Chris Rock re-edits a special, and the result is fascinating

By Jason Zinoman

In film, directors have all the power, less so in theater. But they are omnipotent compared with the director of the stand-up special, who, to borrow a metaphor from Chris Rock’s already essential 2018 special, “Tamborine,” has not traditionally led the band so much as stood on the side and played the tambourine.

But in recent years, directors’ status has shifted, becoming more like bass players or even drummers, in part because of specials like “Tamborine,” directed with style by innovative comic Bo Burnham. His auteur vision didn’t just showcase Rock in concert. It engaged and interpreted his work, and sharpened its focus while applying distinctive aesthetic flourishes.

“Total Blackout: The Tamborine Extended Cut,” released on Netflix on Tuesday, will be fascinating for comedy nerds, not just because it adds new jokes, with almost 40 minutes of extra material from arguably the greatest living comic. It also represents a key turning point in the balance of power between comic and director, with Rock reclaiming control. He effectively erases the stamp of the director, even replacing Burnham in the credits with his own name, and produces a new special with most of the same shots, whose differences are subtle but significant.

“Extended Cut” has more jokes, longer setups and more mess. Rock, who has himself directed features, even introduces a part where he misspeaks in setting up a joke, saying “bullies rule the world” when he means “nerds.” Burnham’s slick cinematic flourishes are taken out. Gone is the triple repetition, along with quick-cutting camera angles, of the first three words of the opening joke. (“You would think that cops would occasionally shoot a white kid, just to make it look good.”)

But the most important contrast is in the comic’s discussion of his own infidelity. Until “Tamborine,” Rock was known as a social commentator who mostly kept his private life at a distance. But addressing his divorce and his responsibility for the failure of his marriage, Rock made the most vulnerable, introspective comedy of his career. Burnham was clearly drawn to this aspect of the set and focused on it. This material, including jokes about marriage, divorce and sex, takes up about half of the special, as opposed to around a third of the extended version.

When Rock confessed his mistakes, Burnham moved into a rare close-up. And he stayed on the star’s face, with no cutaway shots, as Rock talked about cheating on his wife. When the crowd chuckled, Rock looked grave, emphasizing that he wasn’t proud. He said he knew what people were thinking: “What is wrong with men?”

On this line, Burnham did something dramatic: He shrank the frame even more, moving in on Rock like a microscope, so close to him that it obscured part of his head. It’s an aggressive move, and one that both underlines the question of what is wrong with men and broadens it, giving this personal story a new weight, especially since it came out just months after the Harvey Weinstein exposé and inevitably evokes the #MeToo movement.

A year later, Kevin Hart released a special, “Irresponsible,” in which he also discussed cheating on his wife. He was more oblique, briefer in his contrition, and the special cut away from him after a joke to show the crowd laughing. Whereas Burnham kept the audience out of it, “Irresponsible” took a more ingratiating route, with a shot that indicated it was OK to laugh before keeping things moving.

Rock’s extended version remains tougher-minded but moves closer to this posture. He removes the extreme close-up, which, along with its role in drawing attention to the material, is something of a signature Burnham shot. He used it at the start of his direction of Jerrod Carmichael’s game-changing special “8” — whose filmic aesthetic inspired Rock to hire him. In place of that touch, Rock adds a new shot, a mouse-eye view of the star from the front of the stage partly obscured by what appears to be a member of the audience. This new angle looks up at a performer, in awe.

What sticks with you in the original is the setup — the admission of cheating with three women and the specificity of the confession. In the extended cut, it’s the punchline, as Rock anticipates the audience response and contrasts the shock from women with the more blasé response of men. (“Three? That’s it? Just three?”) It’s the same joke, but the direction changes the effect.

The new version is a more conventional, if unvarnished, stand-up production, but it also may be truer to the experience of the concert. As someone who saw the first theater show in 2017 on the tour that resulted in this special, I was happy to experience certain jokes again, many of which zero in on the economic angle of a hot-button issue, like his take on how “prices are the new Jim Crow.” He goes on to explain, “The Four Seasons hotel does not say, ‘No Blacks allowed.’ But a $4,000 a night hotel suite sure does.”

Rock’s diagnosis of police brutality also returns to money when he says cops are poorly paid “and you get what you pay for.”

The streamlined cut emphasized the personal, but the extended version is a reminder that Rock has always been a materialist alert to how the bottom-line colors almost every issue.

In a departure from the swaggering, pacing Chris Rock in his big-room shows, Burnham emphasized intimacy in the quiet, jazzy open that showed us the back of the comic’s head waiting for the show to start, observing. The extended cut dispenses with this image of the solitary Rock and adds celebratory scenes hanging out with other comics. We see Eric Andre, Dave Chappelle and Arsenio Hall.

The new version is also more straightforward about his fame. Rock places clips of appearances on talk shows he did to promote the special as a way to flesh out certain jokes.

This new version does not erase the old one, which remains on Netflix, but it will supplant it for many fans. So while both are worthwhile, if you are going to watch one, my recommendation is to go with the original. It’s more stylish, ambitious and unusual. And its direction represents a step forward for the art, one that inches the special closer to the status of feature films.

Stand-up comedians are often control freaks. It’s part of why they go into a job where you not only write your lines but also deliver them. There are real benefits to this kind of control, but there is also virtue in collaboration, particularly for work that aims for more thematic, aesthetic and narrative complexity.

The audience wants comedy that feels most authentic to the animating vision of the artist. But that is not the same thing as work done without filters or assistance. Sometimes you need other voices to help you be the best version of yourself.

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