Sunday, July 21, 2024

1997: The Year of Chris Rock

Bill Hicks, Andy Kaufman and Sam Kinison are dead. Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Bill Cosby, Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy might as well be, as many chuckles as they’ve inspired in recent years. Then there are all those once-promising comics like Jerry Seinfeld, Rosanne, Ellen DeGeneres, Tim Allen, Brett Butler and Paul Reiser who’ve sold their soul to sitcoms. That leaves Chris Rock as America’s most vital and provocative stand-up comedian.

Those who only know the 31- year-old Brooklyn native from his stint on “Saturday Night Live” (1990-92) and his omnipresent “Little Penny” commercials for Nike (he’s the voice of Anfernee Hardaway’s puppet) may be surprised at such a proclamation. But as a stand-up comedian, Rock is a natural born killer.

“Well, yeah, it’s a weak time for comedy,” Rock said in a phone interview, sounding a little like Beck when the musical dumpster diver was informed that he was named Spin magazine’s artist of the year for 1996. Indeed, the comedy album is a dying art and there’s not much competition in the oversaturated and watered-down stand-up arena. But Rock’s biting and brilliant LP Roll With the New, out today, proves that he’s not just assuming the “new king of comedy” title by default.

Delivering his salty sermons as a mix between his grandfather preacher and such favorite rappers as Chuck D and Joseph “Run” Simmons, Rock tears up the air with his comedy of rage. This is a black thing, baby, but Rock makes you understand with brazen takes on such topics as O.J. Simpson, Marion Barry and the black-on-black “Civil War.”

If the race issue is a powderkeg, Rock holds a blowtorch. But his keen observations bring sense to all the verbal brutality. Plus, Rock’s comedy also works on a more subtle level, with his depictions of the pro athlete who always talks in third person, the plug-happy lightweight promoter (“Be sure to get your tickets to the Cheryl `Pepsi’ Riley concert before they run out”) and the unimaginative phone sex partner giving his cast of characters a real life glow.

But it’s Rock the rammer, not Chris the clever, which makes Roll With the New (***1/2, ——DreamWorks) the first great album from anyone who’s been on the Def Comedy Jam. Chuck D has said that hip hop is the CNN of the ghetto, which means that Rock must be the blacktop’s own Comedy Central. A product of the rap explosion and gangsta’s exploration (and ultimate exploitation) of the truth, Rock rolls with the rhythm of the street and flavors his raw routines with revelations.


“My comedy’s definitely influenced by rap,” he said. “Just like you can tell that Bill Cosby listens to jazz or that Richard Pryor was into Motown, you can tell that I’m from the hip hop generation. You know how rap producers just take the best part of an old jam and build their new songs around that? Well, I’m going for the same thing. What’s the essence of the joke? I try to get right to the point.”

And he does right out of the chute with a scathing indictment of Washington Mayor Marion Barry. “All the positive black leaders were there,” Rock said in a proud tone about last year’s Million Man March. “Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, Marion Barry,” he continued, with the D.C. crowd hooting and laughing at the mention of Barry. Then, after a “wait-a-minute pause,” Rock said, “Even in our brightest hour, we had to have a crackhead on the stage.”

In Rock’s world, everyone is guilty, which means that not only did O.J. Simpson commit murder, but his ex-wife Nicole might have contributed to the tragedy by letting Ronald Goldman drive around in the Ferrari O.J. bought her. “I’m not saying he should’ve killed her,” Rock repeats throughout the sure-to-be-controversial routine. “But I understand.”

Mirroring his mentor Murphy (who discovered an 18-year-old Chris Rock and cast him in “Beverly Hills Cop”), Rock goes on a rampage about alimony and the need for pre-nuptial agreements. But then he takes it a little further by getting inside the man who contemplates murder because he has to split his $30,000 a year salary with his soon-to-be-ex-wife. “I ain’t going to go back and live with my parents just because you ain’t in love no more,” he apes the final confrontation.


But all that just sounds like Byron Allen compared to the album’s centerpiece, “Niggas Vs. Black People,” one of the most unflinching diatribes ever heard on the race issue. If a white comic delivered the same words, he’d be banned from TV and regarded as the Mark Fuhrman of the giggle game. But Rock digs right in and lets the indignation fly. “There’s like a civil war going on with black people and there are two sides: there are black people and there are niggas. And niggas have got to go!” he says with high- pitched excitement.

“Every time black people want to have a good time, ignorant ass niggas f— it up … You can’t keep a disco open more than three weeks. You can’t see a movie the first week it’s open cuz niggas be shootin’ at the screen … And you know what really bugs me about niggas is the way they always take credit for stuff a normal man would just do. Like, `I raised my kids.’ You’re supposed to, you dumb mother——” Or `I ain’t never been in jail.’ What do you want, a cookie? You’re not supposed to go to jail.”

When you think the attitude is going to ease up a little, Rock gets harder, saying that he wished that they’d let him join the Ku Klux Klan. “I’d do a driveby from here to Brooklyn.” Later on the track, Rock discounts the charges of media bias by members of the black community. “It ain’t the media’s fault,” he says. “Tonight when I’m at the money machine, I ain’t going to be looking over my shoulder for the media. I’m lookin’ for niggas … I don’t have three guns at home because the media’s outside.”

“Niggas Vs. Black People” is perhaps the most vicious tirade ever committed to tape, but it’s heartily legitimized by the (mostly black) audience’s uproarious reaction. The guffaws of identification are resounding. Then, in a true stroke of genius, Rock slips charges of being a racial traitor by following his edgy masterpiece with a track of reactions to the routine. Amidst all the accolades from homeboys comes an obviously white guy (played by “Saturday Night Live’s” Jim Breuer): “I’m not a racist, I swear on my mutha,” Bruer says, with a heavy Lon Guyland accent. “But I hate f—–‘ niggas, too.” The next thing you hear are punches, with the Breuer character yelling, “Hey, what’s goin’ on!”

If comedy is revenge, and from Rock’s lips it sure sounds that way, that last bit sounds like a fantasy that might’ve been inspired from his short-lived high school experience. “Whatever rage I have probably comes from being bused to a school in a white trash neighborhood,” Rock said. “Man, those kids would beat me up. I’d be called `nigger’ every damn day. It was horrible.”


So why all the unsympathetic words for fellow African Americans? “The thing a lot of people don’t understand is that whatever white people don’t like about black people, black people really don’t like about black people. When you live with some of the problems we’re having now, there ain’t no such thing as too harsh.”

The idea of cutting edge comedy is to push the envelope as far as possible while remaining funny. Chris Rock pushes the envelope so far that it requires extra postage. Not all of Roll With the New,

which combines material from Rock’s “Bring the Pain” HBO special with new studio tracks, is insightful or hilarious. Some of it aims too low and some of it just goes over the head. But when he’s on, there’s not another comedian working today that can touch Chris Rock.

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