In the US and elsewhere, Chris Rock’s new show, Total Blackout, has been hailed as the most personal and reflective of his career. “Rock of Ageing” it’s been called: the show in which the superstar comic grieves for his broken marriage and repents of his sins. But what’s on stage at Manchester Arena, where the UK leg of his world tour begins, doesn’t quite fit that bill. True, Rock addresses his recent divorce: the tour, he says, will cover his alimony payments. But whatever regret he might feel doesn’t long detain us, and soon makes way for the usual upbeat humour about race and religion, parenting and the challenges of marital life.
Maybe that’s because he is further along his path to recovery than when the tour began, almost a year ago. (His divorce was finalised in August 2016.) Maybe he reworked the show after early reviews. Either way, he is in swaggering fettle in Manchester, easily vaulting the gap that can yawn between audience and performer in arena standup. The first half of this 90-minute show, in particular, is expert, effervescent stuff, measuring against his high standards of common sense the America that has developed since Rock last toured, and finding it wanting.
He opens with risque jokes about #MeToo, then doubles down with a routine demanding police start shooting white kids, “just to make it look better”. In a skit about last year’s Las Vegas shooting, he subjects the gun lobby’s claim that knives are as lethal as guns to trial by sarcastic roleplay. Then there’s his routine about child discipline – not a novel topic for a middle-aged comic, but delivered with amusing ardour by the 52-year-old father-of-two, barking at his kids about how un-special they are, booby-trapping their home with “heavy, hot or sharp” white objects to prepare them for abuse at white America’s hands.
It’s very funny – as it usually is when Rock channels the paranoid black man cowering in the successful millionaire’s body. So hot is the streak he’s on in this first half that he even refreshes that hoariest standup subject, airport security, calling for a new carrier for passengers who don’t care about safety: “Risky Airlines. Muslims half price.” It’s all performed with palpable relish – and it really is a performance, full of dynamism and expressive emphasis, all popping eyes and beaming grins.
A routine about religious extremism gives us our first taste of the show’s confessional mode, as our host claims to be “trying to find God before God finds me”. That’s partly because, he explains, his 16-year marriage is over and he’s to blame. “I’m an asshole. I wasn’t kind. I cheated.” The divorce material, which dominates the show’s final third, begins as a mea culpa, and a heartfelt plea to couples in the audience, if not to love one another better, then at least to have sex as often as they can.
Rock also talks about his porn addiction, but pretty soon, the penitence devolves into conventional – if lurid – sex comedy, and more jokes about henpecked husbands and ball-breaking wives. Rock seems to live in a world where only men work, and women are out to get what he calls “my money”. One unfortunate gag finds a man having to identify his wife’s corpse by her “pussy”. Given all he’s been through and claims to have learned, it is disappointing that the jokes bear a strong resemblance to the men v women material from his last tour, 10 years ago. I felt cheated of the promised soul-baring, but there is no denying that – for an hour at least – Rock is on great form.
- At Cardiff Arena, 12 January. Box office: 029-2022 4488. Then touring until 28 January.