Heavyweight With the Gift of Jab
Perhaps no one has had a hotter year, or evinces more promise, than Chris Rock. His comedy is both bright and serious--a true window on our wondrous, if troubled, times. He has been routinely characterized as the “smartest,” most “dangerous,” most “fearless” comic working in America today, and he very well may be.
His HBO special “Bring the Pain” won Emmys for best writing and best comedy special. His video and CD of the concert “Roll With the New,” released by DreamWorks Records, is currently climbing the music charts with the video of its breakout single, “Champagne,” now in rotation on MTV. “Rock This!,” his book of bits, reflections, satirical observations and slams, was published this year by Hyperion Press and is now rising on the major bestseller lists.
Since he was discovered as an 18-year-old by his idol, Eddie Murphy, the 32-year-old comic has transformed himself from an illiterate, trash-talking wise guy into a pitiless and erudite comedic brawler whose hilarious, if trenchant, observations of America’s untidy racial, social, sexual and political follies have been celebrated by fans, peers and critics alike. They have put him in line as a worthy successor to such formidable satirical comics as Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, George Carlin and Richard Pryor.
The Times caught up with Rock recently at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. He was in town for the CableACE Awards, where his highly rated HBO series, “The Chris Rock Show” (which debuted this year), won for best show and best series. At noon on the dot, Rock strides through the lobby, plops down in a comfortable chair near the empty bar and orders himself a Coke.
Question: What do you think about the year you’ve had, and all the success you’ve gotten?
Rock: It’s fabulous. Man, it’s great. But at the same time it only means I gotta work twice as hard, the expectations are twice as high. I come with a lot of baggage--great baggage. People want you to be really funny. Not kind of funny. Not “hee hee” but “bring it, bring it.” You’re the guy. It’s like Tyson--they want to see a knockout every fight. People want me to knock them out every time they see me.
Q: They can’t say you’re not trying. In your live act, you stalk the stage like a pugilist in the ring.
A: Stick and move, stick and move. Joke and move, joke and move--you gotta move to keep their attention. The comedian and the fighter are so similar, because you’re out there all by yourself. There is no bigger humiliation in sports than to get knocked out. There is no bigger humiliation in show business than to bomb comedically. Nothing compares to it.
The movement is all about their attention. If you stand in one place, people can talk to their friends. When they come back, you’re still there. If you move, they gotta keep watching you. It’s a different era. Guys used to stand still. People have smaller attention spans now. A comedian’s gotta pace now. Gotta. Eddie Murphy worked the stage, worked the stage. Everything is heated up. Don’t think you can tell jokes the way you told jokes 50 years ago.
Q: Were you always funny?
A: I don’t know if I’m funny now. I know I say things and people laugh, but funny is always to the people, it’s never to me. I know what makes me laugh, but am I funny? I don’t know. I know people think I’m funny.
Q: To continue the boxing analogy, on your HBO series you don’t seem to be afraid to tangle with heavyweights. How are you choosing your guests?
A: I like thinkers. I lean towards comics and politicians and writers. People that think for a living.
Q: You have people on that you’ve destroyed in your book and in your act. You announced [recently] that you are going to have Al Sharpton on.
A: Yeah, I’m going to have Al Sharpton.
Q: You ridiculed Al’s big-hair perm.
A: Oh yeah, big hair. That’s not destroy--that’s just a normal joke about Al. What I say about Al is no different than what Letterman or Leno says about Al.
Q: But they don’t then invite him on the show the next day.
A: Yeah, well, I guess they don’t want him on. . . . I like Al. Again, as much as you joke, a guy doesn’t get successful without a lot of hard work. And he must have something to say. Let’s hear what All has to say. When I have him on, it’s not going to be like the Morton Downey show. I don’t have people on and then start putting them down. I mean, me and Jesse [Jackson] go into it a little bit, but it was give and take and I made sure he got his point across. I even had [Oklahoma Republican Rep.] J.C. Watts on, and made sure he got his point across. And so, Al is going to be interesting. Guests like that are so much more interesting than your average actor or the kid who’s doing some UPN sitcom.
