INTERVIEW : Hey, Chris! Where'd the Edge Go? : 'Saturday Night Live' rookie Chris Rock brought a street-wise sense of humor that has been somewhat smoothed out--for now.

Lee R. Schreiber is a New York-based free-lance writer

It's the Friday afternoon before the 13th show in "Saturday Night Live's" 16th season on NBC. In Studio 8H, rehearsals are dragging. That's no fault of guest host Roseanne Barr, just the way it normally goes: Sketches get fleshed out on the tryout floor; bits go to pieces at the last moment. Waiting to be called to the set from the Spartan dressing room he shares with fellow featured player Chris Farley, Chris Rock is hot to start "Chillin'."

"It's a sketch I wrote for Farley and me, sort of like a 'Yo, MTV Raps, "' Rock says. "We've done it once before, but never as the cold opener."

That's the coveted first sketch that kicks off each show with the signature line, "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night! " If all goes well this week, it'll be Rock who kicks it.

Only recently has Rock gotten off anything approximating a signature line or character--primarily with the appearance of Nat X, the world's most militant talk-show host ("the revolution will not be televised"). Mostly Rock's been background scenery or "the black guy."

"It takes about a year before most (performers) become familiar enough with how the show works," says Lorne Michaels, "SNL's" producer. "I try to make that transition as easy as possible. I want them to feel that the audition is the stressful part, that once they've got the job they don't need to explode onto the screen . . . and that it's going to take time. I don't want them to feel as if they have to accomplish everything in six months."

Rock has dutifully accepted his featured role in Michaels' farm system (in ascending order): (1) writer/performer; (2) featured performer; (3) repertory--formerly known as Not Ready for Prime Time--player. Some move up; some don't. Of the current cast, Kevin Nealon and Mike Meyers took their turns as lesser figures before stepping up to full-fledged repertory performer.

Rock has even developed sort of an offscreen character to help him deal with small, prying audiences attempting to assess--or get him to assess--his progress on "SNL." Pumping up his skinny chest, Rock wryly announces the introduction of: "Cliche man!"

"I'm just happy to be here," the 23-year-old comedian says.

"I just want the best things on 'Saturday Night.' I'd rather be associated with a good show than have the only (sketch) on and nobody watching.

"I'm getting good stuff my first year. I didn't expect for it to go this well."

Rock's on a roll, seeded with platitudes and chased with bromides; yet, he's obviously holding his tongue with both cheeks. He genuinely likes this gig, he says, and definitely wants to keep it. If it takes a while to make an impact, so be it. He's just glad to be learning. Oh, and did he mention that the people couldn't be nicer?

Uh, Cliche Man, can I speak to Chris?

Back in the fall, everyone wanted a piece of Chris Rock. His arrival on "SNL" was met with anticipation by those who recalled the snaggle-toothed, foul-mouthed swaggering wiseguy with the rap attitude who punched the mike and stalked the stage, rapping out lines like . . . well, like the first joke he ever told on (cable) TV: "I was driving down the street, and I saw a prostitute. Asked her how much. She said, 'For $300, I'll do anything you want.' I said, 'Bitch, paint my house.' "

Supposedly it was just that edginess, along with a hip-hop sensibility, that Lorne Michaels wanted. "I'm sure I'm the only person on the show to go to Ice Cube and N.W.A. concerts," Rock said after being introduced to his new colleagues. But no, Michaels says, Rock's hiring was not a color-coordinated response to Fox's newer, hipper, blacker sketchfest, "In Living Color." The longtime producer--Michaels helped originate "SNL" in 1975, took a couple of years off and then came back to rejuvenate the show (and himself) in 1985--maintains that he chose Rock for the same reason he just signed Tim Meadows, "SNL's" newest featured player, who also happens to be black. They're both "funny. And funny in the way we can use on the show."

When Rock was originally cast, the other performers went out of their way to welcome the new kid to their heretofore all-white block. Most echo their boss's comments.

"Chris isn't on the show because he's black; he's on the show because he's funny," Dennis Miller said, demonstrating that performers of any parentage can bust a move on the cliche-meter.

Phil Hartman, whom Rock calls the "glue" on the show and "the most professional and steady of all the cast," joked about the rookie's presence: "Frankly, I resent him being on the show. He'll take all the good black roles away from the rest of us."

Frankly, Rock hasn't taken too many roles from anyone this season. "We're starting him off slowly," Michaels says. "He's got genuine talent, but he's got some growing to do." Rock's in no rush. And he has no regrets, none that he'll share anyway. Nor does he ever think of working on that other show, with all those Wayans folk (including his good friend, Damon Wayans, who was a featured player on "Saturday Night Live" for one season--in '85).

"I love 'In Living Color.' But I didn't grow up wanting to be on that show," Rock says. "I grew up thinking about being on 'Saturday Night Live.' "

Legend has it that at age 8 he watched "SNL's" premiere and vowed he would one day be on it. Not exactly, Rock says. "My mom wouldn't let me stay up that late. But a couple of years later I did see Garrett Morris on a repeat (in Don Pardo-like voice): " 'Bruce Lee is back . . . and he's black.' As a kid, you identify with people like yourself. I decided than that I wanted to be that guy--the black guy on 'Saturday Night Live.'

