Aside from one notable scene-stealer, the most interesting thing about Netflix’s The Cloverfield Paradox wasn’t the film itself, but its manner of release. That’s because the streaming giant decided to tease the film during the Super Bowl, then release it immediately after — without any prior notice. Netflix has surprised subscribers with similar last-minute releases before, with some shows going sans previews until mere months or weeks before they began to stream. The practice is still a somewhat ridiculous one, which is why it works so well for Chris Rock’s new comedy special, Tamborine.
Then again, everything about Tamborine is ridiculous. From the first teaser video that consisted of playerless tambourines to a subsequent video featuring characters from other Netflix originals reacting the ghostly instruments, the social media-driven rollout has been absurd. Even when Netflix decided finally to reveal Rock’s attachment to the project, they did so not with footage from the actual comedy special, but with the same teaser — plus Rock’s name and a release date. (Even the first teaser for Dave Chappelle’s Netflix debut included the man himself.)
And that’s just the marketing. When the Bo Burnham-directed special begins, it doesn’t copy Rock’s previous specials by revealing a cheering audience as he enters the stage and begins his set. Similar to Burnham’s previous directorial effort — Jerrod Carmichael’s 8, which began with another steady zooming shot — Tamborine opens with a slow zoom in on the back of Rock’s head while he talks with friends in a crowded dressing room. Thundercat’s “Them Changes” plays in the background, and after a solid 40 seconds of music, background chatter, and Rock’s hairline, we finally get to see some comedy.
Or at least we almost do. After Rock tells everyone to “sit yo asses down,” Tamborine pulls one final fake before it unleashes the 53-year-old comedian. Rock begins the performance with a question that, thanks to multiple camera placements, numerous tapings, and some quick editing, is repeated three times: “You would think?” That’s not the whole question, of course, as it’s immediately followed by the first of many highly politicized topics that Rock tackles throughout the hour. But Rock and Burnham just can’t seem to resist piling onto Tamborine‘s already ridiculous efforts to stall the inevitable punchlines.
This may seem annoying at first, but as Rock completes his opening question with a frank, hilarious, and rousing monologue about police shootings in America, the aim of all the smoke and mirrors becomes clear. Sadly absurd topics like racism, gun violence, politics, and modern romance necessitate an equally ludicrous format when presented as stand-up comedy. Simply warning the audience that what comes next might sound mean, but actually isn’t “because it’s funny,” isn’t good enough. Legwork is required to discuss an otherwise volatile and delicate subject with the addition of jokes, and thanks to Tamborine‘s occasionally infuriating attempts to delay the inevitable, Rock accomplishes this beautifully.
Yet there’s another reason for this approach to filming, marketing, and presenting Tamborine in this way. As an early New York Times review of Rock’s Total Blackout Tour in 2017 notes, “What stood out most about this show, however, was the personal, not the political.” That’s because the then recently divorced comedian was more than willing to go deep into his own troubles for a few laughs. And yes, there were laughs, but as the Times explains, they didn’t always “match the impact of [the] silent, dramatic [beats]” presented to the audience with topics like infidelity, or the literal trials of enduring an unpleasant divorce and custody battle. Rock doesn’t shy away from these subjects in Tamborine, but he doesn’t steamroll his fans with them either.
Neither does the special, which places Rock on a narrow, curved stage that allows him to converse directly with the front row. Meanwhile, the backdrop is illuminated by a vast array of floor-to-ceiling lights that cast the comic in a kind of aura. Long gone are the days of Bring the Pain‘s egotistical backdrop with Rock’s literal initials serving as giant set pieces, or Bigger and Blacker‘s similarly self-centered presentation. Even the patented leather jacket is out. In their stead is an open, well-lit space occupied by a black t-shirt and jeans-wearing Rock, suggesting an altogether more intimate performance.
Tamborine is as intimate as it is ridiculous, and although the content of Rock’s material drives this home when it needs to, the special is always ready to assist him when necessary. It begins with Burnham’s opening zoom in on the comic and happens again when he admits to cheating on his wife. “I cheated,” he exclaims. “I’m not bragging. I was on the road. I ended up sleeping with three different women.” In that moment, the main camera slowly zooms in on Rock’s face and stays there for nearly a minute and a half. It’s the reverse of the open, but the effect is the same. Viewers at home are thrust into the immediacy of what Rock is doing and saying, spit and all, and it all seems so uncomfortably weird. But it feels right.
Chris Rock: Tamborine is now streaming on Netflix.