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Rock, On

Mary McNamara is a Times staff writer.

From the stage of the Kodak Theatre, Chris Rock faces the undeniable expectation of 3,400 vacant seats. High above him, in the nosebleed balcony, two guys are bolting things down, but all around the comedian there are photographers and bright lights, reflecting screens and fog dispensed, for mood, from aerosol cans. Women straighten his lapel, pat his nose with makeup. Rock, who is a surprisingly still man, is trying to be patient, but frankly, he cannot believe how completely out of hand the last few weeks have been.

The interviews, the photo sessions, the promos, the fashion shoots. Just a few days ago, he had to turn down an invitation from Jack Nicholson to go to a Laker game because he was invited to a comedians’ memorial dinner for Johnny Carson. It nearly broke his heart, but what are you going to do? All in all, the performer has not had so much attention since his 1996 “Bring the Pain” special for HBO catapulted him from successful comedian to hottest comic now working.

“I am surprised,” he says of the attitudes and advice he has encountered since it was announced that he would host the 77th Academy Awards. “Apparently, some people in Los Angeles take the Oscars very, very seriously.”

Rock is not one of those people. Since the announcement, he has been resolutely irreverent. He says he will not “do” the red carpet because the whole scene gives him a headache. He thinks awards shows in general are silly and, until he began cramming for the gig, he had never watched the ceremony in its entirety. Ever.

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“They don’t honor comedy and there aren’t a lot of black people involved,” he says. “So why would I watch? For the gowns? Listen, no straight man who is not in the entertainment industry watches the Oscars. Not one.”

He has told members of the press that Jamie Foxx will get an Oscar for his performance in “Ray” if he, Rock, has to take one from a winner for sound or light. He has complained that academy fave “The Aviator” lacks any sort of meaningful drama. “The only obstacle is that a rich white guy has to spend a lot of money. That he has. How boring is that?”

As the first black man to host the show, Rock refuses to join the chorus of approval over the racial diversity of the acting nominees, who include four African Americans and a Colombian. “Forget black people,” he says. “The real race issue in L.A. is Mexicans. When was the last time a Mexican was nominated for anything? When was the last time you saw a Mexican in a film? And in this town, you gotta go out of your way not to hire a Mexican.”

Although he is happy to see a comedy (“Sideways”) up for the best picture award, he holds out little hope that the kind of work he does, and admires, will ever make it through the Oscars process. “I like films that make a lot of people laugh,” he says, while his costumer of eight years twitches the sleeves of his jacket so they fall just so. “And if you make a lot of people laugh, they penalize you. I guarantee that if ‘Sideways’ had made $50 million, it would not have been nominated for anything.

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“Not one of the best actor nominees [this year] gave a performance that came close to Eddie Murphy’s in ‘The Nutty Professor,’ ” he adds, referring to the 1996 remake of the Jerry Lewis classic. “The man did like nine characters. Nine new characters. Even Peter Sellers never did that.”

He’s not exactly offering the gentle Catskillian elbow-jabs of Billy Crystal or the dry wit of Steve Martin. But the attitude is precisely why producer Gil Cates wanted Rock to host the show. Ratings for the Oscars broadcast have stagnated in recent years. (The large and loyal fan base of “The Lord of the Rings” gave last year’s show a welcome bump.) Rock brings an edgy new dimension--hard to imagine Martin being targeted by the Drudge Report, as Rock was weeks before the show.

Unlike previous hosts who came out of stand-up retirement to do the Oscars, Rock is still a full-time successful comedian near the top of his game. He still hits the clubs virtually every night, and he still tours. He’s an HBO baby who brings with him a large fan base--young, hip, racially diverse--not known for its interest in academy doings. But more important, Rock’s take-no-prisoners comedy adds the tantalizing chance for some truly excellent cultural rubbernecking. This is the man who famously said, “Show me a beautiful woman and I’ll show you a woman some man is tired” of having sex with. Rock, of course, used a more colorful gerund. So imagine him having a go at the Brad and Jen break-up. Even with tighter FCC standards in place, the possibilities are endless.

