In Chris Rock’s New Special, a Humbler Master at Work

In Chris Rock’s New Special, a Humbler Master at Work

One of his few peers, Dave Chappelle, who also recently returned from a long hiatus to make a Netflix special, provides a contrast. It’s hard to imagine Mr. Rock releasing a club set after hardly any time to refine it, the way Mr. Chappelle did over New Year’s. Mr. Rock is too much of a perfectionist. And while Mr. Chappelle shows up at clubs and spends hours onstage riffing, gathering ideas through free association, Mr. Rock’s process is much more focused and linear, like his comedy.

Whereas Mr. Chappelle escapes tricky territory through sweeping history lessons or literary flourishes, Mr. Rock builds forceful arguments that culminate in precise and memorable epigrams. “Pressure makes diamonds, not hugs” is the pithiest defense of bullying you will hear.

Mr. Rock’s booming act has always been built for bigger rooms, but he goes smaller for this special, with the help of the comic Bo Burnham, whose artfully idiosyncratic direction emphasizes intimacy and studiously avoids cliché. The show begins with a casual shot of the back of Mr. Rock’s head while he is chatting backstage and ends abruptly. When the star drops the microphone, Mr. Burnham fades to black before we hear the familiar sound of it hitting the floor. Crisp images of the front row of the theater, juxtaposed with smoky backdrops and ghostly lighting, make the audience appear on the same level as the performer, creating unusually striking images for stand-up comedy.

In filming just the first joke — “You would think that cops would occasionally shoot a white kid, just to make it look good” — Mr. Burnham shifts angles four times, but he also knows when to stop moving the camera. As Mr. Rock confesses he cheated on his wife, he goes in for the close-up and lingers.

This risks heavy-handedness but displays a perceptive eye for the importance of a pivot point where the star could lose his audience. Kevin Hart, who recently confessed to cheating on his wife before announcing a tour called “Irresponsible,” might face a similar onstage moment soon.

When I saw Mr. Rock play Madison Square Garden in December, he took a few glancing shots at Matt Lauer, the “Today” host who was fired over allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior, but the comic mostly avoided #MeToo as he does in the new special. Though Mr. Rock evoked the movement at one point by shifting from his mistakes with his wife to a broader question: “What is wrong with men?”

Over the course of his career, mixing the voice of a preacher with that of a litigator, Mr. Rock has built up an authority skewering the foibles of the world while keeping his own offstage. This special represents a shift in that dynamic. In describing his flaws, Mr. Rock says he was hooked on pornography. There is a lot of comedy about pornography, but to hear a superstar break down how watching it made him “sexually autistic” is bracing, and may even provide grist to certain warnings against online porn.

In that North Carolina show, Mr. Rock went into more detail about his affairs. That was cut from the special, leaving nothing to invite jealousy. His tone is contrite, but it also suggests he has recovered, both from porn addiction and cheating, which he says he’s done with. In an hour dense with jokes, he gets serious. “When guys cheat, we want something new,” he says, still in close-up. “But you know what happens? Your woman finds out and now she’s new. She’s never the same again. You got new but you got a bad new.”

Offstage, Chris Rock is soft-spoken, thoughtful, even shy — an alter ego to the strutting superhero he becomes in his stand-up specials whose titles (“Bigger & Blacker,” “Never Scared”) telegraph swagger. In the age of Trump, he has shifted to something quieter, more humble, and yet, with the same old confidence, with lessons learned at the end

Mr. Rock does not wallow in melancholy and regret over lost love. He turns them into a great comedy special, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

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