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He Brought Us Exquisite 'Pain'; Now He's 'Bigger,' Not Better

Commentary: It's tough to top near-perfection. Chris Rock's new HBO special delivers but still falls short.

July 10, 1999|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The title of Chris Rock's new HBO comedy special, "Chris Rock: Bigger & Blacker," doesn't begin to tell the whole story of the comedian's latest outing, which premieres tonight.

True, Rock is bigger, with his Emmy Award, acclaim, movie roles and heightened visibility that followed his 1996 landmark HBO special, "Bring the Pain."

And yes, he is a bit blacker, literally and figuratively. The wafer-thin comedian prowls the stage of the Apollo Theatre in Harlem in a large leather jacket, black shirt and black leather pants. And as in his previous special, he does extensive riffs on race relations and black people, who provide him with a source not only of clear pride but comic frustration.

But the real question is, is Rock bigger, blacker and funnier? And the answer is: Well, two out of three . . .

"Bring the Pain" established the young comic as a barbed social and racial commentator at the top of his game, fueled by a white-hot wit and insight that struck at his audience even as they were convulsing with laughter, but "Bigger & Blacker" falls short of that mark. There is an increase in volume and profanity this time around, but the insights are a little less fresh and the comedy is a bit more forced and tinged with bitterness.

Perhaps it was too much to expect that Rock could improve or equal the near-perfection of "Bring the Pain," which stands as an achievement on par with the best of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby and other comics who defined an era. His unforgettable, unforgiving assault on "black people who hate n-----s" alone achieved instant classic status, yet nothing in the new special approaches that milestone.

Still, "Bigger & Blacker" has more than its share of prime Rock. The laughs don't come as loud or as often, but when Rock does deliver, he slays.

It's clear from the opening moments when Rock hits the stage that success, a scene-stealing part in "Lethal Weapon 4," his own HBO talk show and marriage have not mellowed him a bit.

In fact, he seems angrier and edgier than before, and some of his attacks, including riffs on single mothers who neglect their children in order to "get their groove on," and how fathers get shortchanged in favor of mothers, go right to the edge of shrillness.

As before, Rock relentlessly prowls the stage like a boxer searching for the right opening, delivering his punch lines like well-timed jabs. Some are vicious. Jerry Lewis and Hillary Rodham Clinton, for example, would be well-advised to not tune into HBO during the special.

The comedian tackles delicate material such as the recent Columbine shootings. Denouncing the charge that music and movies may have influenced the troubled youths, he pointedly asks, "Whatever happened to 'crazy?' "

And who else could take Ricky Martin's overexposed "La Vida Loca" and turn it into a potent comment on racial prejudice?

Rock also hits home when he pays tribute to oversized black women who dress up on Friday nights as if they are the sexiest people on earth. And he shows his depth in talking about AIDS and how there will never be a cure "because there's no money in it. The money is in the medicine."

He has such a command of his stage and the audience that even when Rock launches into a bitter diatribe on relationships--excusing the behavior of unfaithful men ("A man is as faithful as his options"), and chastising women for being "liars" for wearing clothes and makeup that disguise the true appearance--he can still elicit laughs, even though the laughter is a bit uncomfortable.

He complains that women talk way too much, and he breaks down his views on men and women with this contrast: "Women need food, water and compliments--and an occasional pair of shoes. . . . Men want shoes, sex and silence."

Based on expectations created by "Bring the Pain," it's not unreasonable to expect a little more from Rock than what comes across as whining. While "Bigger & Blacker" doesn't represent a significant step backward for him, it also doesn't represent a big step forward either.

Still, Rock's intellect and professionalism are worlds ahead of the shallow approach of comedians of his generation, as well as most older humorists. He remains a force to be reckoned with, and as he grows, the audience will reap the rewards. It's not often that you can tune in a comedy special, and be assured of at least a dozen good, deep laughs. This Rock is still rollin.'

* "Chris Rock: Bigger & Blacker" airs at 11:15 p.m. tonight on HBO. The network has rated it TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17).

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