By Danny Lobell
Most would agree that Chris Rock is a living comedy legend. So, why does he have such a hard time believing it?
When you get a chance to sit down with one of stand-up comedy’s biggest names and most influential comics of all time, you take it– especially when you catch him outside of the roar of arena crowds. We recently chatted with Chris Rock at the Comedy Cellar in New York City, where he was working out new material.
Rock opened up about everything from how he writes jokes, his wife’s reaction to his material, to his place in the history of stand-up comedy and much more.
How has your idea of humor changed as you’ve grown—how has your writing changed?
I don’t know if the writing’s changed, you know. I’m older. I’ve got a wife, I’ve got kids, bills, you know. I have grown-man concerns, so you end up with grown-man jokes for the most part.
Your material’s changed over the years. I remember watching you in Evening at the Improv and you kinda did these jokes like, “I’m the black guy at the Van Halen Concert, I’m the black friend…” Now when I watch you it seems you have taken a different stance, like you did a joke about how you can’t trust any white people—like if Regis Philbin interviewed you, he might stab you in the neck with a pencil. So, how has race affected you in coming up in comedy?
I love Regis. I consider him a friend. I don’t know… I’m a comic, I’m black, I use it to my advantage. If I were a girl and had big tits, I’d talk about my tits from time to time. I don’t really think about it one way or another. Fat comics talk about being fat, skinny comics talk about being skinny, short comics talk about being short. Everybody uses what they’ve got, you know?
You’ve accomplished so much at this point. What keeps you motivated? What keeps you coming out to the Comedy Cellar and doing your stuff and writing new material?
I just don’t want to suck. I kind of like the spot I’m in. I like people thinking I’m good and I don’t want to let them down.
You’re one of the guys I love to watch as a comic. It’s a great opportunity to get to see a guy like you work out new material, and then see it once it’s polished on HBO. I think I once heard you say you “Chris Rock-ify it” when you bring it to the stage for a show.
Yeah, you amp up your writing
How often do you write?
Not that often, to tell you the truth. It’s like, I write a bunch of jokes at one time. Like literally a whole act in a day. I don’t write the whole act, but I kind of write all the topics.
You mean everything you want to write about, you take note of?
Yeah, and then I work it out for months at a time.
So when I write, I’ll be going through the day, I think of something and I’ll record it or text it to myself and then that night I’ll try to work it out on stage. Some guys, like I hear Jerry Seinfeld, will put aside an hour a day, and say, ‘This is time to write.’
I probably write every day, but it’s more of a re-writing. But the whole act is probably two days. But I’m always working on that act.
Do you write a lot on stage, like when you’re here at the Cellar?
Oh yeah, this is the only thing a club like this is for, is to experiment. You can’t go to the Garden and experiment.
When I spoke to Marc Maron, he said most of his writing on stage, he’ll have a thought and just keep talking about it and see what gets laughs. When I spoke to George Carlin, he said he won’t go on stage and say anything that wasn’t written beforehand. He said there’s no improvisation at all. How much of your stuff would you say is written on-stage and how much do you come with prepared?
I’d say 90 percent is written on-stage. The initial premise, when I bring it up, that’s written, but the rest of it is done onstage. Now, I hear it, and I’ll end up repeating how I said it funny before, but it’s all on-stage.
Do you feel that you have a goal as to where you want your material to be? And if so, will you reach that goal?
I’ve never really thought that hard about any of that. I mean I want all the specials to be good. And I realize that you have a body of work, and whatever you do is going to affect the next thing you do. And you don’t want to have any problems doing your next thing, so you work really hard on what you’re doing.
How much of what you do is about the joke and how much is about the message?
Like Lenny Bruce, for instance. He was sort of like—and Marc Maron is always trying to say something on stage. And you are too.
I’m just trying to be funny, man.
It’s all about the jokes?
I’m trying to be funny and not boring.
So who do you prefer to watch? A guy like Dangerfield or a guy like Bill Hicks?
I mean they’re both fun to watch. It depends on the mood. I’ve watched them both. I’ve watched them go on after one another. I’ve hung out with both of them.
Do you still watch a lot of comedy?
I just actually bought the George Carlin box set. I’ll watch it while I’m on tour. I watched Eddie Murphy Raw a couple nights ago on Bravo.
I love that special too. Let me talk about Eddie Murphy with you for a minute. Because, as the legend goes, Eddie Murphy saw you at the Strip. And you had said that the Strip would never put you up until Eddie Murphy came in and said, ‘What other black people work this club?’ And he said, Chris, over there. So pretty much, Eddie Murphy really helped you right?
Yeah, yeah. Early on, I got in Beverly Hills Cop 2. And you know, he’s been a friend… Mentor.
Continues to be?
Continues to be a friend.
So when you’re in the clubs, how often do you find yourself watching young comics?
Not very often. I come in, and pretty much get on as soon as I walk in. Every now and then I’ll watch, but it’s more to get a sense of timing. Sometimes you watch guys just to hear references, just to make sure you’re not sounding old. But I walk into the club, I go on, I’m on stage, and I get out of there.
How long did it take you to write your first hour?
I probably didn’t have to write an hour until I was 10 years in the business. I didn’t have the pressure of doing an hour for a long time. No one would let me middle even.
When did you start to feel like you were making headway as a comic in the business?