Q: But you don’t give your guests a break.
A: Yes I do. If you watch the tape of the J.C. Watts show, it’s really interesting. The audience was on his side for a long time. Then he kind of lost them when he said he didn’t know who [funk pioneer] George Clinton was. But he really had them for a minute.
Q: Who would you most like to have on your show?
A: Clarence Thomas. . . . You’d want to get into his head and ask: “What is your agenda?” The “hair and the Coke” thing, that’s he-said-she-said stuff at the end of the day, it’s [the word of] two people, we don’t know which one is telling the truth. But you really want to get him on affirmative action. You want to see: Does he have any obligation as a black man, being a Supreme Court justice.
Q: Why are you so political?
A: It’s a new time. And I just have another consciousness, it’s just the way I grew up. This is a political time, and there are more things going on for blacks and for everybody than there was 10 years ago.
Q: Name some.
A: Police brutality. Rap and censorship issues. This stuff wasn’t happening in the ‘80s. It’s heated up politically, and I’m just lucky to be here. It was easy for George Carlin and Richard Pryor to be political. Richard Pryor was lucky, “Wow, civil rights, and I’m here.” The comedians during the civil rights era were great.
Q: You must also be speaking of the comedy of Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory.
A: Yes. You know what? Me and Dick Gregory are real similar. I’ve seen Dick Gregory’s tapes, and I have a couple of his albums. And I go, “Ooh,” after the fact, “I have to stop doing a joke because that’s Dick Gregory’s joke.” He covered a lot of things before I did.
Q: Why does the public seem so fascinated about the private lives of the powerful and famous?
A: People want to know more, and normally they can’t get into anybody’s personal life.
Q: What do you think about Marv Albert’s troubles?
A: . . . I don’t know what to say about Marv. He should let it die. When you go on Barbara Walters and she asks you if you slept with a transvestite and the word “No” doesn’t come out of your mouth, you’ve got problems. You give an explanation: “You know I went through this experimental . . .” You’re Marv Albert! All I wanna hear you talk about is, “Do the Knicks have a shot at the title?”
Q: Speaking of transvestites, what did you think about Eddie Murphy’s midnight altruism on the streets of Hollywood?
A: Please, I don’t want to answer that. Pleeeze, pleeeeeze. It’s like what Oliver Hardy used to say, “This is a fine mess you’ve got me into.”
Q: Have you heard that Michael Jackson’s wife is having another baby?
A: Well good for Michael. . . . Who’s the daddy?
Q: Let’s try another Michael. What were you thinking when Tyson bit Holyfield?
A: Holyfield must have had some Dijon mustard on his ear. . . . I was at the fight. I remember Holyfield hit Mike with a real good shot in the first round, that really knocked him back a little bit. . . . You know what the weird thing about that whole night was? Tyson was the favorite, after Holyfield had thoroughly beat his ass six months earlier or whatever. It wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t a conspiracy. He beat the guy up. One day, if we have a fight and [I win], six months later, what are the chances of you beating me?
Q: It happens--Sugar Ray Robinson, Jack Dempsey . . .
A: On close fights, not knockouts. Knockouts end up with you getting knocked out faster the next time. Close fights and decisions, it’s another thing. . . . The mathematics was totally against Tyson. If I beat up a man on Wednesday and we’re gonna fight again on Friday--he ain’t beatin’ me on Friday. I’m going to beat him faster, ‘cause now I know how to beat him. I couldn’t believe Tyson. I won 13 grand that night.
Q: You bet on fights?
A: I was playing Vegas. I said what the heck. I was [performing at] Bally’s. It was a cool night. Everybody came to see my show afterwards--Madonna, Tiger Woods--and I talked about it. It was a fun night. It was rock ‘n’ roll.
Q: The place must have been crawling with press. What do you think about paparazzi?
