[The Observer, Life Magazine, 2000]
I HATE niggers.
Chris Rock, black, male, early thirties, swivels on his heel. His eyes bug out of his head as if he can't believe what he just heard.
I am tired of niggers. I wish they would let me join the Ku Klux Klan. I'd do a drive-by from LA to Brooklyn.
Laughter. People are laughing at this. They think it's funny. From the way they're laughing, they think it's the funniest thing they've ever heard. An expression of bewilderment and alarm creases up Rock's face.
You can't have anything valuable in your house. Niggers will break in and take it all. You can't do anything without some ignorant-ass niggers fucking it up.
Now people are clapping. People are cheering. People are shouting and whistling their approval. Rock looks astonished. Gobsmacked. Perhaps he's amazed at what's being said. Astounded that everyone around him seems to agree. Or simply unable to credit the fact that these words are coming out of his own mouth.
Everything white people don't like about black people, black people don't like about black people. It's like our own personal civil war. On one side, there's black people. On the other, you've got niggers. The niggers have got to go. I love black people but I hate niggers. I am tired of niggers. Tired, tired, tired.
Chris Rock is the best stand-up comic working today. Major US publications - Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone - have been queuing up to anoint him The Funniest Man In America. And they're right. He is also a TV star. Twice host of the MTV awards. Leading cable channel HBO, home of the Larry Sanders Show, has showcased his stand-up act on three comedy specials, bringing him a clutch of Emmy awards. His own Friday night entertainment and talk show also screens on HBO.
Niggers always want credit for some shit they're supposed to do. They'll brag about stuff a normal man just does. They'll say something like, “Yeah, well I take care of my kids.” You're supposed to, you dumb motherfucker. “I ain't never been to jail.” Whaddya want? A cookie? You're not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherfucker!
Rock has been labelled the voice of America's black middle class, although black blue-collar workers would be closer to the mark. His cursing might turn a sailor's ears crimson, but his values are militantly respectable: hard work, family, self-sufficiency, law and order. His viewpoint has been described as outraged common sense. And one of the things which seems to outrage him the most is that anyone should be surprised about this.
Now the politicians are trying to get rid of welfare. Every time you see a welfare story on the news, you always see black people. Hey! Black people don't give a fuck about welfare. But niggers are shaking in their boots: “They gonna take our shit.”
And inevitably, there are those who feel Rock is letting the side down.
For a moment, he stops pacing across the rostrum and stands there, motionless, staring out the audience.
I see some black people looking at me: “Man, why you got to say that? It ain't us, it's the media. The media has distorted our image to make us look bad.” Please, cut the shit, okay? When I go to the money machine at night, I ain't looking over my back for the media. I'm looking for niggers!
ON STAGE, Chris Rock is a giant presence. The space unaffected by his skinny body, and that's most of it, is filled by his voice. Rock's voice rises in pitch and volume from a high tenor to his inevitable falsetto howls of righteous fury, drowned in the ensuing storms of laughter. Then the cycle begins again. He restlessly stalks from one wing to the other as he testifies the creed of pissed-off black America, or at least, pissed-off Chris Rock. And he is always, always funny.
In person, Chris Rock is small. Watch him tape the weekly Chris Rock Show, without recourse to the theatrics of his stand-up act, and he is funny as ever, but you get the sense of a low-key individual willing himself into the role of MC. He fluffs an autocue link four times in succession, grins and mutters, half to himself, ‘Ain't it a damn shame that I can't read.’ He introduces one sketch about a cereal called Nigga, Please (Black Yuppie: “What's for breakfast, Honey?”; Mrs Black Yuppie: “Nigga, Please”); and another, altogether non-topical skit about unlikely uses for ketchup (“brought to you by The Ketchup Council”.)
Rock doesn't always joke about race; it's just those are the gags people seem to remember. The now notorious so-called “Niggas vs. Black People” segment from his superb 1997 HBO TV special, Bring The Pain , turned him from unsung stand-up into the most celebrated comic in the USA.
Arriving for lunch at Manhattan's Royalton Hotel, across the street from his office, Rock is smaller yet, a fun-sized comedian wrapped in a woolly blue jumper. He is neither loud nor brazen, and he swears only rarely. “It takes a lot of effort to be that intense,” he says of his act. “It's all about knowing the consequences if you don't do it. To know that the response will be less, and everything will be less. Fear is a great motivator. Fear of mediocrity is a great motivator.”
