Bitter and blacker

Chris Rock, the new heavyweight champ of humor, hits where it hurts.


Cintra Wilson
June 22, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

When I was 4, 5 and 6, I religiously collected used Bill Cosby
records, because I fell giddily in love with his voice. I had no
comprehension of his set-ups or punch lines, but the way his voice wrapped
around them made me wet my pants. I memorized the routines, but
phonetically; they might have been total nonsense. The lilt of his
cartoony, avuncular sarcasm made me wish he was my dad, the biggest
compliment I knew of at the time. Cosby had the joy-sauce.

Chris Rock is the newest and biggest comic whose delivery alone spells Love.
The people adore Chris Rock, who lately, because of the mysterious sorcery
of fame, has become a lot larger than the sum of his parts. For many
today, Rock represents the bright new personification of Hilarity Itself.
Truly, his vocal inflections are so infused with wiggly delight, it almost
doesn't matter what he says, which is good, because the "Chris Rock: Bigger
and Blacker" tour (promoting his new HBO special of the same name, airing
July 10) isn't especially funny. On paper, anyway, it's pretty bleak material.
Rock still delivers the yucks, but mostly through whopping charisma and rude
will.

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Black comedians, particularly when performing for a predominantly black
audience, are at some point faced with the rather unfunny task of talking
about the fairly horrifying realities of being black in America. Richard
Pryor
(for me, stand-up comedy's poet laureate) tackled this with crazily
inspired mimicry and insight. Eddie Murphy went about it with ruthless
irreverence. Bill Cosby did it with gloss and denial, eschewing the grittier
realities as well as he stayed away from the F-word. Chris Rock, new
heavyweight champion, is outraged and desperate. He seems very upset about
America, doubly upset about the black plight and ferociously upset to be
the one who has to talk about it.

It comes across in his Screamin' Jay Hawkins vocal style, and the way he
stalks the stage. His whole essence screams; his small, whippy frame is like
a pain-absorbing spring mechanism that coils up to a certain pressure-point,
then explodes back with a barrage of raspy barks through his alarmed-looking
head. He needs to holler, and he's great at it, but the humor in this round
of material doesn't quite outrun the roaring sadness that generated it.
After an hour of Rock wringing and pacing and screaming, we still loved the
guy, but we came away feeling scraped and reprimanded,
and like we'd just seen someone forced to be a social conscience who really doesn't want to be
a social conscience at all. It's almost as if Rock sees the situation as being so
urgent that he doesn't have any choice.

"Bigger and Blacker" began with some new Rock riffs on being black in America, more of the same stuff that made his 1997 show "Roll with the New" a critical hit. It's a daring shtick that would get a white guy killed, but there's a moralistic, finger-wagging aspect to it as well. Mothers shouldn't be out nightclubbing while the kids are at home: "If you
grow up calling your grandmother 'mommy' and your mother 'Pam,' you goin' to
jail!" Dad should pay the bills and keep the lights on so the kids can do
homework, etc. Rock discouraged homophobia: "Whoever you
hate WILL end up in your family. If you're homophobic, you gonna have a gay
son." He discussed the desperate need for new black leaders, describing
everyone after Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. as "substitute teachers."
Rock then delved vigorously into the kinds of issues he appeared to think an
ideal black leader would address -- criticism of the NYPD, medical insurance,
pharmaceutical corporations, the disparity between retail venues in white
and black neighborhoods, etc. -- and stopped barely shy of preaching his show
into a depressive coma, then put the cap on the whole rant by kicking up a
big ruckus against the idea of his being a "role model," which in his mind
is tantamount to being called a "good nigger." Before that line, which
essentially expressed "I'm not your new black motherfucking leader" in so
many words, he might have been running for governor, and might even have
won.

All of this stuff was hardcore and true and brave and all. Was it comedy?
Well, he's a wonderfully funny guy. But jeez, it mostly smarts.

Rock's funniest bits were the lightest, such as his fancy jig-dancing
enthusiasm for the Ricky Martin hit "Livin' La Vida Loca," which he
described as the "Whoomp! There It Is" crossover of Hispanic music. Again, you
really had to be there.

Late into the set, in a way that almost made it seem like comedy relief from
the bludgeoning reality of his comedy act, Rock degenerated into an antique,
battle-of-the-sexist blue rant ` la Redd Foxx. No sensitive new-age
puss-male, Mr. Rock. This material was weak, offensive without being
particularly funny and had already been chewed to death in the '60s and
early '70s by every seedy hack-bastard comic who ever emceed a strip
club. I'm not the type to get my panties in a ringer about this type of
misogyny-lite, as long as it's funny, but this section was all shite we'd
heard ad nauseam: how women should be willing to give more blow jobs; how
women really need to shut the fuck up, because they talk too much; how women
are mostly in relationships to get their bills paid. Blah blah blah. He also
mused on the tried and true clichi of how all men are dogs, incapable of
fidelity, if tempted. "A man is only as faithful as his options," sayeth the
Rock.

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It was all more or less a seamy look at the inner workings of Rock's
agitated sex life and his surprisingly unenlightened relationships with
women in general, and seemed, well, (cough) beneath him. I didn't identify
with it at all, but maybe I wasn't supposed to; maybe it was a black guy
thang. But seriously, compared to Chris Rock, Richard Pryor is practically
Dr. Leo Buscaglia.

What I found the most hair-raising in Rock's monologue, and which I've
encountered a bit of lately in other venues, is that there is a recent
public trend of black people, in a relaxed fashion, outspokenly and without
malice, talking about how much they hate whitey. This isn't due to weird, zealoty
white-devil rhetoric or fevered militancy, but is the honest result of a simple, profound,
multi-generational resentment, which has always existed, but is usually kept hidden under
the mild social politeness that has always kept integrated society from dissolving into
total mayhem. This hatred is well deserved and understandable, I reckon, but
it will make you just the slightest bit uncomfortable if it is being
brazenly acknowledged by a beloved comedian and you are one of 15 white
people in the entire sold-out Apollo Theatre in Harlem. We weren't
nervous, everyone was perfectly nice to us, nobody mad-dogged us at the bar,
but there was definitely a "one of these things just doesn't belong here"
vibe. It wasn't scary, but it was a real eye-opener. Harlem is a real
eye-opener. As robust and fierce-humored and vivid as the inhabitants are,
if you have any kind of sensitive, bleeding heart, Harlem will bust it right
in the chops and knock your privileged liberal worldview sideways:
It's just so goddamned poor. Even the walls of the legendary Apollo are
peeling.

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"There's a policy here at the Apollo," teased the warm-up comic. "If you're
white, and you've never been here before, welcome -- just remember to give all
of your money to the nearest black person upon exiting the theater. We call
it 'reparations.'" The Apollo audience erupted into the deafening white-noise blur
of claps and howls louder than any audience I've ever heard; a sound so thick and
round it feels like you can walk off the balcony onto it. We clapped too. Heh heh heh
heh heh, ho ho. Ahem.

Rock, at this point, for all his expert funniness, is like a severed head on
a post: eloquent, but above all, a warning, and evoking of a marrow-deep
chill. Maybe there just isn't room for really funny material nowadays. Maybe that
would just be unforgivably irresponsible. Maybe things have just gotten way
too unfunny, at this point. It's a shame to feel denied a totally unencumbered Chris
Rock, a soaring, radiant talent that didn't have to be weighed down with all that socially
important shit. But, well, things need to change. If the world were a nicer place, Chris
Rock would be a funnier guy. Whoomp. There it is.


Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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