Comedy 101 with Chris Rock

The dean of American humor says it's time to let black writers in on the joke. A Howard University magazine is his first step.

October 31, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,sun staff

WASHINGTON -- The pale face of college humor will soon be changing.

Next month, after two years and two Chris Rock comedy workshops, Howard University plans to launch a humor magazine in the fearlessly satirical spirit of the Harvard Lampoon.

"The magazine will be the black version of the Harvard Lampoon," Rock, the superstar African-American comedian and actor, said this month in New York. "It's my way of finding black kids who want to write comedy. There's just no outlet for it."

The new quarterly magazine, the Illtop Journal, is the pet pit-bull project of Rock, 34. He's funding the magazine and likens its start-up to the birth some years back of another novel outlet for black artists -- hip hop.

In early 1998, Rock approached Howard University administrators with the idea of establishing the first major black college humor magazine. It's like Cal Ripken Jr. dropping by your college and saying: What we need is a baseball team. I'll hold the first auditions, provide the dough for the equipment and come by once in awhile to check on batting stances and glove work.

Essentially, that's what happened at Howard. The university's School of Communications willingly found itself in the humor magazine business with the CEO of American comedy. Rock's 1996 Emmy-winning "Bring the Pain" stand-up performance established him as a leading force in comedy. His HBO special this year, "Bigger & Blacker," cemented his reputation as one of the most interesting and popular performers in America. These days, the comic has his own talk show on HBO, produces the TV sitcom "The Hughleys," and has dramatic lead roles in two coming movies.

Now Rock also has a humor magazine with his signature on it. "There's a rich history of black humor but not of black literary humor," says Rock's partner in the project, record producer and Illtop adviser Bill Stephney. "There aren't any black Erma Bombecks out there."

Given its high-profile founder, university officials have been deluged with media requests -- 35 organizations by last count, said Jannette Dates, dean of Howard's School of Communications, which will be publishing Illtop. All the attention has made university officials lock-jawed about what one press release calls the "Chris Rock Comedy Writing Project." No comment has been the common comment.

But word has spread like a good Internet joke. Time, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker have already taken note of Rock's project. And Illtop is the buzz not only on Howard University's campus, but on a certain campus in Cambridge, Mass.

"The founding of his magazine is really a landmark event for college humor publishing," says David King, an editor of the Harvard Lampoon. Last year, Rock met with the Lampoon staff to discuss ideas for his new magazine. "He talked about keeping up standards and not being satisfied with shock value or vulgarity," King says.

"Everyone," he adds, "thinks it's awesome that Chris Rock is trying to do something about a scarcity of black comedy writers."

The Lampoon network

During his budding years on "Saturday Night Live," Rock had noticed how many writers started their careers at the Lampoon. The 123-year-old Lampoon is virtually the only name among college humor magazines and has graduated writers to the staffs of "SNL," "The Late Show with David Letterman," "Seinfeld," and "The Simpsons."

Rock, a successful high school drop-out, recalls vowing that he'd one day start his own humor magazine. He chose Howard University because it's "the closest black school to my house." Also, Rock's wife, Malaak Compton, is a Howard graduate.

Rock's idea, like his humor, was topical. Racial disparity in the creative ranks of the entertainment industry remains an issue, as illustrated in the debate over this fall's television season.

Critics labeled the new season "a television blackout," given that not one of the 26 new shows on the four major networks starred a black performer. Last summer, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume called the pending fall lineup "a virtual whitewash."

Other observers also have noted the need for more minorities behind the cameras in jobs such as producing and writing for TV sitcoms and dramas. A widely published study this fall, conducted by the Writers' Guild, showed that of its 9,000 members, 345 were black.

A pipeline for writers

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