Rock's progress from the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood in Brooklyn, where he grew up and still lives, to the Royalton's restaurant has taken a little over a decade. It's only half an hour by subway; less time than Rock used to spend every morning on the bus that would haul him to a white school on the other side of town. Bussing was a Seventies experiment in enforced integration with only one useful outcome: it demonstrated that good intentions don't always deliver good results.
“I would have been seven. Black kid in school. The kids used to treat me like shit. I would probably have got picked on at the black school too. Somebody's going to get picked on. It just wouldn't have been about that. I was like two kids. Really quiet at school, but kind of a jokester around my neighbourhood.”
When rappers make it to the top they usually talk about the steadying influence of their mothers, which in many cases would appear to have been not quite steady enough. Chris Rock, branded The Hip Hop Comedian, always speaks admiringly of his father, Julius Rock.
“Rappers don't have dads, heh-heh-heh-heh. Comedians talk about dads, though. Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, they all did their funniest stuff about their dads.”
Rock says that in his house Rose, his mother, was the president and his father was the army; she would call Julius in to administer “one of the four key ass-whuppings in life, for stealing, lying, cheating and disrespecting. You shouldn't smack a kid in the head or in the face, but the ass was made for whupping.”
As for Pryor, Cosby and Murphy, they and every other comedian he loved became Rock's obsession. He would sneak downstairs after bedtime to watch Cosby on The Tonight Show. “I was a really, really hardcore comedy addict. It was the only thing I liked. It's still the only thing I like. My dad liked being funny, but I broke it down to a science. I realised, girls, if you make them laugh, anything can happen. I never got girls or anything, but the girls that did like me, I made “em laugh.”
Rock dropped out of school in his teens and took jobs at McDonalds and the Red Lobster restaurant chain, while wriggling his way onto the New York comedy circuit. He became a regular at the Comic Strip club, where he was spotted by Eddie Murphy, who allowed him a fleeting appearance in Beverly Hills Cop II. At the time, his favourite joke concerned a woman who accosted him on the street and said that for two hundred dollars she would do anything he wanted, anything at all. “Bitch, paint my house,” he told her.
Saturday Night Live is effectively a TV college which has provided the break for an extraordinary catalogue of American comedians and writers, Murphy included. There is usually one black comic on the show, and in 1990, at the age of 24, Rock became that black comic. He found it unsatisfying, waiting all week to appear in a couple of sketches while his own material languished.
Nor was he exactly dedicated. Conan O'Brien, now a network talk show host but then a writer on SNL, says that Rock “did some funny stuff on the show, but he was operating at 48% efficiency.” This may have had something to do with the fact that, having been unwillingly celibate most of his teenage years, Rock devoted more attention to partying and womanising than to his work. He left after three series to join the mostly black variety programme In Living Colour, only to see the show cancelled eight episodes later.
“I talked it, always, but I didn't really walk it,” says Rock. “Even something like CB4, my friend Nelson George wrote the structure of the movie. All I did was write the joke stuff. I was hanging out and getting laid.” Conceived as a rap Spinal Tap, 1993's CB4 remains, for all its flaws, the sharpest hip hop parody yet created. “It could have been a hell of a lot better movie,” reflects Rock, “if I'd just come in more often.”
In CB4, you can see Rock's stance emerging. He plays a nice kid called Albert who takes on the persona of a local hoodlum to boost the fortunes of his rap band. Julius Rock had died four years earlier, but he still cast a long shadow over his son. Albert's father, an upright man horrified by his son's gangster pretensions, is Julius Rock to the life. “That was totally my dad, same height, same outfit, same attitude.”
Rock's ideas, his notion of what was funny, had developed enormously, but he still lacked the confidence and skill to make his stand up stand out. “It's a lot more than just jokes. I had to learn that. In my act, I might do a great joke, then I would do two or three really cheap ones. I'd think, ‘If they're laughing, it's all good.’ That's not true. You'd do a thing about South Africa, then you do a big thing about periods; you just took away your South Africa thing. It doesn't exist any more.”
Unemployed, feeling washed up, watching SNL contemporaries Adam Sandler, David Spade and Chris Farley forge ahead, Rock took his act back on the road. It was the making of him.
