Comedy with no apologies, from Rock

March 19, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

DEARBORN, Mich. -- The first glimpse of comedian Chris Rock in his suite in Dearborn's Ritz-Carlton is not a pretty one. Dressed in an oversized shirt, baggy jeans and combat boots, he's a skeletal figure doubled over as though he's in pain.

Considering the breakfast sitting on his coffee table, it could be something he ate. But a look at the television reveals the reason for his pained expression.

He's watching black entertainers stooping in ways he deems tasteless in order to get a laugh. And he's determined not to suffer a similar fate.

"Look at Jimmie Walker. And look at that hair," Mr. Rock exclaims while flicking the remote control back and forth between rerun episodes of "Good Times" and "Gimme A Break."

Mr. Walker, or J. J. as he will forever be remembered, grins into the camera wearing a suit that looks like it's made of Mylar and a hairstyle that recalls a straightening comb nightmare.

Flick. Nell Carter fills the screen: two tons of fun in an under-sized apron playing mammy with a smile.

Mr. Rock stares and shakes his head.

While the characters he portrays on "Saturday Night Live" and in the new film "CB4" aren't exactly cultural role models, at least Mr. Rock can say he has control over his image: casting himself as the streetwise quipster on the stand-up comedy circuit; the defiant, Afro-and---iki-wearing revolutionary Nat X on "SNL"; and as the gangsta rapper MC Gusto in "CB4."

Mr. Rock co-wrote and produced "CB4" and writes many of his "SNL" scripts. If some day it hurts Mr. Rock to look in the mirror as much as it does to watch old sitcoms, he has only himself to blame.

"When it's all said and done, I guess I'm a writer," Mr. Rock says. "I guess I'd prefer to be just an actor, but that's the way you wind up with bad roles. You can protect yourself from bad movies by writing and producing them yourself."

At an early age, Mr. Rock, 26, aspired to be "the black guy on 'Saturday Night Live.' " In contrast, being the black guy at a predominantly white high school caused him to drop out to become a busboy.

Friends urged him to try stand-up comedy, and Mr. Rock swiftly gained renown as "the black guy" jamming at Manhattan's Comic Strip.

Eddie Murphy liked Mr. Rock's act so much he gave him a minor role in 1987's "Beverly Hills Cop II." Later, his portrayal of the conniving "rib joint customer" in 1988's "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" attracted "SNL" producer Lorne Michaels.

With two years left on his "SNL" contract, Mr. Rock doesn't easily veil his displeasure at not appearing in as many skits as "Wayne's World" stars Dana Carvey and Mike Myers.

"After that, it looks like I'll be gone," Mr. Rock sighs. "It's been OK, I mean, it's still early in the . . . oh, who knows what will happen this year.

"It's been a good experience and I've learned a lot. I learned how to write on a deadline."

But apparently not how to consistently write material the show's producers deem appropriate for a predominantly white audience.

"From what I can see, [black comedy's] getting bigger but it's probably digressing, too," Mr. Rock says. "Everybody's basically just doing dirty, sex humor. Nobody's really talking about anything of any merit or sharing any real experiences or letting you into their lives."

Mr. Rock's humor avoids that rut with such routines as his Nat X character. And he's getting through to Zeke Robinson, producer of the annual Michigan Black Comedy Competition. Mr. Robinson says Mr. Rock has a style that endears him to the hip-hop crowd and more mature audiences alike.

"I like one routine in particular when he talks about watching the nightly news and how as a black person you're always thinking, 'God, I hope that wasn't a black person who committed that crime,' " Mr. Robinson says. "It's also funny when he talks about how you can tell what color the perpetrator of a crime was just by hearing the description of a crime he committed.

"I can relate to thinking that way when I'm watching the news. And what makes a comedian like Mr. Rock so popular is the way he sheds a comical light on things we all can relate to."

Mr. Rock seems unable to explain how he rose so high in the business so fast. However, like the black comedy kings who preceded him, Mr. Rock understands this formula for success: Comedy is tragedy plus time.

"I always say that comedy's the blues for people that can't sing," Mr. Rock says. "And we just happen to have the blues more than the average white guy."

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