That’s when I realized – I made it!”

Then there’s his deepening cynicism on the subject of anti-black racism in America.  Up-and-coming black comedians like DeRay Davis, or even Rock’s contemporaries like Katt Williams, tend to laugh at racism and turn it on its head as a joyous affirmation of humanity and triumph in the face of adversity.  Rock has always had a harder time finding it funny.  He is extremely funny in his dissection of the topic, but it comes from a place of deep, justifiable trauma.  Not everyone can smile in the face of injustice, and despite Rock’s grinn-y face, he’s not over it.

He provokes from the very first line – “You’d think cops would occasionally shoot a white kid, just to make it look good.”  Who else could get away with that?  He goes on a hilarious tear about how he teaches his children to mistrust “whitey” from a very young age – “Everything white in my house is either hot, heavy, or sharp!”  Or how his celebrity only kicks in at about a five-foot range – “When cops see me walking toward them, this is what they’re like – ‘Nigger … nigger … nigger … nigger … nigger … Oh, hey, that’s Chris Rock!”

Most of all, there’s his resigned cynicism to being back in the dating pool in his 50s.  “I was at this party … I saw Rhianna, and I was like, ‘A’ight … let’s start this shit again.  Fuck it.'”  He claims to have a Tinder profile under his own name.  “My friends are like ‘Why you do that, Chris?  Ain’t you afraid women are just gonna like you because you’re Chris Rock?’  I’m like ‘But I am Chris Rock!'”

Lean into it, Mr. Rock.  God knows, you’ve earned it.

What did you think of Chris Rock’s new special, “Tamborine?”

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