For more than an hour during his new show, Chris Rock gives the Chicago Theatre fans exactly what they expect and what they want: astute, fiery commentary on the state of the country and humanity, delivered with high intensity.
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
Tickets: Sold out
And then, something unusual. As he discusses his divorce, his adultery and his fight for shared custody of his two daughters, he calms down. He takes the 3,000 or so onlookers into his confidence and details his trials and his misdeeds in the tone of a regular human being. It’s an intimate Chris Rock that we’ve seen in interviews and some of his more grounded movies, but who seldom emerges during his stand-up sets.
“I cheated,” he admits. “I’m not proud of it.”
Not that he stops the funny. Woven into the confessionals are typically hilarious riffs on how every couple’s home is under sole control of the woman, and the trick to making a sex strike work, and men’s ineptitude at being unfaithful. Baring your soul doesn’t mean abandoning your mission.
But the hushed segment, 15 minutes or so, succeeds in changing the pace of the show, altering the flow customary in the other sets captured on Rock’s beloved TV specials. It’s a little breather before Rock comes roaring back for the finish.
Thursday’s sold-out show, the first of four at the Chicago Theatre, is part of Rock’s “Total Blackout” tour. A new set from Rock is always an event, another thoughtful, sometimes brutal assessment honed for maximum impact through his famously thorough tryout process. This generous batch of material is on its way to being one of two TV specials in his reported $40 million deal with Netflix.
Though he’s offered bits of stand-up in recent years — an Oscars show here, a “Saturday Night Live” there — this is Rock’s first prolonged set since “Kill the Messenger” from 2008, back in the dawning of the age of Obama. He’s understandably more exasperated now, punctuating the opening stretch of this show with a pinched face, squealed cries of “What the f—??!!” and especially frantic back-and-forth on his feet.
Much is causing him alarm, starting with Chicago. The city’s main tourist activity now is avoiding being shot, he said, adding, “I am scared RIGHT NOW.”
A black president, he now realizes, was “an aberration,” and now Donald Trump brings us back to “the natural state of America,” the leadership of old, rich, white men.
Many of the themes are familiar ones. Remember Rock’s old solution to gun violence: the $5,000 bullet? He’s got a new one now, and it involves a potential gun owner’s personal finances. And the classic bit about people who deserve to be labeled with the n-word? Now he relates that he taught his kids about the hazards of whiteness — and not just in people.
(Forgive the vagueness, but a review is not the place to spoil a comedian’s punch lines. Rock is so concerned about leaks of his jokes that he makes audience members lock their phones in little pouches for the duration of the show.)
A ticket to see Chris Rock is a waiver to let your assumptions be popped. He’s not having any aphorisms about how “hate has to be taught.” And in a society working hard to eliminate bullying, Rock defended it, insisting bullies force the nerds to get strong and go on to achieve greatness. People who don’t know how to handle bullies, he said, could end up electing one president. Ahem.
He also touched on police shootings, hunting, God and Gary, Indiana, on the way to that quiet, highly personal segment about life after marriage. “If you’ve got somebody to love,” he said ruefully, “hold tight. Hold tight.”
Opening were two other comics of color. Ardie Fuqua zips through some fast-paced material about differences between the races before dropping his bombshell: He was in the truck collision that almost killed Tracy Morgan in 2014.
And the West Side’s own Hannibal Buress’ set was augmented by uproarious visuals: a huge blowup of a Reddit post by a woman who slept with him, and videos he wants played at his funeral. He has some choice words about Rahm Emanuel and Chuy Garcia as well but got his biggest laugh from the hometown crowd by demonstrating how Chicagoans can have a 25-minute conversation entirely about intersections.