(AP/Chris Pizzello)

Chris Rock: Racial progress is pure nonsense

The comedian holds court on Cosby, Obama and Ferguson in a fascinating new interview with New York magazine


Anna Silman
December 1, 2014 8:40PM (UTC)

Today, New York magazine released a sprawling, meaty interview between comedian Chris Rock and political columnist Frank Rich, which saw the pair going deep on politics, art and the point where politics and art converge. As always, Chris Rock proves himself a master of the poignant sound bite, from his perfect encapsulation of Obama's legacy (“Everybody wanted Michael Jordan, right? We got Shaq") to his striking summation of the year in comedy: ”It’s a weird year for comedy. We lost Robin, we lost Joan, and we kind of lost Cosby.” It's worth checking out the whole interview, but here are some highlights:

On income inequality:

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If poor people knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets. If the average person could see the Virgin Airlines first-class lounge, they’d go, “What? What? This is food, and it’s free, and they … what? Massage? Are you kidding me?”

On standup in the age of cellphones and political correctness:

It is scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like fucking Sammy the Bull, you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, “Oh, I went too far,” and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched. 

On keeping up with technology:

I follow a couple people on In­stagram. You’ve got to follow all that stuff. You have to understand it, because if you don’t, then you’re going to sound like an old guy. You got to have the ability to use it as a reference. A lot of the time, the difference between hip and unhip is just reference. We did some sketch the other night on SNL, and in it I tell my wife—actually, we messed it up, but it was better in the dress—anyway, I tell my wife, “Hey, honey, the cab’s here.” Then I look at it again. I go, “You know what? We got to rewrite this.” “Hey, honey, the Uber’s here.” That little difference, it’s a big, big deal. I remember seeing Robin Williams at Town Hall. He did some Elmer Fudd bit, and I was like, dude, if you change that to SpongeBob… You’ll seem a lot hipper. I do not wish to become Alan King quite yet.

On Joan Rivers:

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Great person, underrated comedian. Who the hell’s funnier than Joan Rivers? That whole reference thing: Joan updated constantly….Okay, these Liz Taylor jokes are gone, and they are now Lindsay Lohan jokes. The compliment you give of a comedian is: Who wants to follow them onstage? Nobody wanted to follow Joan Rivers, ever. Even in her 80s, nobody wanted to follow her.

On Bill Cosby:

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I don’t know what to say. What do you say? I hope it’s not true. That’s all you can say. I really do. I grew up on Cosby. I love Cosby, and I just hope it’s not true. It’s a weird year for comedy. We lost Robin, we lost Joan, and we kind of lost Cosby.

About Robin Williams’ suicide:

Comedians kill themselves. Talk to 100 comedians this week, everybody knows somebody who killed themselves. I mean, we always say ignorance is bliss. Well, if so, what’s the opposite? Some form of misery. Being a comedian, 80 percent of the job is just you notice shit, which is a trait of schizophrenics too. You notice things people don’t notice.

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On Obama:

Kind of cool. I always say, cooler than most politicians, not as cool as actual cool people. He’s not cool like Jay Z’s cool. He’s not Eddie Murphy. But in a world of politicians … In a weird way, him saying he listens to Jay Z—it’s kind of revolutionary, because he’s of the age that he’s supposed to listen to that stuff. And so he’s a little more himself than most politicians. We’ll see if more politicians end up being just themselves. 

On Obama’s legacy:

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I’m trying to figure out the right analogy. Everybody wanted Michael Jordan, right? We got Shaq. That’s not a disappointment. You know what I mean? We got Charles Barkley. It’s still a Hall of Fame career.

On racial progress in America:

My kids grew up not only with a black president but with a black secretary of State, a black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general. My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people.

Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before…So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.

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What he would cover if he was a journalist:

I would cover anything. I mean, I’d be in Ferguson right now, and it would be in-depth, and it would be funny. 

Rich followed up, asking what Rock would do that a standard reporter wouldn’t:

I’d do a special on race, but I’d have no black people … I would get you to interview somebody, and I would put something in your ear, and I’d ask the questions through you … And I would ask them questions that you would never come up with, and we’d have the most amazing interviews ever.

