Monday, February 12, 2007

Q&A: Chris Rock (pt. 2)

Here’s my second interview with Chris Rock. (The first interview is here.) It took place in 1990, on the eve of his debut as a junior cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” I traveled to Manhattan to interview him at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, courtesy of the Washington Post.

Wish I could say something clever like: Chris put the “Rock” in 30 Rock. But as we know, sketch comedy proved not to be his strong suit. (Same with movie acting.) He is the best standup comic of his generation, but in 1990, it seemed like getting “SNL” was the best thing that could've happened to Chris Rock.

What you need to know before reading this interview is that Rock stirred up controversy the year before with his “date rape” joke. To wit: Date rape happens when a girl goes to a guy’s place, gets her panties down around her ankles, then says, “Wait, wait, I don’t like you that way. I like you as a friend.” Rock’s punch line was: “Friend? I got a friend named Mike. He never pulled down his pants, okay?”

Rock told that joke on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” The next night, Arsenio got on the air and apologized to his audience. As Rock put it in 1989: “You ever see ‘The King of Comedy’? He treated me like Rupert Pupkin.” The repercussions of that joke extended into 1990, as you will see.

Enjoy this one. Because I certainly did.
DAVID MILLS: How did this happen? How did you get on “Saturday Night Live”?

CHRIS ROCK: They’ve been looking at me for a year, more than a year. You meet with [Lorne Michaels], you meet with him again, you keep meeting with him. Then they flew me out to Chicago for an audition. It was like the “Star Search” finalists or whatever. I just did my standup. And he called me up that night to tell me I had been picked.

I knew it was a possibility. I never thought I was gonna get it. It was like hitting the lotto, basically, that same possibility. I was in it, so I always knew I had some kind of shot.

MILLS: When I talked to you last year, Keenen Ivory Wayans was just planning “In Living Color,” and you told me you expected to be a writer and performer on that show. What happened with that?

ROCK: Well, his mother got pregnant and, uh, no – (laughs) Ooooh! (laughs)

What happened? I don’t know. It’s a whole L.A. thing, I’m in New York, things just happened, man. I’m not out there. And Fox, it was more of an image thing. I don’t want to dis anybody, but it was a Fox decision more or less, I would think.

MILLS: It was never explained to you?

ROCK: I’m trying to get around this without telling the real story. (laughs) Keenen’s in the news enough right now. I don’t want anything to spoil my opening. (whispers) Six months from now.

MILLS: Okay. (laughs)

Can you believe this? I mean, this doesn’t happen in life where you idolize somebody on this show [Eddie Murphy], and then in a few years you’re in the same role he was in, at about the same age. What’s going through your head right now about this circumstance?

ROCK: I’m just a lucky guy, man. Ed idolized Richard [Pryor] and he got to where he’s at.

MILLS: Did you talk to him about what this experience would be about?

ROCK: He told me a few things. We talk a lot now, getting my head prepared – for not being on. He’s like, “Don’t worry. You’re not going to get on a lot immediately, but you’ve got to stick around. You can’t have any ego here. It’s Lorne’s show. Do whatever Lorne says and things will go just fine. Just be cool.”

Everybody’s had really cool advice for me – Damon, Keenen, Eddie.

MILLS: In terms of your contact with Eddie –

ROCK: He’s just a guy. We’re just friends. He was real cool to me. A lot of people were real cool to me early on in my career…

Dennis Miller took me out to dinner one night. He saw me onstage, he told me nice things were going to happen to me. Sam Kinison brought me to this show. He saw me – “Hey kid, you’re real funny” – and he brought me to this show when he was the comedian on the show. He knew Run-DMC was on the show [that week].

So the Eddie thing, he’s just the biggest guy that’s been nice to me.

MILLS: What if I was to tell you that you’re a part of something bigger than yourself? That something’s happening in the black popular culture; it’s happening with hip-hop music, it’s happening with filmmakers like Spike Lee and the Hudlin Brothers, with Arsenio and Keenen on TV. It’s a resurgence of a whole funk aesthetic, and you’re right there because you’ve got a very street, young –

ROCK: I’m the streetiest.

MILLS: (laughs) So if I was to tell you all that, what would you say?

ROCK: Hey, I’m just here to tell jokes, that is my role. That’s Warrington and Reggie [Hudlin]’s rap. … It’s like the ’70s again. A lot of black people are getting famous again.

MILLS: A different kind of black person.

ROCK: Well, real black people are getting famous. It’s not like –

You know what’s so weird being on this show? I can’t say things anymore! I was just, “Yeah, not like –” Oh, I can’t do that. It means more now because I’m on this show.

Real black people are getting famous. I mean, Spike Lee is black.

MILLS: The thing is a rootedness, a sense of not being the singular, isolated star, like Prince was in the ’80s. Spike and all of them, they’re rooted in a community. Now, you live –

ROCK: I live in Fort Greene [Brooklyn]. Spike’s my neighbor. Branford Marsalis, Wynton, Monty Ross, that whole crew. Fort Greene is like old Harlem right now. Everything is black-owned, it’s a real cool area. Community banks and the whole thing. Spike’s filming right now, so if you’re up early you can see people literally trucking down to his office getting on the vans.

MILLS: You’ve also got an album coming out?

ROCK: “Chris Rock: Born Suspect.” It’s real hard. I did it before I got this show. Now I’m thinking about re-editing it. This show is, like, so much.

MILLS: Right off the top of your head, what’s one joke you think you might have to take off the album or tone down?

ROCK: I did this whole thing about everybody’s scared of blacks, everybody’s scared of Puerto Ricans, but there’s no group of people more horrifying than a bunch of poor white people. They’re the most dangerous group of people in the country because they’re just pissed.

