Since his last world tour nine years ago, Chris Rock has starred in a dozen Hollywood movies and a breakout Broadway show, written and directed his own screenplay, and produced a hit television series. Oh, and he hosted the Oscars for a second time.
At his first-ever show in Israel Tuesday night, Rock gave the 10,000-strong audience in Tel Aviv’s Menorah Mivtachim Arena a taste of what has made him a comedy legend in America: high-intensity, raucous commentary on the human condition, delivered in an expletive-laden, undulating tone.
But Rock’s global comeback on the stand-up stage, with an Israel leg to boot, also provided something new.
Aside from the occasional name-drop of mega-superstars he hangs out with (or tries to date) in his spare time, it was Rock’s failures and shortcomings, not his celebrity achievements, that made up the majority of his unrelenting 70-minute set. Revealing an intimacy we’ve seen before in interviews but rarely on the stage, the show’s focus was not his hilarious treatment of US racial and social idiosyncrasies, but his struggles with divorce and adultery, and his fight for shared custody of his two daughters.
That’s not to say that he left his riotously delivered observations at home, weaving his personal confessions in with classic Rock riffs on police violence (“You would think occasionally the cops would shoot a white kid, just to make it look good”), the differences between men and women (“women, children and dogs are loved unconditionally… but a man is only loved if he can provide something”) and airport security (“What about shampoo is so dangerous? They take our shampoo and then sell it back to us in duty free”). The newly introspective Rock succeeded in giving a performance that was as intimate and personal as it was playful and roaringly funny.
“Tel Aviv! Shalom motherfuckers,” he opened to the cheers of the crowd, always flattered by localized recognition.
While the 52-year-old has never performed in Israel before, he did visit the country in 2008, along with Ben Stiller and Jada Pinkett Smith, for the Israeli premiere of “Madagascar 2,” in which Rock voiced Marty the zebra.
“I’m loving this country. Israel, yeah!” he offered after one of the many applause breaks.
Star-studded support acts also provided some of their own Israel- and Jewish-tailored material.
Veteran roaster Jeff Ross, who acted as emcee for the evening, repeatedly told the audience of his Jewish roots, noting, “I love my people and you are my people,” before launching into his suggestions for Jewish porn movie titles (“I Don’t Do That” and “Get That Thing Out of My Face” were his favorites.) The Daily Show’s Michelle Wolf told the crowd of her love for Tel Aviv, which she described as “Miami’s much older sister.” And the absurdist Anthony Jeselnick opined that “that one went over the top of your yarmulkes,” after a particularly outrageous non sequitur appeared to have been completely lost on the largely native Hebrew-speaking crowd.
As opposed to the three relaxed and disarming warm-up sets, Rock came across as restive and strained. The performance, which included the occasional stutter and mistake, lacked the slick finesse of his 2008 “Kill the Messenger” tour, his last global offering, which won him an Emmy for the HBO special of the show.
But intended or not, Rock’s at-times abstracted demeanor was the perfect analogy for his new and blisteringly raw material. And he embraced the chaos with an honesty that was as funny as it was wistful.
“I’m just trying to get my life together,” he chuckled after realizing that he had fudged the punchline of one joke.
Discussing his 2016 separation from Malaak Compton-Rock, his wife of 16 years, Rock went on lengthy tangents, some with no obvious punchline, in which he seemed to be genuinely grappling with his own misgivings.
In front of a giant text reading “Comfort is the poison,” Rock repeatedly warned the audience, “You don’t want to get divorced.”
“You don’t want this shit,” he said ruefully. “If you have somebody to love, hold tight.”
But he was anything but sanctimonious in analyzing what caused his marriage to break down. “I got divorced because I was an asshole, I just wasn’t a good husband,” he said, going on to admit to infidelity with three women and an insatiable addiction to pornography (which he derisively said made him “15 minutes late, everywhere”).
Rock even offered a candid admission about his motivation for getting back on the road with a new show, saying that the money he had lost in the divorce settlement had pushed him to take the (rumored $40 million) deal with Netflix to air the show on its streaming service later this year.
“I lost so much money, I’m doing shows in Israel,” he said with such candor that the audience was forced to laugh, literally at their own expense.
But don’t worry, he added, the NIS 269 to NIS 589 ($75-$164) spent on tickets would go “toward helping little black girls attend private school.”
“If anyone asks what you did tonight, you can say, ‘I made a difference,'” he said.
In perhaps his most raw admission of humility, Rock also spoke about a search for genuine meaning in his life. “I guess I am trying to find God, before he finds me,” he said.
The honesty may have felt extraneous and heavy at times had it not been peppered with tidbits about his new, unmarried life — like that time he tried to chat up Rihanna or how, to the shock of his showbiz friends, he uses Tinder under his real name.
Speaking to Rolling Stone magazine last year, Rock said that “the alimony tour,” his nickname for Total Blackout, would be a form of catharsis for the breakup. “This is all R&B shit, this is all ‘hold tight, fight through it,'” he said of the material he had been working on for the previous couple of years.
And it was just that. Rock, along with the Tel Aviv audience, held tight and fought through it. And the sense of relief was palpable, for everyone.