LISTEN to Rock's early stand-up and you'll hear a nervy little guy with a tentative delivery. He actually sounds little. Plenty of good jokes there, but plenty of average jokes too. Just one more good-but-not-great stand-up comedian.
“You gotta remember,” he says, “I started so young, if I had done this stuff I'm doing now when I was 23, no-one would have listened. Who's this kid talking? I had to grow, I had to get some hair on my face. You gotta hone it, you gotta figure out your voice.”
Rock is a Brooklyn boy but his birthplace is Andrews, South Carolina, now the last US state to fly the Confederate flag over the capitol building. Andrews was the stamping ground of his paternal grandfather, Allen Rock.
“My grandfather used to preach,” says Rock. “He was a performer. A really funny, big personality. My grandfather was buck wild. At funerals, you could tell who was cheating. There's always some kid you've never seen before, looks like the guy. No kids showed up at my father's funeral. Grandad's funeral, different story.
“He killed some white guy in South Carolina. It's like the little things they don't tell you about the old days, that white men would just walk into black people's houses and eat. It was literally that. I think some bill collector came while my grandfather was in bed with my grandmother. Pushed the kids aside, walked into the house - my grandfather killed him. After that they left and went to New York. He killed another guy there, too,” adds Rock, as if violating the sixth commandment was dear old Grandad's hobby, “for stepping in his front yard.”
Allen Rock's wildness, and his preaching, found its way into Chris Rock's voice as he perfected his stand-up act. The whining, New York sarcasm was invigorated by the roaring drama of a Southern street corner sermon. Another former preacher who once cut a swathe across the deep South had a profound stylistic effect on Rock. Sam Kinison was a full-blown redneck misogynist, homophobe and comic titan. A foul, fat Axl Rose with a wholly original genius for humour and a mind like a steel trap.
When it came to saying the unsayable, there was no one to touch him.During the era of Live Aid, when dissent was heresy, Kinison would shriek, Don't send them food! Send them luggage! Move to where the food is! We have deserts in America, we just don't live in them!
Kinison had taken Rock under his wing. Just as he had once painstakingly scrutinized Cosby's cool and Pryor's body language, Rock would study his mentor's boggling frenzy and manic crescendos, the uncontainable screams which burst out of his lungs: Ah Ah Ah AHHHHH! Don't drink and drive? Don't drink and drive? How are we supposed to get home from the party? Kinison died in 1992 when his car was hit head on by a drunken teenager in a pickup truck.
Politically, Rock probably had more in common with another friend, Bill Hicks, the greatest stand-up comic of his era, who also died, in 1993, before gaining due recognition. Were they alive, Kinison and Hicks would be the only near-contemporaries in the same league as Rock. As it is, he's on his own. Normally, Rock is careful to praise other comedians, but when we talk about Kinison and Hicks he drops his head into his hands and sighs.
“Nobody's good. I hate it. I truly hate it. I mean, there's a lot of guys doing stuff I admire, but stand-up-wise I feel very alone. I really miss Hicks. I wish I could have put him on my show. And I really miss Sam a lot. Richard [Pryor]'s sick. . . It's like you get here and then, oh wait a minute, there's nobody here any more. I feel like the guy who finally got into Studio 54, three years too late. ‘Duh, where are all the famous people?’”
Like Hicks, Rock has been lauded as a social commentator. He's having none of it. “I don't think about it. Once I start thinking about it I'm going to be unfunny. To think of myself as anything other than a comedian would be the worst thing I could possibly ever do. I just came out with an act of things that I would ordinarily talk about. I don't even think of it as inflammatory. When I did Bring The Pain, the crowd ate it up. I wasn't even that famous at the time, had to give away half the tickets. Anything could have happened. Journalists write of it as inflammatory. Lucky for me I'm not Lenny Bruce and it's not hearsay. We live in a video age and it's right there, on tape.
“My viewpoint is the majority viewpoint, that's the crazy thing. It really is. There's more people like me than like Tupac Shakur. It's the way most black people think. I wasn't a freak on my block.”
So why has it taken so long for somebody to say these things?
“Because it's threatening to white people, ultimately, that we're alike. Tupac, Biggie Smalls, whatever, that's really not threatening. You can figure that out. And that's always going to be over there. This is the real threat, sitting down in the Royalton and being able to afford anything on the menu. And I don't enjoy being a threat to anybody, I don't get any thrill from that.”
