When Chris Rock was given the solemn responsibility of introducing Barack Obama to a packed crowd in Harlem’s famous Apollo theatre last November, he rose to the challenge, striking a suitably portentous note of welcome for the man who could become the first black president of the United States.
‘It is nice to see progressive people that are not scared,” he told the largely black audience, ‘that want to be on the right side of history.”
Then something happened to Rock’s face. His eyes began to twinkle. His mouth opened into a half-moon grin. He leaned forward conspiratorially. And then he said: ”Cause you’d be real embarrassed if he won and you wasn’t down with it. You’d say: ‘Man, I can’t call him now. I had that white lady, what was I thinking?’”
The riff was pure Chris Rock. Take a noble thought, pay homage to it, then punch a hole through it so hard that it won’t get up in a hurry — and by doing so reveal to the audience their foibles and weaknesses, paranoia and pomposity, through the power of laughter.
If a less-skilled comic than this 42-year-old from Brooklyn tried to break a fraction of the number of taboos he smashes in one show, they would die faster than you could say, ‘Want a cookie?” How many stand-ups can hurl insults at every section of the audience and get away with it?
To give a flavour, here are some lines from Rock This, the book he wrote soon after making it big as a stand-up, that take potshots at respective readers. On white people: ‘There’s not a white person reading this book who would change places with me. And I’m rich”; on women: ‘Women tell the biggest lies, like ‘It’s your baby’”; on black people: ‘Who’s more racist: black people or white people. Black people. You know why? Because black people hate black people, too.”
Yet not only has he survived the occasional public reprimand, he has thrived, with Emmys crowding his mantelpiece and critics calling him the ‘funniest man alive” and the ‘personification of hilarity itself”. Fans keep coming back for more, in higher numbers. Watch a Chris Rock audience during a show and they are not so much laughing as having seizures.
The edgy, caustic Chris Rock of live performances seems a world away from the man sitting before me. We are in the small office he uses for writing on New York’s upper west side. The room has a stunning view north towards Harlem and the serious air of a chief executive’s office, quite unlike what you might expect from the danger man of American comedy. There are pictures on the wall of his wife, Malaak Compton, and elder child (he now has two daughters, Lola, five, and Zahra, three). There is also a poster of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and there are pictures of Rock alongside the Peppers and the other comedians — among them Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider — known as the Bad Boys of Saturday Night Live. His bookshelf is strikingly eclectic, the Vibe History of Hip-Hop lined up against Peanuts Treasury and Essential Dali.
It’s an equally long way from this cosy office to the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he grew up. He can’t claim to have been poor, he says, ‘because I had a bicycle”. His father was a truck driver who delivered the New York Daily News, his mother worked with people with learning disabilities. It was the kind of upbringing that in spirit, if not in fact, inspires his popular television series, Everybody Hates Chris.
From a young age he was passionate about television comedy and had an almost preternatural critical faculty. ‘Even as a young kid I knew The Brady Bunch wasn’t funny. By the time I was eight I could tell you what was about to happen in a sitcom, I could see all the jokes coming.” His grandfather was a preacher, when he wasn’t driving a taxi, and Rock used to watch him preparing and delivering sermons. But it was only years later, when Rock was in his early 20s, that these two interests — comedy and oratory — came together.
The way he describes it, it happened as a fluke. In 1983 he was queuing for tickets at Radio City for Eddie Murphy, whom ‘I totally idolised”. As he waited in line, he passed the time reading about comedy clubs in the local paper. ‘I don’t know what it was but something in my head said walk away, so I did.”
Rock abandoned Eddie Murphy and Radio City Music Hall and walked several blocks to one of the clubs listed in the article, called Catch a Rising Star. There he stood in another queue because it was the club’s audition night. Like a scene from a dream, he pulled out a lucky number seven lottery ticket that gave him the right to audition and he was granted five minutes on stage to recite jokes, which he wrote as he was waiting to go on. He was immediately offered work at the club whenever he wanted it. ‘I went, duh! I didn’t have any idea what that meant. I knew nothing. If he hadn’t told me to come back, I never would have.”