A: It’s their job to take pictures. They make you big. They don’t take your pictures if you’re not big. Just take this whole Princess Di thing. The [expletive] driver was drunk. They got Mothers Against Drunk Driving, they don’t have Mothers Against Photographers. Come on [goes into comic voices], “Sir, you were swerving.” [Drunk voice:] “I’ve had a few drinks. . . . I keep going.”
One of the sad things was that the Princess Di death overshadowed the Mother Teresa death. Mother Teresa was a [expletive] saint. People compare Diana to Mother Teresa--are you out of your mind? Are you nuts? Di was a good person. But you don’t get points for being good--you’re supposed to be good.
Q: Let’s talk about TV. What are your thoughts about the controversy over lesbianism and homosexuality on television? Or, put differently--do you think “Ellen” is subversive, or funny, since her character came out of the closet?
A: It’s very funny. I commend her. I wish more people would just come out and just cut the act. The show is funny and there is a place for it. I remember watching her show before and you would just assume that she was a lesbian. It was like, “Come on with this whole stuff about you and the guys.” I just respect her more now, and it’s a much better show now. It’s true and it’s pure. But everybody doesn’t think like me. So I understand staying in the closet and all that.
Q: How about another controversy? Some folks are upset that Murphy Brown is smoking pot on TV to ease her cancer.
A: Is that show still on? Murphy Brown smoking weed. Good for her. But hey, weed’s good for everything. It makes you forget everything. If you break your legs, smoke a joint.
Q: How about race? Do you think television is segregated?
A: Only since the creation of UPN and all this other stuff has comedy been segregated. This is a new thing. I’m not here to dog them out, because the brothers are working. But comedy being segregated is like a 10-year phenomenon. Yes there has always been a chit’lin circuit, and on a grass-roots level it’s been segregated. It’s always been harder for a black man to succeed and cross over into white America, but now, even on television, comedy is segregated. That’s new.
So when you think about comedians--old comedians anyway--you don’t think black and white. When I was a kid, I didn’t watch Rodney Dangerfield and think, “He’s a white comic.” I didn’t think Don Rickles was a “white comic.” White people love Richard Pryor. White people love Redd Foxx. I mean, it goes without saying that they love Bill Cosby, but they love Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx just as much.
Q: Are you an American comic or a black comic?
A: I am a black American comic. I very much see myself in the tradition of Foxx and Pryor as far as a black guy being black and crossing over because he’s funny. Yeah. I see myself there. Crossing over on your jokes as opposed to starting to dress a certain way, and speak a certain way, to appeal to this new audience. Naw, I’m not that guy. When you go to see me live, the same stuff I do in front of 2,000 to 3,000 black people is the same stuff I do in front of 3,000 white people.
Q: Do you watch any of the new late-night shows “Keenen” or “Vibe”?
A: Hmmm . . . the late-night wars. I’ve been watching Sinbad lately. Sinbad is a funny guy. I’m not saying he’s a great comedian or anything. He’s a really, really, really funny guy though.
Q: What’s the difference between being a comedian and a funny guy?
A: Bill Murray is not a comedian--he’s a funny guy. Tom Hanks is not a comedian--funny guy. Keenen’s got good sketches on his show. Conan’s got the best show. People talk about my show. Conan does my show every night. And Regis is a better host than all of them.
Q: Regis Philbin?
A: When you’re on Regis’ show, there’s something about him that just says “show biz.” It’s like old show biz. It’s like you think Sammy [Davis] is gonna come out of the wings at any moment and make a guest appearance. I just like Regis a lot.
Q: Let’s talk about music. Should we have hopes for the future of popular music?
A: It’s weird, I’m listening to a lot of older music now. A lot of Hendrix. Because of the writing. It’s all about the writing. I’ve been listening to Marvin Gaye’s album “Here My Dear.” Music is in a sad state. This is probably the worst era of music. No one writes good stuff. No one writes. Everything is a sample. In rap it’s all right to sample, but now R&B; samples, too. There is nothing like [Stevie Wonder’s] “Innervisions,” or “Here My Dear.” Music has experienced the death of metaphors. There are no metaphors any more. Everyone says everything blatantly. People have lost the ability to write metaphors. Marvin Gaye wrote, ‘Let’s get it on,” he didn’t say, “Let’s [expletive].” There are ways to say things, and people don’t know how to say things in clever ways anymore, so they just say it.