"Of course, I watched the show during the Murphy years. Along with Sugar Ray Leonard, he was one of my idols." Though Murphy's not, contrary to another popular myth, a mentor.

"Eddie saw me in a club here," Rock says, "and then put me on his HBO special, 'Uptown Comedy Express.' But that 'mentor' thing is overblown. Everyone on the special had big-time credits except me, so HBO came up with 'Eddie's protege.' People made it seem like I was knighted or something." Rock laughs--a sharp, loud yelp--one in the series of hyena-like barks. "Eddie's more like a cool older cousin who I see maybe five times a year."

The loudspeaker in Rock's dressing room barks out a call for most cast members--featured and repertory--to report to 8H for a run-through of "After the Laughter," a sketch in which Roseanne and her husband Tom Arnold appear as guests on the "Sally Jesse Raphael" show and view "taped" examples of their excessive behavior. Rock's in one segment as a non-speaking paparazzi . But Rock's dressing room-mate Chris Farley gets to air out his Tom Arnold impression--flailing Rosey with a barrage of affectionate body punches, or mauling those camera-wielding leeches with more deadly intent. It's a spot-on caricature, maybe even a signature characterization.

Rock admits there's competition among players, but says that, for the most part, "It's not ruthless." He seems genuinely supportive of his friend, adding: "Everything I write Farley's in."

On set, Rock is quietly told that Kevin Nealon's "Subliminal Man" will probably open the show. The Chrises' "I'm Chillin' " is still in--Lorne willin'--but no one's sure where yet.

The following night at around 10 p.m., after dress rehearsal, the piece is axed. "I liked it," Michaels says. "But something had to go." Rock accepts the news with a shrug. No biggie. "If it was cut," he says, "it must've meant it wasn't good enough." He vows to "put in more jokes and change some of the references. I mean, the audience is all white."

"I'm Chillin' " finally appears the following week, with Rock adding a role for Tim Meadows, who plays Public Enemy's Flavor Flav. The sketch gets a respectful response from the studio audience, with many of the esoteric rap-flavored references still intact ("I'm maxin' like Mike Jackson, and I'm waxin' like John Paxson . . .").

Rock says he's always been willing to rework his material until it kills. "I was never afraid of bombing," he says, "even early in my career. It's very easy to get laughs when you're going stuff that you've done, the prepared stuff. But when you go out of a limb and experiment, that's the true test.

"If I say something, and people don't respond, big deal. Who the hell am I? I'm just telling jokes!"

Back in his dressing room, still wearing a green-and-purple hockey jacket with matching sneakers, Rock crouches low on a chair in what he calls his "Spiderman's stance." Periodically he fingers the NBC badge on a chain around his neck, or cups a half-dozen phone messages over his mouth. When he becomes animated--"they're just freakin' JOKES!--the words hop out in a verbal expression of the rap "attitude" Rock cultivates. Mostly, he's unfailingly polite, with a "sweetness," as Michaels describes it, that often belies the roughness of his language. Rock is admittedly a ghetto kid "with a difference."

"We lived on a nice block in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy," he says. "I had two parents who loved each other, which was very rare in my neighborhood. My father died a couple of years ago. He worked at two jobs; one was driving a truck for the Daily News. My first job was unloading trucks for the paper. My mother still teaches retarded kids, still lives in the same house."

He retains vivid childhood memories of being bussed out of his cozy confines.

"I went to some really racist schools in Gerritson Beach (another part of Brooklyn). It was very weird and scary. I'm 8 years old and people are calling me 'nigger.' It's basically the reason I'm here now. Comedy is the blues for people who can't sing. You get on stage and fall down . . . people laugh. Pain's funny.

"I'm probably one of the 'streetiest' guys in comedy," he adds. "But I don't want to put any labels on me. Early on, I got a lot of people trying to take out some of that 'street.' Everyone told me how to stand, be like Pryor, be like Cosby. Silver Friedman (owner of the Improv in New York) tried to tell me how to hold the mike. Hey, if the crowd laughs, I don't care about the freakin' mike. One of the keys to this business is originality. I don't want to be like anybody else!"

Rock's monologue is delivered quietly; only the last line betrays any real emotion. Hey, it's all jokes. Like the one Rock made when he found that cabs wouldn't stop for "a young black kid unless I put on a suit." He suggested: "I should tap some white girl and say, 'Can you get me a cab, please?' Or maybe I should start wearing a sign around my neck that says, 'I'm a performer on 'Saturday Night Live.' "

It may be that cabbies will soon start recognizing Rock. A little more air time on Saturday Night, an upcoming comedy album, "Born Suspect," on Atlantic Records, not to mention a featured role as a drug dealer-turned-informant in the current movie "New Jack City."

The view from a cab makes Rock a tad nervous anyway. "I worry about losing perspective sometimes," he says, mindful of the entourage that travels with "Cousin" Eddie Murphy (though he maintains that Eddie has taken the success in stride). "There are guys doing milk commercials who have bigger heads than Eddie."

"Still," he says, sighing, "it's hard to write about life from a limousine."

Rock smiles knowingly. He's heard it before. He's said it before. But that's what he likes about cliches: They're often true.

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