Sound Salvation: Comically incorrect

Chris Rock riffs on unfunny old themes--in "Roll With the New."

Published September 5, 1997 8:06AM (EDT)

so you're German. You're a German terrorist. Like your brother before you.
But you don't have a brother anymore because some wise-ass New York cop
threw him off the L.A. office tower he tried to blow up. How do you get
even in America? You call up the cop's precinct, that's what you do. You
give instructions, make demands. If the cop is not at a certain Harlem
intersection at a certain time, you threaten to blow up a school. So they
drag the cop out of bed; he's drunk. The cop's driven to the
intersection you requested. All he's wearing, per your request, is his
underwear and a sandwich board. And the only thing written on the sandwich
board is this: "I HATE NIGGERS."

So it's only a movie, and a Bruce Willis movie at that -- "Die Hard 3."
But even so, even on film, even with Junior Mints melted all over your hands, that
sentence -- black words on a white board -- might be the most alarming
sentence in the English language. Can you think of words more ugly? More jarring?
More packed with history and guilt and rage? Just to type those words ...

I'd forgotten that scene, forgotten what that moment felt like -- until
I heard Chris Rock's new "comedy" album "Roll With the New" (Dreamworks). "Who's more racist?" Rock asks a mostly black Washington, D.C., audience. "Black people or white
people?" His answer: "Black people. Because we hate black people, too.
Everything white people don't like about black people, black people really don't like about black people." He says there's a "civil war" being waged: "There's black people,
and there's niggas. And niggas have got to go." Seeing the words written
out is nauseating. But hearing them out loud is 10 times worse. The spoken word, especially
when it's cloaked in Rock's take-no-prisoners yell-speak, is so much more
potent than mere typography. Hearing anyone, even a black man, utter the
words, "I hate niggas" (and I'm using Rock's spelling here) makes me cringe.

Is this comedy? I find myself chortling, but at the same time I question
whether I should be. Rock defines "niggas" as "ign'ant-ass motherfuckers,"
thieves who shoot up movie screens and who steer clear of books the way
Superman does Kryptonite. Over and over, he interrupts the flow of his rant with "I'm
tired, tired, tired of this shit. Tired, tired, tired." He spits into his microphone with a percussive force, a real violence. Of course, he's just joking around -- or is he?

What Rock's doing -- dissecting race -- isn't new. The best comedians are
always more social critics than clowns, and Rock's most talented
colleagues play with identity, too: Margaret Cho cracks up about her Korean
mother, Jon Stewart plays up his Jewishness, Janeane Garofalo takes on the
beauty biz. But that trio possesses a kind of sweet confusion that Rock
lacks. When Garafolo jokes about her "stalwart" upper arms, or Stewart cracks
wise about staying away from Christmas trees, they're sympathetic -- they suck
you in. But Rock's act bubbles under with rage. His message is one of
estrangement, and it goes with the territory: to be the daughter of Asian
immigrants or a German Jew or a white woman -- these roles are not without
symbolism. But to be black and in America and, more importantly, to
talk about being black in America is to take on this country's
original sin. Rock's saving grace is that, like all intelligent Americans,
he holds up ambition as a paradigm. But his outrage is fueled by a lack of it:
His problem with "niggas" is that he sees them as "low-expectation-having

One of the structural problems with "Roll With the New" is the
occasional staged commentary between bits, in which Rock apes audience
members making fun of his act. This self-sabotage isn't funny -- isn't
anything -- except perhaps an unfortunate side effect of working on "Saturday
Night Live," where bad ideas are routinely run into the ground.
After "Niggas vs. Black People," for example, he constructs a montage of
after-the-show fan reactions to the bit. Everyone likes it: the "niggas" themselves, who
call it "dope"; the black man who says "you don't know how many times I've
said that myself" and thinks "I HATE NIGGAS" would look great on the back
of a T-shirt; the oversexed Latina who wonders where he's staying.
Since it comes across, even in audio, that Rock recognizes his audience as largely non-white, being a white person listening to this makes me feel as if I'm eavesdropping. This hunch comes crashing in on me as an obviously white voice, a man's voice, says to Rock "I hate niggas, too" -- and suddenly the only sound on the record is Rock's fist flying (because everyone knows that the first and only rule of discussing identity is that you can make fun of your own, but
everyone else should just shut up already).

I can't decide if Rock is brave or masochistic, but his point of view
doesn't leave much room for affection. By beating up his admittedly doofy
white admirer, he effectively silences "white" commentary about his act.
But pointedly condemning black culture in front of black audiences isn't likely to
turn him into Mr. Popularity there either. When he introduces himself to
the Washington audience, he calls the town "Home of the Million Man March."
This is met by cheers and applause. But immediately (he's been onstage for
roughly four seconds), he goes in for the kill. "Had all the positive black
leaders there. Farrakhan. Jesse. Marion Barry." This is followed by several
minutes of castigation, by what-were-you-thinking diatribes aimed
specifically at D.C.'s black voters. "Marion Barry at the Million Man
March. You know what that means? That means that even in our finest hour,
we had a crackhead onstage!"

"Roll With the New" is a pessimistic document, a cynical attack on the
idea of community. Black/white unity is so removed a concept that it's mostly
ignored, black/black unity is destroyed and male/female understanding is
obliterated ("I'm not saying O.J. should have killed her," Rock quips in one
particularly offensive segment. "I'm just saying I understand."
Women here are either money-grubbing divorcies or ball-busting wives or
tempting whores who fuck great but can't cook. If this is comedy in Rock's
world, then the tragedy must be unbearable. Listening to this record is
like being tickled for an hour -- you may be laughing, but it's not because you're enjoying yourself.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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