EVERYBODY LOVES CHRIS
Even in an off-the-cuff interview, Chris Rock brings the funny
By B. Love
There are essentially two types of stand-up comedians: Those who work really hard at being funny, and those who just naturally ARE funny. Chris Rock, who was once named the Funniest Man in America by Entertainment Weekly and ranked #5 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time, definitely belongs in the latter group.
Whether riffing onstage or sitting down for an interview, Rock will keep you in stitches with his off-the-cuff improv skills, fearlessly tackling subjects ranging from the female anatomy (“Ugly hair is not a deal-breaker for men. An ugly ass, now that’s a different story!”) to Michael Jackson’s afterlife and the state of Black cinema. And with his critically acclaimed documentary, Good Hair, recently released on DVD and his latest film, Death At A Funeral, in theaters this month, the Brooklyn-bred 44-year-old certainly has a lot to talk about…
You mined stories from your childhood to great effect on Everybody Hates Chris. What were you like as a kid?
It’s weird, people would laugh when I got really mad and serious. I always had a way with words. To this day, 40% of my standup act is things I’ve said in heated discussions or arguments that people laughed at. I’d think, “I’ll use that one day,” but I was dead serious when I said it!
Growing up in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, you were the first black kid in your school. What was that like?
It was horrible. But it gives you a total realistic view of the world that people from better places never have. You’ll never be let down, and people will never surprise you because the bar of expectations is set very low. So what, I’m going to sit here and talk about how I got treated like crap in school? (Laughs) It took me a few years, but I won!
Do you think you’d be as funny as you are today if you’d grown up in, say, Beverly Hills?
No, I’d suck! There’s nothing funny about growing up in Beverly Hills. But when you can’t afford to go to the movies or leave your neighborhood, making each other laugh is your only form of entertainment.
Good Hair dealt with the way people express themselves through their hair. Did you ever use your hair in that way when you were growing up?
Oh, I had everything! In New Jack City I had a jheri curl, I've had processed hair, used relaxers and whatever. Before the Obamas, the Jacksons were America’s black First Family. So whatever the Jacksons had in their hair, I would figure out a way to get it in my hair.
The way it’s described in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, relaxers sound like a torturous experience.
With my aunts and my mother, I'd smell these chemicals and hear screams and stuff, so I was familiar with it. But it's like any drug: "I'm not going to get hooked! It's not going to burn me!” I remember the first time, it was like when you're a kid and you touch an electrical socket and get shocked. It was like my head was on FIRE! That's what it's like. And you want to keep it in there long enough to get the hair straighter. It’s like, “Just hold on! Hold on! Hold on! Ten more minutes and I'll look white!”
Did being a smartass ever get you into trouble as a kid?
Nah, I knew when to keep my mouth shut just from being smaller than everybody. The bphysical dictates the mental, you know? Martin Luther King Jr. was non-violent, and he was 5’4” tall. Malcolm X was talking about “By any means necessary,” but he was over six feet tall and could whip your butt. Coincidence? I don’t think so!
You’re known for talking a lot of smack about other celebrities. Have you ever had any uncomfortable encounters with the people you mock in your act?
Yeah, I met Michael Jackson and he glared at me from across the room. I see Janet all the time and she still cuts me this mad look. If you told me as a kid that the Jacksons were going to kick my ass, I'd have thought you were crazy! But I've talked about Michael's hair a bunch of times. I did a joke when he was on trial about how if he went to jail, he couldn't maintain the perm, so it's gonna grow out and the naps will come in. I wonder if they have hair care products in heaven or hell? I think he does shows in Heaven and then they make him go to Hell. But he had so many perms, he's not going to burn in hell! “I'm used to this burn. You gotta put up the heat!” (Laughs) We're going to miss Michael. There was lots of good humor there.
You grew up in New York, but the film business is centered in Hollywood. Did you ever think about moving out there?
Nah, I've been fortunate. Right before I got on Saturday Night Live, I was scheduled to move to L.A. But then I got SNL and I said, "I think I'll stay." To me, L.A. is like the wild, wild West, where you go to town to get your supplies and go home. So I go to town to do a movie and then I go home. I try to live a normal life without photographers and stuff chasing me around, bugging my kids.
Did having kids change your approach to comedy at all?
