I still remember his first appearance on Fox’s “Late Show” with Arsenio Hall back in ’87. Chris, at the tender of age of 20, looked like he’d just walked off a Brooklyn playground… and sounded like it too. One of his jokes was: “Miles Davis is so black, they should call him Uncle Oil.”
I first interviewed Chris Rock (by phone) in 1989 for a story in the Washington Times. This was before “Saturday Night Live,” before “New Jack City” even. The only movie work he’d done was a couple of hilarious minutes in “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.” And America had gotten only glimpses of his standup comedy on MTV and HBO.
In 1990, Chris got hired for “Saturday Night Live,” and I interviewed him again, this time in person, this time for the Washington Post.
So step into my time machine, won’t you? And listen to hall-of-fame comedian Chris Rock when he was just a rookie. We begin with the 1989 interview, at which point young Mr. Rock was still living in his mom’s house in Bed-Stuy:
DAVID MILLS: When you first did “The Late Show” with Arsenio Hall, I had never seen that kind of material on a national show before. And a few weeks later I interviewed Arsenio, and I asked him about that, particularly the joke “Miles Davis is so black…” and “Grace Jones is so ugly…” And he said he had problems with that material because of the message it sends out to black and white viewers, and that he talked to you about it. Have you taken that kind of material out of your act?
CHRIS ROCK: Some of it. I don’t do the Miles Davis anymore.
MILS: What kind of reaction did you hear after you did that on the show?
ROCK: Either people loved it or they hated it. More love than hate. The audience ate it up on the show.
MILLS: And that’s the kind of stuff you had been doing, what, in clubs? Where had you been working?
ROCK: In clubs, working the clubs in New York. All white…
Spike Lee talked to me about [that joke]. This was even before “School Daze.” So I saw what he was saying. I was just making fun. It’s the kind of stuff we do on the block. There was a guy on my block named Rodney, and we used to throw these black jokes on him, so I just took those jokes and directed them at Miles Davis.
MILLS: Do you look for controversy?
ROCK: I’m just so scared of being boring. It’s not like I really look for controversy. If I’m not getting laughs, I still want to be interesting. …
All the black comics today, they do big-dick jokes, they make it seem like black people are ignorant. When they do a black voice, the first thing is “I be…” Like black people can’t even talk English. I don’t do no big-lip jokes, no big-dick jokes, no watermelon jokes, no “my radio” jokes. And keep my blackness.
MILLS: It’s amazing that you’re so new to the business. You didn’t start performing until 1985. Do you remember some of the material you did during your first audition at Catch a Rising Star?
ROCK: I talked about Miles Davis. I was doing a little Jesse Jackson material.
MILLS: Like what about Jesse?
ROCK: Uhh, for Jesse – Jesse Jackson, he hates Jews, he’s black, which confuses a lot of rednecks. They don’t know what the hell to do; “All my life I been waitin’ to vote for a Jew-hater. Turns out to be a nigger.”
MILLS: (laughs) When did Eddie Murphy first see you?
ROCK: Eddie saw me at the Comic Strip about two years ago. The point I was at in my career, I was damn-near sweeping up the club. I was like the last act on every night. Real late. And I just wanted to meet my idol.
So the owner of the club introduced me to him, and Eddie says, “When are you going on?” And I said, “Well, I’m not on tonight.” And he said [to the owner], “Put the kid on next.” So suddenly I was next. It was really like my first prime-time spot. Scared to death, but I did it. I had a real good set.
Two days later I’m in California. I had my first plane ride, my first limo ride, a lot of stuff. [Eddie] took me to the movies to see “She’s Gotta Have It.” Real cool guy. He’s such a cool guy.
I’m sure, like, people met Elvis, and he was a big drug addict and it ruined their lives. (laughs) People met Sly Stone – “But you’re my idol!” – it kind of fucked ’em up. If Eddie was a scumbag, it probably would have affected me a lot since I looked up to him. I still look up to him.
MILLS: At this point, I guess we’re talking right out of high school. Were you going to college at all?
ROCK: I did a year of community college. I’m a high-school dropout. I dropped out of high school after the 11th grade. Took my G.E.D.
MILLS: Before you ever got up onstage, what were you hoping to become?
ROCK: I always saw myself famous. (laughs) This is true. Anybody you ask, they’ll say that. I just never knew what I was going to do until I saw Eddie in “Delirious.”
MILLS: Did you used to watch him on “Saturday Night Live”?
ROCK: Yep. Every week. Never missed him. He came on, he did the news thing, and he said something ’bout “Your mother got teeth in the back of her neck, and the bitch chew like this.” That’s the first real funny thing they let him do. And from then on I was glued to my set every week.
MILLS: What’s great is, not only are Eddie Murphy and the others who struggled together of that generation helping each other out now, they’re reaching down to bring up new talent like you. Does that put a responsibility on you?
ROCK: A tremendous responsibility on me. I did an HBO special where they labeled me as Eddie Murphy’s protégé. It kind of stuck. You ever see the “Uptown Comedy Express”? Me, Arsenio, Marsha Warfield, Robert Townsend, Barry Sobel. You gotta get the tape. That was the funniest show ever.
Now, wherever I go, it’s like I gotta be twice as funny as the next guy because I’ve got this Eddie thing. “Oh, he’s not funny, he just knows Eddie.” So I gotta be twice as funny. Hey, Mike Tyson could be your big brother, get you a shot at the title, but if you can’t fight, you’re gonna get your ass kicked.
MILLS: You’re working on a show, Keenen Ivory Wayans’ show for Fox? What’s that about?
ROCK: Nothing’s been inked out yet, but it’s going to be like “Saturday Night Live,” but with some black people. Sketch comedy.
MILLS: Y’all haven’t done a pilot or anything yet?
ROCK: They’re just negotiating the contracts and stuff. I’ll be a writer and a performer.
I have it real hard ’cause I’m so young. Getting work, getting paid right.
MILLS: When did you get a William Morris agent? That’s got to help.
ROCK: It’s not as much as people think. They don’t know comedy. I don’t want to sound like I’ve got a big head, but there’s never been a teen comedian, you know? It’s never happened. There’s never been a comedian in Right On! magazine or anything that all the young people get into and older people get into. So nobody really knows what the hell to do with me.
MILLS: You’ve opened for musical acts, right?
ROCK: Al B. Sure, Terence Trent D’Arby, Keith Sweat. Great. Young audiences, especially for Al B. Sure, and they all knew me, which was really weird. I wouldn’t even have billing on the show, even though I did all this HBO stuff and a movie. They dog comedians. And the girls are going “Al B.! Al B.! Al B.!,” and I come onstage and people go berserk. It’s like, “We just got a treat here.”
Everybody expects me to bomb. Nobody, especially these white agents, they don’t – umm, it’s weird, man. I took one of my agents to a Prince concert, and I was signing autographs. He didn’t believe it. He’s my damn agent.
MILLS: He didn’t believe that people knew you?
ROCK: Right. Totally taken – “What?!” They just thought I was poppin’ shit. They talk to me like I’ve done nothing. They’re like, “Chris, you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna do this.” I’m like, “Yo, I just wanna make some money. I been signing autographs for like two years now.” (laughs) Don’t tell me about exposure. Talk money wit’ me.
[TO BE CONTINUED]