Chris Rock has a new Netflix special, as all self-respecting comedians do these days. It’s called “Tamborine,” the point being that sometimes you play lead vocals in a band, sometimes tambourine. Whichever you have to play, do it well.
Surely, that’s a family values message. Well, maybe. But this is his confessional tour. He’s busy telling you he screwed up and cheated on his wife, who divorced him, and now raising the kids is hard. The last act of the show is him bragging about how good he has it in the trying circumstances of a millionaire’s divorce, as women throw themselves at him so hard, so fast, he’s embarrassed. I guess it is hard, but I wouldn’t know, and neither would anyone else watching this show.
The millionaire lifestyle and its problems have caught up to Rock, and it’s hard to find what he might have in common with people who play tambourine to his lead vocals. He was a poor kid and then a struggling artist a long time ago. “Tamborine” was released just after his 53rd birthday. He’s been rich and famous half his life and is still trying to drum up sympathy for laughs.
From Loving America to Exploiting It
This is bad news for America. Before Dave Chappelle emerged, Rock was the big hope in stand-up comedy. His three-hour HBO specials, “Bring The Pain” (1996), “Bigger and Blacker” (1999), and “Never Scared” (2004) were the best stand-up had to offer at the time. He offered racial reconciliation and was always arguing on the American side despite admitting all America’s faults. Thanks to his background, he was there to prove you can make it in America and that, if you do, you owe it to others to help them, too.
There’s not much of that left. Since Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, Rock has betrayed his previous all-American reputation and turned into uglier and uglier partisanship. He sounds pretty embarrassing now. He’ll tell you, if you care to listen, that Donald Trump might be a good thing in a way. After all, George W. Bush was so bad he gave us Obama! Trump is so much worse: He’ll give us Jesus! This coming from a guy who can never for a second countenance the thought that maybe Obama was so bad he gave us Trump.
Netflix doesn’t make for community—it makes money out of convincing young Americans to abandon any community and retreat into their apartments. Its more self-righteous products make money by stirring national hatred as much as any partisan media outlet. Rock is a businessman doing likewise. Maybe it’s nice work if you can get it. But it’s not moral, and it’s below the dignity of any American artist.
Chris Rock Still Has Some Redeeming Qualities
This is not to say that Rock has lost his touch entirely. He still has a capacity to tell liberal audiences things they don’t want to hear, in this case about religion and violence. Let’s start with God. Rock says religion is like salt—a bit of salt makes for great eating, but too much will spoil everything. That’s a pretty revolutionary thing to say on Netflix.
Rock also says he’s trying to find God before God finds him. He means Americans don’t get religion because they want to be martyrs and missionaries. They get religion so they can live without going crazy. As he explains, the problem with God finding you is, it’s never when you’re comfortable. It’s when catastrophe and tragedy tear your world apart. So far, so good—but he only goes so far. For a man whose rhetoric has always drawn from the traditions of black preachers, it’s pretty weak sauce.
On violence Rock says Trump is the bully we were too weak to deal with, so it’s his audience’s fault for losing to him. This is also revolutionary for Netflix. He goes on to say bullies are a necessary part of life. You cannot make everything safe for children so there’s never any danger or risk.
Yet when Rock turns to moral realism about faith and violence, he loses a great chance to show solidarity with working-class Americans. He’s still using his poor childhood and ugly experiences with school busing. But he never notes that it’s easy for rich liberals to want pacifism in paradise. Most Americans cannot do what Rock does and buy their way out of social problems. They don’t have the option of “Love me and leave me in luxury’s lap,” to quote an old Blossom Dearie song.
Encouraging Americans to Hate Each Other
Instead, he explains at length how he tells his sons to treat America with suspicion, because for black people America is, or can at any moment devolve into, hell. This seems like a desperate way to cajole his liberal audience into feeling guilty and ashamed, when his successes and resources are far greater than anything they’re likely to encounter, not to say possess and enjoy.
The only moment Rock is willing to be realistic about class is when he says, “As a black man, I’m against the cops, but as a man with property, well, I need the cops. If someone steals something, I can’t call the Crips!” That’s too little for a guy so hopeful for success from stirring comfortable liberals against the police who protect them. There is something deeply wrong about this fake morality, and it goes beyond encouraging Americans to hate each other.
Comedy can bring America together. A man who can show that he understands the good and bad in equality, the beautiful and ugly truths about Americans, our attempt to live with justice and failures—such a man could earn the loyalty of his audience and reward them not merely with ideological flattery that excuses them from working for a common good.
When I was a kid, I thought Chris Rock would be that guy. He talked tough and said many ugly truths about all sides and all races. He pretended he was fearless and taught his audience, especially young people, that you could live with learning the ugly truth because all in all, the truth wasn’t so bad. You had something to work with to make a better America.
Now, apparently, only liberals can be part of a better America. This is not just a disappointment—it is one more failure to share a culture. People who cannot laugh together can hardly live together.