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Chris Rock's Rob Petrie

Ali LeRoi, who grew up loving 'The Dick Van Dyke Show,' delights in his life as a head writer.

October 25, 2005|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

Ali LeRoi is a strapping man with long dreadlocks that go down his back and a contagious laugh that makes his eyes disappear. So why does the co-creator of "Everybody Hates Chris" and Chris Rock's longtime writing and producing partner insist that he is Dick Van Dyke?

LeRoi grew up in Chicago in the 1960s, the kind of kid who liked to lie at the foot of his mother's bed on Saturday nights to catch "The Carol Burnett Show." He always loved comedy, and another favorite was "The Dick Van Dyke Show" -- the classic sitcom about the head writer of a TV series, his family and his crew -- which LeRoi watched in afternoon reruns. If there was such a thing as a typical black kid in his neighborhood, LeRoi wasn't it.

"I started watching comedy eons ago, and it was all about Harvey Korman and Lyle Waggoner," said LeRoi, referring to two of Burnett's regulars during a recent lunch break in his Paramount lot office. "When everybody was into Richard Pryor, I was into George Carlin."

In 1997 Rock hired LeRoi and his then writing partner, Lance Crouther, to write for "The Chris Rock Show" on HBO. A husband and father of two, LeRoi found himself living out his own version of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" with Rock as Alan Brady, and co-writers Wanda Sykes as Buddy Sorell and Crouther as Sally Rogers.

"And I was Dick Van Dyke," he said. "I had a wife and a couple of kids and we lived in New Jersey at the time and it was a weird thing that happened. I'm actually that guy."

And he still is, in a way. The man who founded the eccentric and successful Mary Wong sketch group when he was in high school and later toured with Bernie Mac as a stand-up is in charge of one of the fall season's few breakout hits. "Everybody Hates Chris" is loosely autobiographical, but it's not just Rock's story of growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn that the show portrays. There's a lot from LeRoi's life too, from Rochelle, the mother with a special brand of tough love, to young Chris' friendship with a white boy.

LeRoi, 43, has made a life out of telling jokes. One of the most influential African American comedic voices in the country, he has written material for Rock, Mac and Orlando Jones among others, but enjoys staying behind the scenes; his lines are better known than his name.

"The weird thing about being a comedian and having a comedian's mind is that you don't know why you see the world differently," LeRoi said. "A few of us are fortunate enough to understand that there's actually a way you can go make money and continue to be that person. Other people just have to shut up and behave themselves."

On "Everybody Hates Chris," LeRoi is happiest calling the shots on the set and managing the writers and crew.

"There are people who want to be in front of the audience, you can't stop them from being in front of a crowd," LeRoi said. "And I enjoy it but I didn't need it. Some people need that sort of attention. Martin [Lawrence] needs it. Bernie Mac needs it. Chris Rock needs it.... I actually preferred and needed to be in control or have control over the product.... I'd rather be the David Kelley of comedy than Eddie Murphy. I'm more suited to it."

Complementary talents

LeRoi's knack for unconventional comedy led him in the early '90s to Rock, a young stand-up comic who was also working the New York club scene.

"Mary Wong was the black equivalent of Monty Python," said Reggie Hudlin, president of BET and director of the "Everybody Hates Chris" pilot. "They were just brilliant conceptual geniuses. And Chris was becoming a brilliant public enemy of stand-up comics. So you had a group of guys from Chicago and another guy from Brooklyn, working different comedy, but both being very innovative and very cutting edge."

After Rock became famous for his stint on "Saturday Night Live" and his HBO special, "Bring the Pain," he got a deal for his own HBO show, and he called LeRoi and Crouther to join the writing team, which also included Sykes.

"It just seemed like a really great match to me because they complemented each other in that they could convey the travails of being an intelligent black person with an eclectic sensibility," Hudlin said. "To love U2 and Ludacris equally, that's not everybody. But Chris and Ali were both that kind of person. They both understood what the working class was and at the same time had a refined sensibility."

LeRoi, who was writing for Mac and opening for him, attempted to do both jobs at the same time, but eventually left the road to focus on writing. In four seasons, "The Chris Rock Show" garnered five Emmy nominations and one win. "Out of all the writers, Ali and Chris tended to gravitate toward each other more because I think Ali is really great at executing other people's ideas, and he has great ideas of his own," Crouther said. "Ali is really a facilitator. He makes stuff happen....And Chris is very opinionated and Ali is good at being able to counter some of Chris' opinions and offer different opinions."

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