Q: Will rap survive in the millennium?
A: The real question is: Is rock going to be around in five years? Rap’s obviously going to be around. Is house music going to be around in five years? Rap ain’t going nowhere. Rap’s outlasted everything. Is R&B; going to be around? I don’t know.
Q: And country music?
A: Country music is like rap, it ain’t going nowhere. Country music is bigger than regular music. In the old days, “popular music” meant that the majority of the population liked it. That’s what it’s supposed to be. What popular music really means today is, what people in New York and L.A. like. What the majority of the country likes is rap and country, that’s the real pop.
Q: Will the Rolling Stones still be rockin’ in the millennium?
A: Yes. Still making rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t know why people say, “Why don’t they stop?” I want to tell [those people], “Why don’t you stop?” Who stops? Is there a mandatory age for rock ‘n’ rollers to retire? The Stones will be playing as long as they can play well. If you go see them, they’re great. They really are the baddest band in the land.
Q: How about the Spice Girls?
A: The Spice Girls probably won’t be around. Of course, there’ll be one renegade Spice Girl who hated the whole thing in the first place, and she’ll have a career. For the most part, it’s Spice-Girls-Vanilla-Ice.
Q: MC Hammer?
A: Hammer may be back, you never know. One thing about Hammer is, no one says he’s a bad guy. Hammer can come back. He just has to be Hammer; he can’t chase the trends. All Hammer really has to do is start doing shows. That’s the one thing that’s most valuable to any performer--your live reputation. It will feed you when nothing else is going on. If you have the reputation that “This guy throws down, live,” you’ll weather a storm.
Q: What about the state of film? Are we making better movies?
A: They’re technically better. Is the writing better? Probably not. The term “art movie” is really sad. What makes an art movie? Well, it’s got a great script. It’s got interesting plot twists. . . . It’s sad that people who are in charge of things underestimate the intelligence of the audience. So a movie like “Taxi Driver” would be an art film today. “Raging Bull” would be an art movie today. They’d be really hard to get made. That’s really sad.
Q: Are you writing a movie these days?
A: I am always writing a movie. I have to figure out which one I’m going to finish. I’m writing a comedy that’s more on the Woody [Allen] vibe than the Zucker [Brothers] vibe. I wanna do “Annie Hall.”
Q: We are beginning a new year, and we are on the cusp of the millennium. Some people are afraid of the millennium. Are you?
A: I’m afraid it’s going to make certain people go nuts. Because there are a lot of people out there who think that the world is going to end in the year 2000. Some people are going to use it as their escape clause to do nutty things. There will probably be more terrorism, because of the millennium.
Q: Are you optimistic about the future of the world?
A: One thing we have to realize, as crazy as the world is today, it was crazier. People say, “Oh, it’s wild now.” Yeah, but remember feudalism? We really got to concentrate on what’s good, and never forgetting to help people out. You know what’s a good sign, that the world’s OK? Bad things are on the news. Someone get’s shot, it’s on the news. Someone gets raped, it’s on the news. Twelve people get killed robbing a bank, it’s on the news. You know what that means when it’s on the news? It means it’s out of the ordinary.
And you know the world is over when good things are on the news. “Boy learns to read” . . . “Man doesn’t beat his wife"--when those are news stories, the world’s getting ready to end. We gotta realize that about the world, it’s not as insane as you think it is. If you read the Bible, there’s only like four nice days, and the world’s been [messed] up ever since. It’s not like there’s ever been a “good old days.” What is good old days to one person is slavery to another person.
Q: What is your role in all this?
A: My role is always to be the funny reporter. To tell the news that brings you up, as opposed to the news that brings you down. *