A Day at the Races

In his critically hailed HBO special that aired in June, Chris Rock joked about how people say what they think other people want to hear. For example, he noted, nobody really wants to be an organ donor--people just say they do. Organ donation is for people with no faith, he said, and then he wondered what would happen if science figured out a way to bring the dead back to life.

The punch line: "It would be like--'Ain't this a bitch? Back from the dead and can't see shit.'"

It got a laugh, not the biggest laugh of the night, but it also prompted a message left on Rock's answering machine.

"Jerry Seinfeld called," Rock says. "He just started talking about that one joke. He left this long message, repeating the joke, commenting on it. It was a joke anyone could tell, but here's Jerry Seinfeld, and he's going over it like he's studying it."

Rock laughs about the call because he is a student of comedy, too. The 30-year-old standup star says he mulls over old comedy albums, taking to heart the timing and the comedic structure of artists ranging from Pigmeat Markham to Steve Martin.

"Hey, you've got a job, so study," Rock says. "That's what you have to do to be successful at your craft."

Rock's reverence for comedy history is evident in the opening sequence of the HBO special Bring In the Pain, mentioned above. A montage of vintage album covers plays across the screen, highlighting the work of Moms Mabley, Woody Allen, Eddie Murphy and other talents culled from the vast collection of framed records that line a wall in Rock's house. Some of the comedians have had greater impact on Rock than others.

"I'm a big Richard Pryor fan," he says. "But my biggest influence comedically is probably Sam Kinison. He's just a guy I gravitated to. I met him at an impressionable age--I'd only been doing comedy about four years--and I got to hang around him for a while. I loved his risk taking and his honesty. He would tackle controversial topics that just weren't funny and get all the humor in the world out of them. He's probably been the dominant straight-up comedian of my time."

Rock could well be a dominant comedian, too, in the not-so-distant future. His half-hour, late-night HBO talk show is slated to start at the end of January, and a book is due out next fall. He's just finished the movie Beverly Hills Ninja, with fellow Saturday Night Live alum Chris Farley, and a new comedy album will be ready for release by mid-February. All that follows a three-year stint on Saturday Night Live and a major role in the 1994 Spinal Tap-ish rap flick CB4. Just last month Rock returned to host Saturday Night Live, and, a few weeks ago, he emceed the 1996 Billboard Music Awards.

Rock's most boffo reviews of late, though, have been for his work as a campaign correspondent on Comedy Central's Politically Incorrect, which found him, among other places, at a yuppie bar in New York, standing alone and noting, "I'm the only black guy around. It's kind of like Cheers, only nobody knows my name and nobody's glad I came."

That may have been familiar territory for a self-described scrawny kid from the poor side of Brooklyn, a class clown who used comedy to keep the bullies at bay.

"I had a great childhood, but I was very unpopular at school," Rock says. "You know, so much of it at that age, when you're a guy, is based on the physical--how big you are and how fast you are. I was just a little guy. They used to really go after me."

It didn't help that Rock was bused from a poor, mostly black neighborhood to an even poorer, mostly white school. "No matter where I went, I got treated like shit most of the time," he says. He figures his background helped shape his comedy, but only to a point. "I'm not a bitter type of person. Hey, even when I was being treated like shit at school, my best friend was usually a white kid because there was nobody else to be friends with."

Like most contemporary black comics, Rock takes a careful, steady aim at racial matters, and he usually finds his target. He's most accurate--and controversial--when he focuses on subjects other comics avoid. "Marion Barry at the Million Man March," he says, in wonder, to the mostly black D.C. audience on Bring In the Pain. "That means, even in our finest hour we had a crackhead onstage." Most in the audience laugh, but some don't. "You can boo if you want," Rock says, amused. "But you know I'm right."

Rock has no patience for dopers, thugs and the kind of "gangsta" attitude some young black comics emulate. He started an earlier HBO special with a parody of the typical Def Comedy Jam comedian, strutting the stage and shouting unintelligible epithets. He was even more pointed when he declared on his most recent special that there's a "civil war going on" between law-abiding black people and what he calls niggas: "Every time black people want to have a good time . . . niggas fuck it up. Can't go to a movie the first week it comes out because niggas are shooting at the screen. I love black people, but I hate niggas."

Rock, who calls himself a "Democrat with a Republican wallet," has been tagged by some as ideologically conservative. Not so, he says. He considers his material "common-sense" issues, "the kinds of things heard at black barbershops every day." And while he figures he's neither liberal nor conservative, his work has attracted the likes of neo-conservative black cultural critic Stanley Crouch, who wrote an essay applauding Rock's stand against "black street scum" and those who "celebrate gangsta rap minstrelry."

Racism in its more traditional forms also earns Rock's contempt. The earlier joke about how people say what they think others want to hear begins with a rant on the way whites compliment Colin Powell because he "speaks so well." In his angry, high-pitched voice, Rock notes, "Like that's a compliment. 'Speaks so well' is what you say about retarded people that talk. He's an educated man, how the fuck you expect him to sound?"

Throwing stones in all directions, Rock gets both praise and angry looks from all sides. He says he's not worried.

"I just worry if people laugh or not," he says. "It's all about funny. No one will hear any of it if it's not funny. I'm glad the press is picking up on whatever messages are out there, but I'm really thinking mostly about what's funny.

"If I think about that other stuff, I'm just gonna be pigeonholed into this political thing, and I'll have to go out and be this pundit guy all the time. I don't want that. I want the freedom as an artist to be able to change and do whatever I want. That's what the best comics have been able to do."

Chris Rock is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, December 31, at Celebrity Theatre. Showtime is 11 p.m.

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Ted Simons