Young Chris Rock explains himself -- and his jokes
We know why Rock is in the news today. But in 1996 -- as his HBO special 'Bring the Pain' was rocketing him to superstardom -- he was bringing his standup routine to Pittsburgh. So I called him up.
How the hell did Marion Barry get his job back? If you get caught smoking crack at McDonald's, you can’tget your job back! They 're not going to trust you around the Happy Meals! . . . All I want to know is, who ran against him and lost? Who was so bad they lost to a crackhead?
— Chris Rock, HBO comedy special "Feel the Pain"
June 20, 1997
These days Chris Rock is as hot as a comedian can get in America.
His 1996 comedy-concert special "Bring the Pain," the rocket that sent him into the big-time, is a recurring laugh treat on HBO. His talk show on HBO resumes this fall on Friday nights.
He's doing plenty of commercial work for 1-800-Collect and Nike, where he's written and performed "Lil’ Penny" commercials. He's got a comedy CD out, "Roll With the New."
He recently hosted "Saturday Night Live," where he was a regular for three years. And now he's in the middle of a grueling 80-stop comedy tour that brings him and his 75-minute take on life to Heinz Hall tomorrow night.
No wonder the 31-year-old who's being hailed as the coming King of Comedy was so subdued Wednesday during a phone interview from Long Island. He was probably exhausted.
Or maybe he was just being the real Chris Rock, not Chris Rock the X-rated, stage-stalking comic. Not the guy who mercilessly satirizes black culture and gets scolded by black critics like Stanley Crouch for making fun of black people who take pride in being ignorant and for ridiculing Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry for being a crackhead.
Rock, still in the process of fixing up his and his wife's new house, has not let his current success go to his head. He knows it might not last forever.
"Next time I move," he said, after saying a pleasant goodbye to the refrigerator repairman, "I'm going to be able to buy the whole house. No mortgage, no nothing. I'm in showbiz. You can't have big bills in show business, because you don't know what's happening. One year you're the hot band, the next year you're Terrence Trent D'Arby."
Despite some verbal sparring, throughout the interview Rock's tone was always friendly. He seemed like a regular guy, an off-duty comic still a bit uncertain about the purposes and ground rules of a celebrity interview.
Which one is the real Chris Rock, the one on "Saturday Night Live" or HBO or the...
They're all me. It's not like — One of those guys isn't me?
Are any of them more or less of an act?
"SNL," that was so long ago now. I guess that was me six years ago. That's not me now.
How would you describe you now?
I don't, know. It's for other people to describe you, or else you sound arrogant. I'm just a comedian. I writes jokes, I tells jokes. Hopefully, the joke works. If I can get the jokes to work 50 percent of the time, I'll be all right.
Do you like doing the concerts better than. . .
I like doing it all.
The HBO concert looked like it was a 99 percent black audience. Is your material for blacks only?
Did you laugh?
Of course I laughed.
What kind of question is that, then?
I have to play a role here. I know the answer, but what I have to do is get you to say it, that's what this is all about, see?
Oh, you're trying to get me to say something dumb?
No, no, no, no. I know the answer. ...
If you laughed, what do you mean "for blacks only"? When I last looked, there was no black people owning HBO.
Your material is based on black culture, ah...
It's about culture.
Yeah. It's like whenever a black comic talks about normal things, it's like, "It's black." Jerry (Seinfeld) talks about something that goes on, and it's, "Hey, it's good, clcan,-wholesome."
Have you gotten any criticism from any black political or religious leaders for your material about blacks?
Nope. I'm a comedian. I guess ... I don't know. Am I making a bad interview?
I'm really perplexed. You're maybe the 1,000th journalist to ask me that question. I'm really perplexed why everybody thinks, like, I said something or did something. ... I told a joke on TV. The audience laughed. What was the problem? Everybody laughed. It's as if I told a joke and there was no audience at the HBO special. Everybody laughed. They weren't selected for their political views. It was a normal concert.
That HBO special you did reminded me of Sam Kinison ...