Had he not taken that opportunity, what would he be doing now? ‘I don’t know, driving a truck, something like that. But happy. I’d be a happy guy doing that.” As he speaks his face lights up with that same half-moon grin that he flashed at the Apollo in Harlem. But he did go back to the club, again and again, gradually working his way up on the comedy circuit until, rather splendidly, Eddie Murphy spotted his act and gave him a film role as a valet at a playboy mansion in Beverly Hills Cop II.
A stint on Saturday Night Live followed in the early Nineties, which gave him a national platform, but his real break came through stand-up and two televised routines for HBO, Big Ass Jokes in 1994 and Bring the Pain two years later. The rest is history: ever bigger tours, the Chris Rock TV show, an invitation to host the Oscars in 2005 and his own film credits, which include, presciently, Head of State, the 2003 movie he wrote, directed and starred in, about a black man running for president.
The more famous he has become, the more diverse his portfolio of career activities, but unlike most other comedians who have inevitably drifted towards the money in television and Hollywood, the heart of Rock remains with his stand-up routine, unembellished by any props or special effects. If it weren’t for the controversial content of the jokes, you might say it was all quaintly traditional. ‘Nobody does it any longer. That’s what I like about it — you are a throwback.”
Over the years, the nature of his humour has subtly but perceptibly shifted. It’s not just that the obvious subject matter has changed with the times.
In the Nineties he used to riff about crack cocaine: ‘Crack is so addictive that if the new way to get high was to put it on a bullet, shoot it through a gun and take a lick as it came out of the barrel, crackheads would try it.”
When the crack epidemic ended so, too, did the jokes. But in other ways the tone of his routine has changed. There is less ghetto talk and the lens of his politics has widened to take in the Bush administration, the war in Iraq, the coming presidential elections. As The New York Times put it recently, he has become a ‘little less roguish and a little more righteous”. Does he recognise himself in that description? ‘Am I older, am I married now with kids and a tax payer? That’s what happens to everybody. I guess I could still be roguish. Britney Spears is still roguish. Bobby Brown is still roguish — he’s got as much edge as he’s always had.” And he lets out a guttural laugh.
Certainly his life has undergone radical surgery. He now lives in a big house in the suburbs of New Jersey and admits that the day he moved in: ‘I was scared — I’ve never written in a big house before. But it worked out okay.”
The audiences, too, have grown whiter as time has passed and are different in make-up to the almost exclusively black crowds he played to when he started out. It’s a reflection, he thinks, of simple economics — white people have more disposable income and can afford to buy advance tickets via the internet.
But despite the change in his fanbase, the act still contains more than enough electricity to jolt a crowd. He still uses the N-word, despite exhortations from some, such as the political and civil rights activist Al Sharpton, that black entertainers should erase it from their vocabulary.
Doesn’t he feel under pressure to follow Sharpton’s call? ‘I don’t listen to him, I listen to the audience. The audience lets you know. If the audience doesn’t want it, I won’t do it any more. It’s not that you are pandering to the audience, but there’s a give and take with the crowd.”
There is something about his insistence that he listens first to his audience that makes me think of his grandfather, the preacher. In the middle of the interview Rock pulls out of a bag a single sheet of A4 paper. It’s the script he used for his 2004 routine, Never Scared, and the sheet is covered in scrawly handwriting with underlined phrases such as ‘Affirmative action”, ‘Killing smart black people” and ‘NFL hockey”. He wanted to show it to me, he says, because he modelled the technique of preparing for a show on the way his grandfather scripted his sermons. ‘He’d do exactly the same — write down a few key words like, I don’t know, adultery or whatever. He’d never write down a whole phrase as it would sound like it was written and I do the same.”
So there is a preacher in Rock? He takes the point the wrong way. ‘Oh God, no. Not a preacher. I’m constantly taking out words because they are too preachy.” I didn’t mean a preacher in content, I reply, I meant in his technique. But the thought remains. It’s not just technique he has learned from his grandfather. There is also a shared understanding with his audience, a sense of communion, that perhaps helps explain how he manages to say such outrageous things and get away with it. A Chris Rock show is a bit like religion: taken out of context, it can seem ludicrous. But put it inside a cathedral — the preacher in his pulpit — and just watch what happens to his congregation. —