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Year In Review 1997 | COVER STORY

Heavyweight With the Gift of Jab

Chris Rock may just be the reigning comedy champ; for him, standing still is the biggest sin of all.

December 21, 1997|Emory Holmes II | Emory Holmes II is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Perhaps no one has had a hotter year, or evinces more promise, than Chris Rock. His comedy is both bright and serious--a true window on our wondrous, if troubled, times. He has been routinely characterized as the "smartest," most "dangerous," most "fearless" comic working in America today, and he very well may be.

His HBO special "Bring the Pain" won Emmys for best writing and best comedy special. His video and CD of the concert "Roll With the New," released by DreamWorks Records, is currently climbing the music charts with the video of its breakout single, "Champagne," now in rotation on MTV. "Rock This!," his book of bits, reflections, satirical observations and slams, was published this year by Hyperion Press and is now rising on the major bestseller lists.

Since he was discovered as an 18-year-old by his idol, Eddie Murphy, the 32-year-old comic has transformed himself from an illiterate, trash-talking wise guy into a pitiless and erudite comedic brawler whose hilarious, if trenchant, observations of America's untidy racial, social, sexual and political follies have been celebrated by fans, peers and critics alike. They have put him in line as a worthy successor to such formidable satirical comics as Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

The Times caught up with Rock recently at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. He was in town for the CableACE Awards, where his highly rated HBO series, "The Chris Rock Show" (which debuted this year), won for best show and best series. At noon on the dot, Rock strides through the lobby, plops down in a comfortable chair near the empty bar and orders himself a Coke.

Question: What do you think about the year you've had, and all the success you've gotten?

Rock: It's fabulous. Man, it's great. But at the same time it only means I gotta work twice as hard, the expectations are twice as high. I come with a lot of baggage--great baggage. People want you to be really funny. Not kind of funny. Not "hee hee" but "bring it, bring it." You're the guy. It's like Tyson--they want to see a knockout every fight. People want me to knock them out every time they see me.

Q: They can't say you're not trying. In your live act, you stalk the stage like a pugilist in the ring.

A: Stick and move, stick and move. Joke and move, joke and move--you gotta move to keep their attention. The comedian and the fighter are so similar, because you're out there all by yourself. There is no bigger humiliation in sports than to get knocked out. There is no bigger humiliation in show business than to bomb comedically. Nothing compares to it.

The movement is all about their attention. If you stand in one place, people can talk to their friends. When they come back, you're still there. If you move, they gotta keep watching you. It's a different era. Guys used to stand still. People have smaller attention spans now. A comedian's gotta pace now. Gotta. Eddie Murphy worked the stage, worked the stage. Everything is heated up. Don't think you can tell jokes the way you told jokes 50 years ago.

Q: Were you always funny?

A: I don't know if I'm funny now. I know I say things and people laugh, but funny is always to the people, it's never to me. I know what makes me laugh, but am I funny? I don't know. I know people think I'm funny.

Q: To continue the boxing analogy, on your HBO series you don't seem to be afraid to tangle with heavyweights. How are you choosing your guests?

A: I like thinkers. I lean towards comics and politicians and writers. People that think for a living.

Q: You have people on that you've destroyed in your book and in your act. You announced [recently] that you are going to have Al Sharpton on.

A: Yeah, I'm going to have Al Sharpton.

Q: You ridiculed Al's big-hair perm.

A: Oh yeah, big hair. That's not destroy--that's just a normal joke about Al. What I say about Al is no different than what Letterman or Leno says about Al.

Q: But they don't then invite him on the show the next day.

A: Yeah, well, I guess they don't want him on. . . . I like Al. Again, as much as you joke, a guy doesn't get successful without a lot of hard work. And he must have something to say. Let's hear what All has to say. When I have him on, it's not going to be like the Morton Downey show. I don't have people on and then start putting them down. I mean, me and Jesse [Jackson] go into it a little bit, but it was give and take and I made sure he got his point across. I even had [Oklahoma Republican Rep.] J.C. Watts on, and made sure he got his point across. And so, Al is going to be interesting. Guests like that are so much more interesting than your average actor or the kid who's doing some UPN sitcom.

Q: But you don't give your guests a break.

A: Yes I do. If you watch the tape of the J.C. Watts show, it's really interesting. The audience was on his side for a long time. Then he kind of lost them when he said he didn't know who [funk pioneer] George Clinton was. But he really had them for a minute.

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