Having dropped out of high school, still suffering his share of menial work, Rock set out to study comedy's masters – not just emeritus stand-ups like Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Woody Allen, but Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Groucho Marx. He quietly knew – knows – that there's plenty of comic potential to be wrung out of his spindly, almost scarily vulnerable body. "I see a certain Groucho-esque thing in him," says Ali LeRoi, a staff writer on The Chris Rock Show and a longtime intimate. "You liked the idea that Groucho could, you know, be thrown down the stairs by the big guy."
One day in his 17th year, on a night off from his job at Red Lobster, Rock was in line to buy a ticket for Eddie Murphy's show at Radio City Music Hall when he read a notice about an open-mike night at Catch a Rising Star. He left the line, lied to the club staff that he was the legal-minimum age of 18 and survived well enough to come back. And back, and onto the Manhattan club circuit, until one night at the Comic Strip, he was spotted by Eddie Murphy. The rest becomes familiar – recruited by Murphy for a spot on 1987's HBO special Uptown Comedy Express, then club work until Rock was drafted by SNL, in 1990.
Marci Klein is now co-producer of SNL, but she was a talent associate in 1990 when she got in a limo with the new recruit to ride up to Harlem at 3 a.m. to shoot the images for Rock in the show-opening montage. "There was a lot of pressure, more than on any cast member I've ever seen come in here," recalls Klein, "'cause this is the first black guy – in a long time – to come in since Eddie Murphy, who saved the show during the five years [producer] Lorne [Michaels] wasn't here. Now, Lorne's back, and he said, 'Chris Rock is funny,' and Eddie Murphy said, 'Chris Rock is funny,' so, OK, be funny. Now we know about comedians – the darkest, most depressed people. Well, Chris is not dark or depressed, but he is a heavy thinker, very sensitive and extremely hard to get to know. I remember thinking that night, 'He is so young' – he would never tell anybody how old he was. I said, 'You're scared,' and he said, 'I'm fucking terrified.' "
As well he should have been. In one sense, Rock made the most of his shot – he became the partying-est young star in town. "I never worked as hard as I should have at SNL, "he admits. "I was hanging out. 'You having a party? I'll be there.' But you have sketches to do in the morning. 'Sketches, smetches.' I thought I was cool because I wasn't getting high. But I lived the life of a drug addict, kind of. I wasn't getting sleep, and I wasn't eating, and the focus was all off. Fluffing lines." In short, acting perhaps like his departed pal Sam Kinison. "Sam was my mentor," Rock says. "It would be so cool to be large with Sam."
During three seasons of service, Rock had his moments – his Afroed talk-show host, Nat X; a bit called Russell Simmons' Def Magic Show Jam; some barbed Weekend Update shots – but in a show that front-loaded its first hour with the best bits, Rock was seen late – or not at all. Finally, in his third year, he went into Michaels' office and asked out – In Living Color wanted him as their featured guy. Michaels could have said, "No, you're under contract" – "I have said it to others," he says – but he gave his blessing.
'In Living Color" folded up its tent eight episodes later, and Rock, despite a decently regarded album, Born Suspect, and despite several movie credits (he co-produced and starred in CB4), was unemployed. "I mean, everything happens for a reason," he says, "but when you're in show business, when you ain't working, you're unemployed. You're not 'taking a break,' you are unemployed.
"I was right back where I started – playing little clubs, you know. I . . . I had accomplished nothing, really. I'd done everything but done nothing well. I was famous, but everybody's famous. Fame is bullshit. No one said they liked my work. They just said, 'Hey, I saw you on that show.' Big fucking deal."
Inevitably, he went back to Julius Rock's lessons of hard work, putting in the hours, "abandoning the crazy lifestyle, getting up at a decent hour and reading the paper, eating with normal people – living a life, as opposed to the weird comic-vampire life I was living."
"Chris has always had the same style and the same in-your-face kind of humor," says pal and Chris Rock Show writer Lance Crouther. "But I honestly believe that when his father passed, that kind of made him a little bit more steely about it, like, 'I'm going to take risks.' You just go, 'People die; I might die; why am I stressing about saying things like "niggas vs. black people" onstage?' "
"I didn't know why he had titled his special Bring the Pain," says LeRoi. "But when you stop to think about it, it's really a grand act of defiance. It's like, 'Go ahead, hit me. Let's get it over with, and then I'm going to move on.' "
"You can't plan in show business, man," says Rock. "You could be played out tomorrow and it's no fault of your own. Try to make your dough while you can get it. Work as hard as you can, and let the chips fall where they may, and go out swinging. If you're going to make mistakes, make aggressive mistakes."
Rock's range rover is afoot in Bed-Stuy once more, driving down the old rivals' block of MacDonough Street, and he's telling how not to get shot in the back – "Keep eye contact; a lot of people don't have the heart to look at you and shoot you, 'cause chances are, the one who shoots you is somebody you know" – when a coughing, primered Chevy Beretta pulls up, Biggie spilling out of the speakers. The two occupants are approximately twice the size of Rock: "Hey, Chris Rock! Trade me, man! I can't drive this little-assed car." Rock smiles evenly, determined not to look at the light, which remains red for the longest time. "Got to watch out," he says, lips barely moving. "You got to be on the alert."
A gleaming hunk of aristocratic British iron in the ghetto. It can make trouble. En route back home, Rock considers the car thing: "My grandfather could pinpoint the exact time his life went wrong, literally pinpoint it to the late 1940s, buying this Cadillac he couldn't afford . . . "
Rock tools down the avenue where his mom, Rose, would send him with an envelope wadded with bills to pay the electric bill – or a portion of it. "She left it up to me," Rock says. "Rose Rock was not going to be standing there doing that." (For payback, Rock would stop for a "slopper" at a joint called Doc's: "Numbers guys and drug kids there. Not the place to hang out. They used the same grease for 10 years; it had a weird smell to it. Your mother always knew – 'You were in Doc's, weren't you?' ") Rock was shopping for a Porsche until a recent visit to his mom's too-small house in South Carolina. He got her a home in Myrtle Beach and put the car on hold.
The air off New York Bay is still fine, sweeping down the half-lighted avenues, and the past, particularly what Rock shared with his dad, is still remembering. When Julius died, Rock recalls, "I guess I went into a shell. I mean, I'm still kind of in that shell. It's always unfair – but you're not supposed to question God. But if not God, then who? You should be able to question the one guy who's going to have the answer. I don't know, I was just in a maintain mode after my dad died. I'm still not over it. Just . . . time passes and . . . some people drink, some people get high. I just hung out. Hung out and chased girls. Then, in simple terms, I really grew up. Richard Pryor did all his best stuff . . . Live on the Sunset Strip – he was probably past 40 when he did that.
"Fortunately and unfortunately, people got to see me at such a young age, man, working out the kinks on television. It's weird, it's like my dad died, and I guess there's a sense of fear about everything. Any decent dad or mom, you know, gives a child a feeling of invincibility. Just like you can try anything, and if it goes bad, it's, 'Dad, how bad's it going to go? I got Dad here.' It's like, if you're a cop, your backup's gone; you can be behind that tree for 10 years or whatever, you're not going to go out there and try to attack. So I had to get over the fact that my backup was dead and go out there, and attack the world.
"I remember one time when I was a kid, man – 18, 19 at most – I first started comedy. And my dad's looking at me like I'm psycho — a comedian. I'd probably been onstage, I don't know, 25 times. My dad says, 'Are you any good?' And I said to him with a straight face, 'I'm one of the best in the country.' "
This story is from the October 2nd, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.
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