That's one of my idols. Actually, my biggest influence on me, comedically. If you go downstairs in my house, there are pictures of Kinison all over the place. I loved Sam. He was my best friend.
What did you like about him?
Honesty. Never boring. That was the key thing — never a bore. Always taking chances on stage. I'm really trying to be sober Sam. Anytime he screwed up, he was high. . ,
Do you think who was misunderstood or unfairly criticized?
Yeah, he would screw up now and then. Doing that gay stuff. There was no place for that. He wasn't flawless, now.
His pushing of the envelope got him into trouble sometimes.
You know, it's weird. Some of it was pushing the envelope and some of it was just him getting lazy. Doing AIDS jokes, come on. He was smarter than that. It wasn't pushing the envelope, that's getting lazy.
Would Kinison be your role model?
Total role model. Total, total. And Cosby, Eddie, Woody . . .
Do you get in trouble, when you ….
I've never been in trouble, comedically. I get in trouble when jokes don't work.
OK, but do you get in trouble for your vulgarity or profanity, which you use selectively, but effectively?
Um, every now and then somebody says something. But it's generally someone who wouldn't pay to see me in the first place. I always say, you can only criticize what you like. You don't like something, you're not qualified to criticize it in the first place. Only fans, you know what I mean. It's ' like me saying I hate the opera.,,hris Rock From page 28 would never go the opera. I can't hate it. I'm not qualified to judge it.
You have a politically incorrect bit where you make a distinction between black people and "niggers"
You know what, it's one of those bits that seems more revolutionary than it is, because it involves black people and it's like a word that white people don't like to say or some do like to say. You can do it with any ethnic group. It's not that great a joke. I have gay friends I know that say "fags." I have Italian friends that say things. Everybody has this makeup within their ethnic group, you know, "We're the good people and they're the bad people." It's not only black people. Everybody has this.
The "Saturday Night Live" experience, was that fun?
It was great.
Were you able to show your stuff there. You didn't feel inhibited by TV?
I've been on television 800 times. I never cursed in my life on television. Never been beeped. Put it this way, there's not one joke in my act that I can't do without cursing, but at least 60 percent of my HBO special I could never get on network TV, even without the cursin’.
It's not about the cursin', it's the subject matter. Like I'm really going to be able to say (about O.J. and his ex-wife Nicole), "I'm not saying he should have killed her, but I understand" on network TV? Please. What's the point? The whole cursing point?
You said since your HBO special came out last June, this has been your best year professionally. Has the special brought you any movie deals or things like that?
Ah, offers and stuff. But you know what it all is, it brought me the respect of my peers. It's all I want — to be considered one of the better comedians in this country. It's all I ever wanted.
Can you top that HBO special?
I think I can. I think the stuff I'm doing right now — yeah, I can definitely do it.
Do you want to be in movies?
It'd be nice.
Is there anything out therefor you?
I haven't seen anything really, any good scripts. I've come to the realization that it's all the same stuff — movies, TV. They just get delivered to different places. To say you want to be in movies and not TV, is just being a groupie in another sense. Do George Clooney and Mel Gibson really have different jobs? No. As long as I get to be funny, and a mass of people get to see it, that's all that matters.
How did you get funny?
Boy. I don't know . . .
Your parents, your upbringing, your neighborhood ...
I've always loved comedy. I guess my parents have something to do with it, or a lot to do with my outlook on the world. I guess, if I can say I'm funny, it's because I studied it.
Who have you studied?
Everybody. I can tell you anything about Kinison. I've got every album. I've got every Pryor album. Woody album . . . What's downstairs? Ahh, Pigmeat Markham, Dick Gregory. Let's see what I got here. Rodney Dangerfield, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin.
Based on the HBO special, it seemed like you might be pretty conservative. What are your politics?
I'm not really political, which everyone finds weird. I'm not political in a political sense, but in a social sense maybe.
You say your material is completely new for this concert tour. What's it about?
Race, religion, relationships.
Those'll be your topics for the evening?
Yeah, I'll dabble in other things abortion, taxes . . .