It’s weird, I got on Saturday Night Live, and I had an act that was good enough to get me on SNL, but I don’t think I made headway until after I was off the show. Then I started really thinking that I wasn’t gonna get famous, and wasn’t gonna do movies, so I’d have to make my living as a comedian. And then I kind of made some headway.
So what would you say was your greatest accomplishment as a comedian?
Getting on Saturday Night Live. Still, to this day. I don’t know, I mean, just getting laughs is an amazing accomplishment— whether it’s a million people watching it or just the people in the room.
I’ve interviewed your brother on my show about comedy. Is there a sense of pride that your brother does comedy too?
There’s a sense of pride that he’s good at it. I’ve seen him and he makes me laugh, so there’s a sense of pride there. It’s your brother. If he drove a cab, I’d be proud of him.
There’s a lot of comedy in your family. Sherrod Small’s a comic, he’s your cousin. Do you feel that your success has inspired people around you to do comedy or do you think it’s something that naturally would’ve happened anyway?
Oh, it probably wouldn’t have happened. Because growing up, we didn’t know about comedy clubs. It was such a foreign world to us. You know, any time there’s a good job, you say, ‘Hey, people are hiring down there.’ So that just happened with comedy.
How did you first get into comedy?
I just saw an ad in the paper, and went to audition night. Lucked out.
How much of it would you say is about getting attention?
I don’t know. I don’t know how much I like attention to tell you the truth. I like hanging out by myself, you know… I like getting laughs.
I’ve spoken to some of the younger comics that play here, and they say ‘Chris usually sits by himself. Not very approachable, so I never go up and say hello to him.’
I’m an old man to these guys. I didn’t go up to grown men either [Laughs]. That’s good. When I was a young comic, I didn’t walk up to Rodney, I didn’t walk up to Robin. I had to earn that. I had to get an act that got me attention. Those are the rules. And the person didn’t have to be famous— just really good.
You were never inspired to pick the brain of someone you admired?
You’d tell ’em they had a good act, but it was different graduating classes. My class was Sandler, Colin Quinn, Mario Joyner, Jim Mendrinos. Even now if I’m around Eddie or Cosby, you know. I’m aware that I’m the youngster.
You still feel that sense of–
You talk a lot on stage about your wife.
It’s the oldest joke in the world, guys complaining about their wives. ‘Take my wife, please.’
Right. You say that, but it’s a little different than ‘Take my wife, please.’
It’s no different than Kinison, or Hicks–
Well, Kinison was complaining about mostly exes. ‘She broke my heart,’ ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were a demon from hell?’ But you’re talking about a woman you’re actually married to. How does your wife feel about it?
She knows it’s not really about her. It’s more about marriage, which is a lot of marriages. I would never write a joke because something happened with her, just one person. That thing would have to happen with a lot of people to make it a joke, you know? If I said something that only happened with my wife and me, it wouldn’t be funny.
I don’t know about that.
‘My wife doesn’t have sex with me.’ If I was the only person going through that, no one would laugh at that.
Let’s say your wife did something crazy and ridiculous.
But I’ve never told a story about my wife doing something crazy and ridiculous. They’re all very vague things that most marriages go through.
Right. So your wife has never been like,’Hey, I wish you wouldn’t talk about this?’
I mean, she’s not really like, ‘Hey, tell more jokes,’ but–
You’ve got a cool wife. I’ve had girlfriends that have gotten upset over–
But you’re talking about them. I’m talking about marriage. You’re going, ‘My girlfriend—‘
You don’t say ‘My wife?’
Look at the transcript. [Laughs] ‘Marriage–Marriage is like,’ It’s never, ‘My wife.’ I’ve been with my wife 10 years.
Do you prefer married life to being single?
Yeah. I’m a married guy. I’m 42 years old. Am I gonna go to a club and sit in a booth?
Do you feel your place in comedy yet?
Well, you’re certainly one of the great comics. If you go to a comedy club in Arizona, or the Improv in LA, and walk in there’s a big picture of you on the wall, that must have an impact on you when you see it.
Eh, I’m popular. It can fade. We’ll see. It’s so early, I could still fuck it all up. I wouldn’t be the first guy.
You could still die without Cosby status?
Totally. I don’t have it now.
If you died tomorrow, you’re a legend, right?
I have no idea.
I think so. Especially if you die tragically because that adds a lot of prestige.
Let’s hope I don’t, for my kids’ sake.
So maybe that’s what drives you to keep coming out to the clubs, you want to reach the point where you feel you’ve secured a pace in American Comedy History, Although I would argue you already have.
I just want to be good. No alterior motive, I ain’t thinking about history or nothing. Just my next gig.
You write movies also. You just wrote I Think I Love My Wife. Do you enjoy writing more for movies or stand-up?
They’re both equally fun.
Do you write movies in the same way you’ll write your stand-up, with a skeleton and then–
Nah, nah. It’s easier to write stand-up than movie jokes. Movie jokes are easy, but the structure of a movie is a hard, hard thing.
But it’s something you enjoy doing?
Yeah, it’s not something I’m great at. I think I’m a better stand-up.
What advice would you give young comics in the business?
If you want to be a comic, be a comic. Carlin said, ‘I’m not in show business I’m a comedian.’ So I try to think about it like that.
Our guest writer for this piece, comedian Danny Lobell (pictured to the right), is the host of the Danny Lobell Show. You can find more information at comicalradio.com, riseoftheradioshow.com and dannylobell.com.