Not really. Having kids has affected me like having kids affected Eminem, you know what I mean? Some people have kids and they become like born-again parents: "Everything's got to be different! I’ve got kids now! We're not going to talk like that around here anymore!” All their behavior changes because they hate themselves and who they were. I didn't really hate myself before I had kids, so I just had to make a few adjustments.
So many of the storylines on Everybody Hates Chris centered around the strict way your parents raised you. How is parenting different for you?
I think there's more that parents have to do these days. When I was a kid there were 12 television channels, and maybe there was one you had to make sure the kids weren't watching. Now there are 300 different channels and 250 of them are not appropriate for children. You’ve also got the Internet, so you have these images constantly coming at you. That's different, but otherwise raising kids is the same as it was 100 years ago. There's no such thing as "quality time" with your children: It's just time. You can't control the quality of the time you spend with your children, like, "We're going to do some good stuff today!" Good stuff happens at any moment every time you’re with your kids.
There’s certainly been some good stuff happening in your career in recent years. Can you talk about some of the positive and negative aspects of your success?
It’s kinda like going to a baseball game and having big breasts: You get attention wherever you go. The difference when you’re a guy is that generally people want money, whereas when you’re a girl they generally want to sleep with you. It depends on what you like. I’ve never been one to dwell on the negatives of fame. I like being famous, and I can’t imagine not being famous. I was not famous for most of my life… forget that! (Laughs)
Your new film, Death At A Funeral, seems like an odd choice for you. What was the attraction there?
That’s exactly why I did it! It’s a remake of a British movie starring me and Martin Lawrence as fighting brothers. We hate each other. Our dad dies and we find out he's gay at the funeral, where his lover tries to shake us down for money and jokes happen. It’s gonna be huge!
What do you think about the state of black cinema today?
They don't make as many movies directed squarely towards a black audience as they used to. When Spike Lee came out we had all these wannabe Spikes– John Singleton, Matty Rich, the Hughes brothers– and it appears that has dried up. There's a line in the movie I'm Gonna Get You Sucka: Keenan Ivory Wayans is trying to get a posse together to hunt down Mr. Big and he says, "Where's all the Revolutionaries?" Clarence Williams III looks him in the eye and goes, "They got government jobs." (Laughs) That's kind of what happened to black films. Those people are getting a lot of work on mainstream films, so you have less [black-oriented] stuff out there. I like what Tyler Perry's doing, how he's established a distinctive brand. Tyler Perry has a certain movie he makes, and it's great because it serves an underserved audience.
And you’ve got your own distinctive brand of comedy, one that many would argue is among the best of all-time.
Really? I'll take it, but I don't give it that much thought. It’s not good for you, you know what I mean? Derek Jeter can't be thinking about how he’s an iconic Yankee when he’s stepping up to bat. I'm happy more for my parents than for me: my family can really like enjoy stuff like that. Me, I have to work.
Do those kinds of accolades make you uncomfortable?
A little bit. But at the same time, I've been doing it a long time so it’s nice to have made some mark there.
Do you think that comedy is in better shape now than when you started?
It’s in much better shape. When I started there was no Comedy Central, and forget about being a black comic! It was superstar or bust: There was Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby; there was no room to be like the black Paul Reiser. You either had to be a superstar or you didn't work. Now there’s all sorts of levels of comedians, which is great.
A lot of comics don’t tour as much once they get older, but your Kill The Messenger Tour was one of your biggest to date. Is standup comedy still rewarding for you?
I still get a thrill from it and get paid handsomely for it. I’m fortunate because the road is bigger now than it was back in the day. Guys like Richard Pryor couldn’t play the whole world. That was always the problem with comedians, because musicians could play the whole world and they could make all this money. Part of it was just awareness and recognition, and part of it was the jokes just didn’t translate. But in the age of the Internet, the world is so small that I can play anywhere they speak English.
Think you’ll ever stop touring?
I don’t see that happening. If you see me not touring, I’ve got a LOT of money! (Laughs) It’s nice to be funny without all the accoutrements of film– the cameramen, the actors, the directors. It’s an instant connection with the audience. It’s as close as I’ll ever come to being an athlete, because it’s a live event where anything could happen. I have to think constantly while I’m on stage. The show could actually go bad, you know what I mean? I could lose! It’s hard to lose that big with a movie.