I was bussed to school to a poor white neighborhood, and these kids were dirt poor. I mean, we thought we were broke, but these guys were real poor white people. And they used to hate our guts. We weren’t rich but my father had a Cadillac. There’s nothing a white guy with a penny hates more than a nigger with a nickel.

It’s not a family-show thing, you know? I don’t even want to get into all the wild sex stuff. I’m on the “Cosby” network now!

MILLS: I was not expecting this. But I guess you have to. You’re into something that you don’t want to fuck up, and I respect that.

ROCK: I’ve had a crazy controversial career. I’m like, “All right, let me keep a job for a while. Let me do something right.” Because if I do this right, it will open up the doors for me to do a million other things, the way I want to do it.

MILLS: Speaking of your old shit, have there been any repercussions of your date rape joke on Arsenio’s show?

ROCK: Actually, it definitely helped out my live shows.

MILLS: Because of the controversy, or just your appearance on the show?

ROCK: And the controversy. It’s like I was on TV two nights in a row. “Man, who was on last night? Chris Rock?” So I got that vibe going. But in retrospect, I don’t know if I should’ve done the joke.

MILLS: On TV, or period?

ROCK: On broadcast TV. It would have been a cool cable thing. But the audience laughed their ass off. It wasn’t like I went out there, told a joke, and there were people going “Ooooh.”

What really happened is, when you do a TV set, they give you five and a half, six minutes. Arsenio came out during the commercial break, at the last minute, and said, “You got three minutes.” So I had to cut down the set.

I wasn’t even going to do the date rape thing, but I was like, “Yo, I want to make some impact. Fuck this.” I mean, at the last minute, cut it in half. A lot of people would just fold. I was in the killer mode. I did all right.

I was in Ms. magazine. “How dare this kid say this joke on television?” It was nuts. It was nuts for a while. Even right now, if I do a college, some women’s group will come up to me and say, “Don’t do that joke.” On the other hand, if I do a show and people want to hear it, fuck it.

I cut it out of the album. I definitely did. This is over. I don’t want to be Dice. I want to have a nice long career.

MILLS: Have you hooked up with any of the “Saturday Night” writers, the way Eddie did?

ROCK: I know a few of them. We’ll see how it works out. Black people and white people live in such different worlds sometimes. I wanted to do a sketch about Flavor Flav. I told one of the writers, and he didn’t know who Flavor Flav was. And he’s in his 20s. (laughs) So you’re like, “Okay, I gotta think out my plan.”


Eric said...

Fascinating interview - it's really interesting to me that he wants to instigate, he wants controversy, but he also knows that there lines that he shouldn't cross, and if people get upset about what he says, it's not necessarily because he's being "Too Black" or "Too Real."

It was an interesting time for Black culture (I suppose it was the early days of "African American" culture.) It's my favorite era of Hip-Hop; De La Soul, and the rest of the Native Tongues posse, Public Enemy at the height of their powers, samplers moving beyond James Brown and exploring George Clinton and more.

Then came the suits against De La Soul and Biz Markee, making another mega-sampling masterpiece like 3 Feet High or Paul's Boutique too expensive to release legally. Then came N.W.A. Then came my gradual loss of interest in Hip Hop.

(All of this from the perspective of a very White boy, with his nose pressed up against the window of Funk.)

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks, Eric. Chris Rock has always impressed me with his intellect and having his head on straight... hard to believe he was in his early 20s in these interviews. Also worth noting that his instigatin' impulse reaped the ultimate dividends with his breakthrough HBO standup special.

I used to listen to a good bit of hip-hop in the '80s, though having come of age in the era of funky bands, I always relegated hip-hop to second-class status sonically. (I don't care how good you can mix... no DJ ever did with a turntable what Eddie Hazel could do with a guitar.)

I think the sample wars were concurrent with the major labels bum-rushing the hip-hop industry in 1988. That was like the year damn-near EVERYBODY got signed to a major-label deal; it went from street culture to straight corporate in the blink of an eye. And the stakes got a lot higher.

Kind of stunning that hip-hop's still rolling in the mainstream. I weep for the generations of kids who never bothered to pick up the guitar... 'cause they weren't hearing 'em on the radio.

ItAintEazy said...

If only we had the Arsenio Hall show again so we can be introduced to an actual variety of black artists and entertainers, and not just the same old retreads, but I doubt the big media conglomerates will allow that anymore.

Undercover Black Man said...

Oh man... remember how exciting it used to be to watch Arsenio? His vibe even brought something different out of the white guests, like Madonna and Sandra Bernhard.

Eric said...

I know what you mean about sampling vs. instruments- I came to Funk through rap, but I've felt for a long time that there's something empowering about the image of a black man holding a guitar, and that kids were missing out by not seeing that image.

I also think that one of the secrets to the Beastie Boys' longevity is that they were a punk band before they were rappers, and that learning to play instruments gave them a knowledge of song structure and an instinct for music theory that you don't get through sampling or being an MC.

susie said...

I love Chris Rock for his smile while he delivers. I have always felt that he was coming from a place of his own experience and spoke to some universal themes (anything dealing with women and relationships) along with his social commentary.

His joke about date rape shone a light on the ugly truth on what a lot men think and it doesn't matter what color their skin is.

As for the Arsenio show I was just mesmerized by the man's hands. He had the longest fingers. Seriously.

From a woman's POV I have to say that guitars and the guys who play them rule. I am never going to get that excited about two turntables and a microphone, although I have to say LL Cool J still blows my skirt up.

justjudith said...

just found this blog and i love it! will bookmark it. love the interviews!