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On gay rights:

I always call Ellen DeGeneres the gay Rosa Parks. If Rosa Parks had one of the most popular daytime TV shows, I’m sure the civil-rights movement would’ve moved a little bit faster too…. I think [Tim Cook coming out as gay]  is actually bigger than the football player. Because the average person in that locker room is in his 20s. And it’s just not a big deal to be around a gay guy—if you’re in your 20s. Whereas Tim Cook is around these corporate guys. That is the epitome of a boys’ club. That is sexist, ­racist—the least inclusive group of people you’re ever going to find.

How making a comedy is harder than making a drama:

Hey, man, I loved Gone Girl. Loved it. But you could probably get other directors—I’m not saying they’d make it as good as Fincher, but you could get it from beginning to end and get a reaction out of it, where you can’t really do that with comedy….In this sense, comedy’s really fair. It’s not like music, where you can hire Timbaland and he gives you a beat and a song, and even though you can’t sing it’s a hit. Comedy, especially stand-up comedy, it’s like: Who’s funny?… It’s the only thing that smacks Hollywood out of its inherent racism, sexism, anti-­Semitism. It makes people hire people that they would never hire otherwise. Do they really want to do a show with Roseanne Barr? No, they want a thin blonde girl… She’s just funnier than everybody. I’m not even sure they wanted to do a Seinfeld show, but he’s just funnier than everybody. 

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On the contemporary lack of black leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King:

I mean, you got to realize, there’s not a need for it the way there was. Back then, we needed that guy for our day-to-day existence. Now you only feel the need in special cases. So, okay, Ferguson goes down. You’re like, Oh, it’d be great if we had a guy. 

On being a rich black guy:

As I told Bill Murray, "Lost in Translation" is a black movie: That’s what it feels like to be black and rich. Not in the sense that people are being mean to you. Bill Murray’s in Tokyo, and it’s just weird. He seems kind of isolated. He’s always around Japanese people. Look at me right now [on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel overlooking Central Park]… And there’s only really one black person here who’s not working. Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation" is what Bryant Gumble experiences every day. Or Al Roker. Rich black guys. It’s a little off.

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But the thing is, we treat racism in this country like it’s a style that America went through. Like flared legs and lava lamps. Oh, that crazy thing we did. We were hanging black people. We treat it like a fad instead of a disease that eradicates millions of people. You’ve got to get it at a lab, and study it, and see its origins, and see what it’s immune to and what breaks it down.

Finding stand-up topics that push the envelope:

You keep notes. You look for the recurring. What’s not going away? Boy, this police-brutality thing—it seems to be lingering. What’s going to happen here? You don’t even have the joke, you just say, “Okay, what’s the new angle that makes me not sound like a preacher?” Forget being a comedian, just act like a reporter. What’s the question that hasn’t been asked? How come white kids don’t get shot? Have you ever watched television and seen some white kid get shot by accident?

What will happen if “Top Five” doesn’t do well.

I mean, you care, but suppose, what, the movie makes a billion dollars? It’s not going to affect my day with my kids. If it makes two cents, it’s not going to affect my day with my kids. Fine, the movie comes out Friday, Saturday I will take Zahra to gymnastics. I hope Annie’s out. We’ll go see Annie.

His career goals if "Top Five" does do well:

I’ve been around a long time, and the thing not to chase is stardom. It’s like chasing hits. I would just do another little movie. But don’t get me wrong: If Marvel wants to throw me something…If they want to say, “Hey, that little movie you made? Well here’s a big movie”—like they did with Singer? Yeah, I’m open to that. If somebody wants to do something that crazy.

On whether he can ever be as edgy as he once was:

I probably can’t, but it’s okay. I didn’t recall a lack of edge in George Carlin. Joan didn’t seem to have calmed down at all. I don’t think they were thinking about edge. I think they were just thinking about, How am I going to be funny? It’s funny first.


Anna Silman

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Chris Rock Comedy Frank Rich Interview New York Magazine Nymag Obama Stand-up Vulture

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