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INTERVIEW : Hey, Chris! Where'd the Edge Go? : 'Saturday Night Live' rookie Chris Rock brought a street-wise sense of humor that has been somewhat smoothed out--for now.

March 10, 1991|LEE R. SCHREIBER | Lee R. Schreiber is a New York-based free-lance writer

NEW YORK — It's the Friday afternoon before the 13th show in "Saturday Night Live's" 16th season on NBC. In Studio 8H, rehearsals are dragging. That's no fault of guest host Roseanne Barr, just the way it normally goes: Sketches get fleshed out on the tryout floor; bits go to pieces at the last moment. Waiting to be called to the set from the Spartan dressing room he shares with fellow featured player Chris Farley, Chris Rock is hot to start "Chillin'."

"It's a sketch I wrote for Farley and me, sort of like a 'Yo, MTV Raps, "' Rock says. "We've done it once before, but never as the cold opener."

That's the coveted first sketch that kicks off each show with the signature line, "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night! " If all goes well this week, it'll be Rock who kicks it.

Only recently has Rock gotten off anything approximating a signature line or character--primarily with the appearance of Nat X, the world's most militant talk-show host ("the revolution will not be televised"). Mostly Rock's been background scenery or "the black guy."

"It takes about a year before most (performers) become familiar enough with how the show works," says Lorne Michaels, "SNL's" producer. "I try to make that transition as easy as possible. I want them to feel that the audition is the stressful part, that once they've got the job they don't need to explode onto the screen . . . and that it's going to take time. I don't want them to feel as if they have to accomplish everything in six months."

Rock has dutifully accepted his featured role in Michaels' farm system (in ascending order): (1) writer/performer; (2) featured performer; (3) repertory--formerly known as Not Ready for Prime Time--player. Some move up; some don't. Of the current cast, Kevin Nealon and Mike Meyers took their turns as lesser figures before stepping up to full-fledged repertory performer.

Rock has even developed sort of an offscreen character to help him deal with small, prying audiences attempting to assess--or get him to assess--his progress on "SNL." Pumping up his skinny chest, Rock wryly announces the introduction of: "Cliche man!"

"I'm just happy to be here," the 23-year-old comedian says.

"I just want the best things on 'Saturday Night.' I'd rather be associated with a good show than have the only (sketch) on and nobody watching.

"I'm getting good stuff my first year. I didn't expect for it to go this well."

Rock's on a roll, seeded with platitudes and chased with bromides; yet, he's obviously holding his tongue with both cheeks. He genuinely likes this gig, he says, and definitely wants to keep it. If it takes a while to make an impact, so be it. He's just glad to be learning. Oh, and did he mention that the people couldn't be nicer?

Uh, Cliche Man, can I speak to Chris?

Back in the fall, everyone wanted a piece of Chris Rock. His arrival on "SNL" was met with anticipation by those who recalled the snaggle-toothed, foul-mouthed swaggering wiseguy with the rap attitude who punched the mike and stalked the stage, rapping out lines like . . . well, like the first joke he ever told on (cable) TV: "I was driving down the street, and I saw a prostitute. Asked her how much. She said, 'For $300, I'll do anything you want.' I said, 'Bitch, paint my house.' "

Supposedly it was just that edginess, along with a hip-hop sensibility, that Lorne Michaels wanted. "I'm sure I'm the only person on the show to go to Ice Cube and N.W.A. concerts," Rock said after being introduced to his new colleagues. But no, Michaels says, Rock's hiring was not a color-coordinated response to Fox's newer, hipper, blacker sketchfest, "In Living Color." The longtime producer--Michaels helped originate "SNL" in 1975, took a couple of years off and then came back to rejuvenate the show (and himself) in 1985--maintains that he chose Rock for the same reason he just signed Tim Meadows, "SNL's" newest featured player, who also happens to be black. They're both "funny. And funny in the way we can use on the show."

When Rock was originally cast, the other performers went out of their way to welcome the new kid to their heretofore all-white block. Most echo their boss's comments.

"Chris isn't on the show because he's black; he's on the show because he's funny," Dennis Miller said, demonstrating that performers of any parentage can bust a move on the cliche-meter.

Phil Hartman, whom Rock calls the "glue" on the show and "the most professional and steady of all the cast," joked about the rookie's presence: "Frankly, I resent him being on the show. He'll take all the good black roles away from the rest of us."

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