Yet, gazing at what will be his dominion for a few hours, Rock shrugs. The smell of hot pretzels and frying meat drifts in from the mall at Hollywood and Highland. For a moment the sounds of construction cease and the silence is large and startling. Whatever he is actually feeling about the whole thing, Rock is playing it cool.

“It’s a room,” he says. “Not that big a room. I’ve played bigger. The Universal Amphitheatre is twice this size. Compared to that, this is a nightclub.”

Chris Rock considers himself a Hollywood outsider. He says this, with no apparent irony, while ensconced at the Ivy, which is his favorite restaurant and where he is so well thought of that the valet leaves Rock’s Range Rover parked at the curb so he will not have to wait for it after his lunch.

Rock says he is an outsider even though he was discovered by Eddie Murphy, who got him a role in “Beverly Hills Cop II.” The role launched a career of steady TV and film work, including “Saturday Night Live,” “In Living Color” and, more recently, the lead in “Head of State,” a film he also directed. He says this despite the three Emmys (two for his 1996 HBO special), the two Grammys, and “The Chris Rock Show,” which ran on HBO from 1997 to 2000. He says this even though he is represented by Endeavor, one of the most powerful agencies in Hollywood, and Gil Cates has been after him for years to host the Oscars.

He is an outsider, he says, because he is a black comic living in New York. His idea of a true Hollywood power broker, he says, is the guy who has the good Laker seats. He agreed to host the Academy Awards for pragmatic reasons. He has two movies coming out (“The Longest Yard” and “Madagascar”); he just turned 40 and logged his 20th year as a comedian. “I figured this was a good time for me to do it,” he says. “I make my money putting people in seats at my shows, and after this I’m probably going to tour Europe. If I don’t screw up, this should help. Right now, I am all about getting my world on.”

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The high celebrity quotient of the audience does not intimidate him, Rock says, because celebrities are beside the point. “The other people may be doing the Oscars, but I am doing a television show. A television show,” he says. “So I will be working for the cameras. I won’t be doing any of those insider jokes--you know, jokes about Michael Ovitz and Michael Eisner. Kills in the room, but half an hour out of Los Angeles people are looking at each other going, ‘Who the hell is that?’ No William Morris Agency jokes either. Kills in the room, but no one else is laughing. And no Jack Nicholson jokes--I mean, unless Jack calls and wants me to do one. Because I am still hoping to get to a game. With Jack.”

In person, Rock is compact and composed, almost reserved. When he speaks, he rarely swears. Although small comic explosions flash in conversation, there is very much an onstage Rock and an offstage Rock. He talks about Hollywood as if from a great distance, which is legitimate--comics have a different relationship to Hollywood than actors do--and then again not. He plans to continue his film career and then possibly do a sitcom, to be a player in the game, even if it’s a game in which those who make people laugh often are penalized.

At this moment, Rock is trying to solve the Great Hollywood Paradox: Is it possible to have meaningful contact with the entertainment industry yet not be artistically consumed? Comedians often are granted special immunity--they can say things no other entertainers would dare utter because it’s part of their job. But the downside of that freedom is that comedians are expected to sing for their suppers more often than other performers, which can be tough on the pride. So it’s difficult for him to get caught up in the glamour of an event that for him is a job. A very high-pressure, high-profile job. “I’m the only one who’ll be working the whole time,” he says. “Me and the sound and light guys.”

And it’s physically demanding work, with no breaks. When he’s not onstage, he’ll be watching the show on a monitor and consulting with his writers to come up with the right joke for the right moment. When reminded that at 3 1/2 hours, last year’s ceremony was one of the shortest in recent memory, Rock does a double take. “I am going to have to start working out,” he says.

