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Q&A: with CHRIS ROCK

'A Lot of the Comics That Have Come Up . . . Don't Study Comedy'

June 05, 1996|CHUCK CRISAFULLI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He has the sweet face of a kid, with wide eyes and an innocent grin. But looks do deceive--when stand-up comic Chris Rock hits a stage these days, he zooms in for the comedic kill without a hint of mercy. Armed with passion, showmanship and a will to provoke, the 30-year-old Brooklyn native rips his way through material that ranges from the rude to the enlightened, clearly as interested in delivering a point of view as a punch line. Such tender topics as race relations, domestic violence and the disturbing details of prison life are turned inside out in Rock's comedic world, where reason always triumphs over wrongheadedness.

Rock may be best known for his three seasons as a cast member of "Saturday Night Live," but he's also a 12-year veteran of the stand-up comedy circuit. And while mainstream stand-up has been largely uninspired for some time now, in the current HBO comedy special "Bring the Pain," Rock is a comic at the top of his form, offering sharp insights along with deep laughs.

Rock's profile is on the rise. He made his first "Tonight Show" appearance Friday, and the HBO special debuted Saturday and runs through the month. He'll be touring concert venues this summer and continues to work in film and television. Over a recent lunch, the personable comic talked at length about influences, pet peeves and the intricacies of stand-up life.

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Question: You've got quite a few things going on in your career these days--you've just finished a film with Chris Farley, you're a political correspondent for Comedy Central and you're the voice of "Little Penny" Hardaway in a series of Nike commercials. Do you still consider yourself primarily a stand-up comic?

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Answer: Stand-up's what I do best. When I got into this, I wasn't thinking TV, movies and all this other stuff. I was thinking, "I want to be the best stand-up in the world." I'm not the best, but that's always been the goal. Stand-up also gives me power--the power to say, "I'm going out on tour and so, no, I'm not going to do your crappy movie." You don't ever want to lose that power in this town.

Q: Your HBO special begins with a montage of vintage comedy albums. Do you consider yourself a real student of stand-up?

A: Definitely. Those are my albums--I didn't have to go out and find them. I've got a big Pigmeat Markham collection, Moms Mabley. . . . I really study comedy in general, and I'm still learning from the old masters. I tape Don Rickles every time he's on "The Tonight Show." Rickles, man! Alan King. I love it. You know, I meet a lot of the comics that have come up in the "Def Jam" generation and, frankly, the reason a lot of those young comics suck is that they don't study comedy. They look at Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and that's it. There's a much broader spectrum to get into. I'm still studying; I want to be a comedy Jedi.

Q: The montage puts comics like Steve Martin and Woody Allen alongside Pryor and Murphy. Some people might be surprised to hear that you consider all of them influences on your own work.

A: People forget Steve Martin was the biggest stand-up for a while--packing them in at places like the Forum. And I'm still in line to get to every one of Woody's movies. I'm always telling younger comics, "Check this out. It's going to open you up." It's like the NBA: You've got to have a lot of moves to the basket. You've got your sex jokes, but can you do family, relationships, political? You want to have your finger roll and your three-point shot.

Q: Your material tends toward hot-button topics--race, drugs, sex, politics. Do you feel you're speaking your mind through your comedy?

A: I don't write jokes first. I write down topics. I think of what I want to talk about, and then I write the jokes--they don't write me. So I'm always talking about what I want to talk about. And I try to structure a show so that even if you don't think it's funny, you won't think it's boring. You might disagree, but you'll listen. And maybe even laugh as you disagree.

Q: One of the most powerful sections of the special has you talking about the differences between "regular black people" and, as the Simpson lawyers might put it, "N-words." You describe black people looking at them with contempt and get a big laugh with the line, "Where do I sign up for the Ku Klux Klan?" Did you ever worry how that material would go over?

A: In the special I was talking to a randomly picked bunch of hard-working black people, and they knew what I was talking about. They've been thinking it and saying it for years. My mother's been saying it. It's not real news. My brother's house got broken into and he said, "Where do I sign up for the Ku Klux Klan?" and I like using that line. The people that get upset with that--the black people that get in my face--are angry mainly because I'm saying it in front of white people.

Q: Issues of racism are usually debated with a great deal of emotion. You seem to pride yourself on a cool, common-sense approach to the subject.

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