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Finding the humor in a tough situation

Times Staff Writer

THE larger world of “Everybody Hates Chris” is the comedy of Chris Rock. This makes his new UPN comedy either as promising as “Seinfeld” or as limited as “Seinfeld” could have been.

Like early episodes of that benchmark show, the pilot of “Everybody Hates Chris” is an evocation-of-a-sitcom that crackles with Rock’s comedic point of view, in this case on his Brooklyn childhood. If it leaves you a tad dubious about just where the conflicts and ongoing stories will arise, so did “Seinfeld,” which at first seemed like little playlets based on his comedy routines, too static for the contemporary demands of TV.

“The Wonder Years,” “Annie Hall,” “A Christmas Story,” “The Cosby Show” (the original, on NBC) -- there’s something of a little of each in the pilot of “Everybody Hates Chris,” but the show thus far feels more observational than story-driven; it relies on our desire to listen to Rock talk.

And we do want to listen, because Rock is hilarious; he has the great comedian’s ability to infiltrate our minds, getting us to re-see the world through his eyes. What Rock and longtime writing partner Ali LeRoi have done, in the warmhearted pilot, is conjure a single-camera family sitcom that cannily voices Rock’s tough-love attitude about ghetto childhood, the stuff he’s been saying onstage for years, packaging it in a half-hour as tenderly amusing as “Annie Hall’s” Alvy Singer recalling his childhood home underneath a Coney Island roller coaster.

We’re conditioned to view a comedian’s childhood as a window into the reasons for the later life onstage (Were you the class clown? Picked on as a kid? Did you fight back with humor? seem to constitute the troika of predetermined queries every big-time comedian continues to be asked), but “Everybody Hates Chris” is not about why Rock became a comedian.

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As Rock and LeRoi have set it up, the whole show is an extended riff on that classic Rock routine about black men who talk about parental responsibility as if it’s an elective, bragging that “I take care of my kids” or “I never been to jail.”

Rock’s retort: “What do you want, a cookie?”

“Everybody Hates Chris,” which stars Tyler James Williams as a 13-year-old version of Rock -- or perhaps more accurately as a 13-year-old onto which the adult Rock projects his reminiscences -- is most vivid in its portrayal of two working-class parents who’ve moved their three kids out of the projects in Brooklyn and over to Bedford-Stuyvesant, where, Rock tells us, a crack epidemic is on the way; the motto in 1982 was “Bed-Stuy: Do or Die.”

Young Chris, the oldest of three, is a repository of his parents’ admonitions and fears. His mother (Tichina Arnold) has “100 recipes” for whuppin’ you-know-what (“I will slap your name out of the phone book and call Ma Bell and tell her I did it .... "), while his father (Terry Crews), a truck driver holding down two jobs, hounds his family about the cost of their every ounce of spilled milk but is also in their lives, to be believed when he comes by his son’s bedroom before leaving for work at night and says: “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“He was one of four fathers on the block,” Rock narrates. “ ‘I’ll see you in the morning’ meant he was coming home. Coming home was his way of saying, ‘I love you.’ ”

Rock has said “Everybody Hates Chris” is not a literal version of his childhood, but it is a pretty literal version of his comedy; many of the scenes in the pilot play like illustrated Rock routines, as in: “Much like rock ‘n’ roll, school shootings were also invented by blacks and stolen by the white man.”

It’s his mother, the show makes clear, who’s really working the system (“I run this house the way they run the country -- on a deficit,” she lectures her husband, explaining why you don’t pay an entire bill).

The father’s the sweet one, the mother fiercely protective, forcing Chris to take two buses to a white school in Brooklyn Beach populated by working-class Italian kids. There -- predictably, in scenes you’ve seen a million times, just not with Chris Rock narrating -- Chris gets bullied.

But he doesn’t so much fight back with humor, he just fights back, losing his lunch money but recovering his bus pass, and when he comes home from school he gobbles the piece of chicken meant for his father but doesn’t tell him why he was so hungry.

He doesn’t tell him about the fight because “my dad went to school during the civil rights era,” Rock says. “After hoses, tanks and a dog bites on your, ... , somehow Joey Caruso didn’t compare.”

As he talks we see newsreel footage of the hoses, the tanks and the dogs. A sitcom without earned comedic authority wouldn’t be able to pull off this moment without seeming treacly. But even in its first half hour, “Everybody Hates Chris” has more than established its voice. Now it has to keep its story spinning outward.

*

‘Everybody Hates Chris’

Where: UPN

When: 8 to 8:30 tonight

Ratings: Pilot, TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language)

Tichina Arnold...Rochelle

Terry Crews...Julius

Tyler James Williams...Chris

Tequan Richmond...Drew

Imani Hakim...Tonya

Vincent Martella...Greg

Chris Rock...Narrator

Executive producers Chris Rock, Ali LeRoi, Howard Gewirtz, Michael Rotenberg, Dave Becky.


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