He worries, too, about becoming an insider. Once you’re part of the community, can you comment on it with the same fearlessness and clarity? “I am having a hard time,” Rock acknowledges, “because I keep on bumping into people who I was planning on making jokes about. And when you meet people, talk to them, it gets a little harder.”

Imagining Chris Rock hosting the academy awards may turn out to be as much fun as watching him do it (or, worst-case scenario, more fun than watching him do it). Not because of his tendency to use obscenities--as every parent knows, anyone can clean up his language if the stakes are high enough--but because of how he’ll handle the stage at the Kodak, and the frequent cutaways to the celebrity audience, and the tricky boundaries between the fair game and the sacrosanct.

During his regular stage act, Rock stalks, he strides, he claims the stage from end to end, snapping the cord of his microphone behind him like a lion tamer with a whip. “Eyes on me,” his body language says, “all eyes on me.” Onstage, he never stops talking, not even for a sip of water. Onstage, his voice drops an octave and rises in volume, becomes a preacher’s voice, rough and musical, punching at words just so. Nothing is sacred--not sex, race, religion, politics or even his young daughter. In his newest show, “Never Scared,” he rhapsodizes about how having a baby girl has changed him. “When I look at my daughter, when I spend time with my daughter, I realize my primary goal now is to keep her off the pole,” he says. “They don’t grade fathers, but if your daughter is a stripper, you [expletive] up.”

Yet here he sits at the Ivy, politely allowing a woman from Dallas to take his picture. If he is worried about the collision of his worldview and the academy’s, he doesn’t show it. He will not allow anyone in his writers’ meetings, where, he says, every celebrity is trashed on a daily basis and the most sexist, racist, homophobic jokes in the world are tossed around. But he would like to remind everyone that he and his writers are all professional comics. “We will not be winging it,” he says.

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This is what the academy is counting on.

“Chris is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met,” says Cates, who has produced 11 Oscars shows. “If he weren’t a comedian, he would be a molecular biologist or something. If you take the expletives out, [his work] is social and political satire--he’s the De Tocqueville of this century.”

Cates knows that the success of the show rests on its host. “If Chris fails, the show fails,” he says simply. He realizes that Rock is a bigger and brasher host than viewers are used to, which is why he and his team have made significant changes in the stage and format of the show to echo Rock’s brash style. Awards will be presented in the audience, for example, some nominees will be onstage when winners are announced, and the set will extend from center stage into the theater.

“It is going to be a much more audience-interactive show,” Cates says.

Rock appreciates Cates’ support, but again is a bit more pragmatic--he’s been in the envelope-pushing business a long time. “It’s early yet,” he says a few weeks before the show. “They’re telling me I can do whatever I want. We’ll see.” Rock says he absolutely will not, as other hosts have, allow the ABC censor to see any part of his act, on tape or live. “I’ll give them bullet points, but I won’t be performing for the censor. I won’t do it. They want that, they can get Jon Stewart.”

He plans to use a hand-held mike, because he is “an old-fashioned comic,” though he is not sure about the cord. Since coming to Los Angeles in January, he has visited clubs almost every night, trying material and listening to what’s out there. “I want to see if it’s even worth doing a Brad and Jen joke,” he says. About the performances of previous hosts, he will say only three things: He will leave the big production numbers to Billy. Whoopi’s many wardrobe changes left her with not enough show. He doesn’t think David Letterman did a bad job.

About the impact the show will have on his career, Rock remains blase. The show won’t change his life one way or another, he says, as if it doesn’t matter. But of course it does, and after a moment he admits that the career stakes are much greater if he fails. “That will affect me much more than if I do a really great show.”

At the thought of this, Rock laughs, and the sound can be characterized, finally, as slightly nervous.

Lunch concluded, he glances at his BlackBerry. Suddenly, the universe rights itself. He holds it up, his face split wide with a righteous grin. On the small screen are the words: “Jack Nicholson called. Wants to invite you to the game tonight.”

“Laker game with Jack,” says the Hollywood outsider, who’s more than halfway in. “What else is there, really?”


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