Entertainment

Sadder and wiser, Chris Rock returns in first tour in nine years

Chris Rock’s relationships and recent divorce dominated Total Blackout on Saturday as he performed in front of a screen reading 'COMFORT IS THE POISON.'

Chris Rock performs on his "Comfort is the Poison" tour at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. November 11, 2017.

Steve Russell / Torstar News Service Order this photo

Chris Rock performs on his "Comfort is the Poison" tour at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. November 11, 2017.

Chris Rock has dubbed his current tour Total Blackout, possibly because Sadder And Wiser wouldn’t have sold out the Air Canada Centre the way he did on Saturday night.

On his first tour in nine years, the standup comedy legend had to confront not just rust but his own legacy: his four HBO specials (especially Bring the Pain) made him a giant star in his field. Yet those who came expecting more of the same were in for a couple of surprises.

For one thing, Rock’s delivery wasn’t perfect, with the comedian stumbling slightly over his setups at several points. The final third of his set, while more polished, delivered the other curveball: a performer who made much of his reputation with racial material dwelled on matters of the heart — and other, more southerly organs.

He’s always joked at length about sex, men vs. women and marriage vs. loneliness in bits that cannot be quoted here, but the Brooklyn-raised African-American’s recent divorce and relationships in general dominated his best material on Saturday — and it had a confessional quality he hasn’t always had.

He ruefully recounted his failings as a husband and his return to dating, including a humiliating encounter with Rihanna; he invited coupled people considering a breakup to look at themselves naked in the mirror and ask “Do I need situps or counselling?”

Chris Rock performs on his

Steve Russell/Toronto Star

Chris Rock performs on his "Comfort is the Poison" tour at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. November 11, 2017.

Hard truths are what the cynical Rock has long dealt in; on Saturday he performed in front of a screen bearing a vast red statement that “COMFORT IS THE POISON.” Mixed with the personal was a lot of what could be termed observational old-man material: a defence of just the right amount of child abuse, a winning bit about mortgages, and having sex while still worrying about the mould in the basement (not a euphemism).

Along the way there was sharp material about police brutality (“bad apples,” he said, tiptoeing daintily, “what a lovely term for a murderer”), Trump and religion, but Rock seems to mostly find inspiration closer to home these days.

The headliner was both clever and professional — the star’s closing joke having been carefully set up with two bits earlier in the set, per the Comedy Rule of Threes — but what we might call the Rock of Aging concert satisfied the crowd without ever quite generating explosive laughter.

One suspects the venue was the issue. There was an observable, disruptive delay in the audience’s response to jokes: Rock scored an applause break with a joke about endangered species — but it took a moment, and he waited for it, like a bus.

The majority of the 18,000 or so in attendance watched the giant screens instead of the flesh-and-blood comics. This is especially natural with Rock, much of whose performing is done above the shoulders: those usually aggrieved, sometimes fearful eyes, and the right side of his face that seems to contain most of the expressiveness, especially those drooping lips connoting disgust. It did, however, seem to reinforce the distance between the crowd and the comics.

Opening act Mario Joyner was so polished, attractive and professional that few in the crowd seemed to notice that some of his material dated back to 1990s’ TV appearances. His material about life as a mature homeowner, of more recent vintage, was his sharpest.

Middle act Judah Friedlander, of 30 Rock near-fame, depended on crowd interaction between Mitch Hedberg-esque one-liners (fencing is his favourite sport for “combining swordfighting and beekeeping”). Though his set did seem to trigger something of a bathroom run in my row, he was generously received and it achieved what Rock probably wanted: he got a reserved crowd engaged and ready for the headliner.

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