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Chris Rock Is Trapped in a Hell of His Own Making

In the Netflix special ‘Tamborine,’ the newly divorced comic laments his infidelity — but he still doesn’t seem to understand that he’s the reason his marriage fell apart

Chris Rock’s onstage demeanor is as distinctive and explosive as his jokes. The big, snarling smile. The preacher-like cadence. The mocking, infectious laugh. But mostly, the stride — that swaggering, restless back and forth, as if his tall, lanky body can’t contain the hyperactive ideas bursting from his mouth.

There’s very little of that stride in Tamborine, his first special since 2009’s Kill the Messenger and the first since his world fell apart. There have been good things that have happened to Rock in the last decade — he hosted the Oscars again, and in 2014 he wrote, directed and starred in Top Five, which was a critical (if not commercial) success. None of that, however, factors into this hour-long Netflix performance.

Much of the special, which was filmed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in early November, focuses on fatherhood, life as a black man in America and Donald Trump. Yet the most interesting material resides in its second half, when Rock stares down the failure of his marriage and (sorta) owns up to the fact that he was a disaster of a husband. He still moves around the stage, but without the usual strut. It’s as if life — and his terrible attitudes about women — are weighing him down.

Rock has been one of the world’s best stand-ups for more than 20 years. Still, the misogynist tone of his sets always grated. Rock has often spoken frankly and hilariously about difficult subject matter: Race, poverty, gun violence, the gap between America’s ideals and its reality. But his willingness to provoke doesn’t mitigate his simplistic men-are-like-this/chicks-are-like-that comedic worldview. It would pop up even in his most famous bits — including “Off the Pole” from 2004’s Never Scared, where he talked about having a baby daughter and realizing that his one job as a father “is to keep her off the pole. … I mean, they don’t grade fathers, but if your daughter’s a stripper, you fucked up. … You thought you had a household — no, you got a ho camp.”

In “Off the Pole,” Rock’s fiery, motormouth style was funny, and the relish with which he threw his verbal hand grenades could be thrilling, but whenever he would talk about his wife, Malaak Compton-Rock (whom he married in 1996), it sounded like an awful marriage crippled by his prehistoric beliefs about rigid gender roles. The same year they married, Rock did a bit in Bring the Pain about settling down, which he viewed as a battle between “commitment and new pussy.” There was a lot of insight in his observations. But Rock’s hard truths were undercut by his insistence that all men are dogs and all women are shrews — except for the hoes you want to cheat with, of course, who may end up being shrews as well.

“Can’t cheat,” he declared in Bring the Pain to plenty of laughs. “Wanna cheat, can’t cheat. Dying to cheat, can’t cheat. … Know why? ‘Cuz you’re gonna get caught. You’re gonna get caught. I don’t care who you are — you 007? You’re gonna get caught.”

In Tamborine, the comic admits he got caught, and the special is partly about the fallout from his infidelity. Rock confesses to the crowd, “I’m talking from hell, you don’t want this shit” about life as a divorcee. When a few people actually clap at his acknowledgement of being divorced — a process that took nearly two years to finalize — he shoots back, “Don’t clap for that shit unless you’re a lawyer.” But unlike Rock’s now-disgraced friend Louis C.K. — who made his post-married reality the hallmark of his golden age as a stand-up — Rock only seems sporadically interested in shedding light on what went wrong. We get glimpses of crushing candor, but then he hides behind some of the same crude attitudes that got him into trouble in the first place.

In the special, which emphasizes BAM’s small stage and intimate setting (probably to suggest that this is a more confessional Rock), we hear the comic insist that married couples should focus on two things: Having sex and traveling. Or as Rock puts it, “You should be coming and going.” It’s a clever line but also a glib one that assumes that the listener has the money (and time) to actually travel and that constant sex can cure what ails a busted relationship.

One of Tamborine’s big revelations is Rock’s acknowledgment that he’s addicted to porn — and that it contributed to destroying his marriage. “I wasn’t a good husband,” he says. “I was fucked-up. … I was addicted to porn. … When you watch too much porn, you know what happens? Here’s what happens. You become, like, sexually autistic. You develop, like, sexual autism. You have a hard time with eye contact and verbal cues.” And the more he watched, the more demanding his porn needs got. “You need a perfect porn cocktail to get you off,” he explains. “I was so fucked-up. I need an Asian girl with a black girl’s ass that speaks Spanish just to get my dick to move an inch.”

The audience laughs some at Rock’s confessions — including the fact that he cheated on his wife with three different women — but for such an expert stand-up, he hasn’t quite figured out how to make comedy out of these observations. He also can’t quite glean painful truth out of it, either. In the past, Rock’s anger has been cleansing and liberating, but in Tamborine he seems trapped in his confusion. “I brought this shit on myself,” he admits. “Nobody told me to go ho up.” But after telling the crowd that “you just gotta learn some lessons, some man lessons,” the only thing he seems to have deduced from his situation is that “only women, children and dogs are loved unconditionally. … A man is only loved under the condition that he provides something. I’ve never heard a woman in my life say, ‘You know, after he got laid off, we got so much closer.’”

It’s such a traditional (and frankly, poisonous) way to see relationships — and one, I suspect, that was drilled into Rock a long time ago. He mentions that his grandma used to say, “A broke man is like a broke hand: can’t do nothing with it.” Rolling Stone asked him last year as he was developing new Tamborine material about his attitudes toward women, and his answer wasn’t very encouraging. “Most singers have, like, three songs, four songs that they keep writing over and over again,” he said. “If you’re Prince, you might have five or six. So I have four or five jokes.”

But his signature men-are-dogs/women-are-bitches joke, which was always iffy, feels particularly tiresome on Tamborine. Instead of doing personal inventory, he whines and blames. He complains about a drawn-out custody battle that was completed just before these Brooklyn shows. He huffs about his wife being too needy. He tells the crowd about fighting with judges, who insist he jump through hoops to prove he’s a good father. No doubt the two-year divorce process was draining, emotionally and financially, but Tamborine’s so-called candor seems to embolden Rock to position himself as the victim. For the first time in his career, however, it’s hard to take Rock’s side — his grievances about commitment and divorce feel like the laments of an entitled guy who’s learned nothing.

That sentiment is never stronger than near the end of Tamborine when he describes being in court for his custody case, surrounded by lawyers and court officers, all of them more educated and privileged than him, a poor kid from Bed-Stuy who dropped out of high school to make his name as a comic. “Everybody in there is there to take my money,” he tells the crowd. “It’s like, ‘Everybody in here is gonna leave with more money except me.’ They got up that morning — they brushed they teeth, they put on suits, they fixed their hair — with the sole purpose of taking my shit.”

Rock pauses a second for dramatic effect. “And at that moment, I realized something: I made it.”

It’s a great observation, perfectly Rock-ian in its ability to combine surprise, humor and insight into what life is like as a famous black man in America. Only at such a low point could he fully appreciate how far he’d come from his modest upbringing.

But that standout moment of Tamborine is also depressing. Chris Rock, the incredible comic and social commentator, sees his debacle as another symptom of the racism and economic struggle that’s endemic in American life. He’s not wrong, but there’s also no self-reflection or growth in the observation. In the past, his wit, anger and brilliance helped erase those societal obstacles a little — he strutted across the stage as a way of showing that the bastards hadn’t gotten him down yet. But in Tamborine, the swagger is mostly gone. As he usually does, he ends his show by brazenly dropping the mic. This time, however, there’s little bluster in the perfunctory act.

He’s stuck in hell, but he can’t quite comprehend that it’s a hell of his own making.