Rock claims to have been genuinely surprised by the response to Bring The Pain. “I thought, hopefully this will be better than other HBO specials, and I'll get whatever rewards come with that. Maybe somebody will want me to do a sitcom - if I'm lucky. Next thing they were talking about it on [ultra-highbrow political channel] C-Span, and I'm, Huh? My only goal was to do a show that was good enough that when I played a club, I wouldn't have to promote it on radio. Then I found myself doing one of those gigs where you're, Oh boy, I'm too big, and I want to turn this down a little bit. One of those gigs that made Steve Martin quit comedy. The crowd was like, Waaah! The mania getting too much. Girls screaming out, ‘Do I make you horny?’
“I called the next HBO special Bigger And Blacker because after you get big the most obvious thing to do is to go pop. Do a show at Radio City. 60 per cent white people. It's supposedly better. So I did the exact opposite. The Apollo theatre in Harlem. Black is always associated with small. Nothing's ever been bigger and blacker - ever. That's what I wanted to say: you can be that.”
WHEN you're a big comedy star in America, you make films. It's expected. It's what you expect for yourself. Rock, who idolises Woody Allen, is no exception, but since CB4 his roles have been far from ideal - Beverly Hills Ninja, for instance; or a bit part in Lethal Weapon 4, undertaken to raise his profile.
Weary of receiving scripts that had passed down the food chain from Will Smith via Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, and incredulous at being offered a part as a cartoon monkey (“Are you nuts?” he replied), he was delighted to get a call from Miramax, home of the independent hit. It turned out they wanted him for a movie about a busload of rappers. He declined.
Miramax then redeemed themselves in his eyes by hooking him up with writer/director Kevin Smith, whose last outing, Chasing Amy, Rock had loved. Smith was making a religious comedy, Dogma, involving fallen angels and improbable prophets, with a cast which includes Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino and Alan Rickman.
Rock relished the prospect of working with actors of this calibre. Smith cast him as Rufus, Christ's thirteenth disciple, written out of the gospels because one black guy - Jesus himself - was considered more than enough to be going on with (echoes of Saturday Night Live.) The film is an oddity, entertaining and frustrating in equal measure, with about an hour's worth of good jokes spread out across two hours of sixth-form theology. Rock is very pleased to have been part of it, warts and all.
“It was a really good script,” says Rock, “and you just don't see a lot of young black guys in that world, this very prestigious indie world, where it's judged purely on your art. On commercial terms, it's hard to compete. There's just not that many black people in America. We're 12 per cent of the population. You're better off being an artist, you're better off being Spike Lee.”
On this basis, Rock is scripting his own vehicle with Annie Hall co writer Marshall Brickman, provisionally titled The Calm Down Guy. Before that, he's set to star in another co-scripted effort, I Was Made To Love Her, a revamp of Heaven Can Wait/Here Comes Mr Jordan directed by the Weitz brothers, who made American Pie. Next year will see him in Nurse Betty, with a lead role as a hitman alongside Greg Kinnear, and as a white blood cell - really - in Warner Brothers” projected Christmas SFX blockbuster, Osmosis Jones.
All these films will be comedies of one kind or another. That's the way Rock wants it. Many of his heroes - Woody Allen, Steve Martin, even Jim Carrey - have turned away from comedy in their film careers, as if it were a lesser art form. Rock knows this isn't so.
“Comedy is like the step-child to drama. I hate it when reporters go, ‘Are you ever going to do anything serious?’ I'm like, ‘Why? Like this ain't serious?’ It's way harder to be funny than serious. Look at Jim Carrey. He was great in The Truman Show, but there are 80 actors who could do The Truman Show, and only one guy who could do Dumb & Dumber.
“Comedy's special,” he emphasises, with the fervour of a true apostle. “If my stuff wasn't funny, you wouldn't be here right now. The exact same things have been said in serious ways, and nobody cares. It's all about the jokes at the end of the day.
“The only reaction that frightens me is people not laughing. It's extraordinary to me when you get a laugh. That you can go in front of a bunch of people you never met before, you can say some stuff and they all laugh in unison - that's amazing.” He leans forward and fixes his gaze on me. “It's a miracle.” And for the first time today, his eyes are shining.
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