Last October, Chris Rock drove from his New Jersey home to Greenwich Village's Comedy Cellar and slipped inside undetected. The Comedy Cellar charges patrons $24 to see anonymous comics, with the unspoken tease that you might see Louis C.K. or Amy Schumer working on new material. Tonight was no different. The patrons sipped away their drink minimums and endured unknowns sprinkled with knowns – both Judd Apatow and Dave Attell did sets. Then the MC announced Rock. The audience went silent for a moment before jumping up in a roar as Rock, in jeans and a T-shirt, took the stage.
He hadn't been seen much on the stand-up scene in a while; he'd spent his past few years starring in movies both sky-high (Top Five, which he wrote and directed) and crawl-space low (co-starring in Adam Sandler's Grown Ups). There had been a turn as Oscar host in 2016 – the year of no black nominees. In fact, much of what the Comedy Cellar crowd had recently read about Rock was regarding his divorce from Malaak Compton-Rock after 18 years of marriage. Every divorce is unhappy in its own specific way, and Rock's was no different. There were claims that Malaak kept Chris from their two daughters, Lola and Zahra, a charge she vehemently denied. After a tense two years of negotiations, the divorce became final in August.
That night, Chris Rock was still a wound that had not been cauterized. At 52, he somehow doesn't look much different from when he played crack-addled Pookie in New Jack City exactly half his life ago. Still reed-thin, he smiled with perfect teeth – the one cosmetic change from his early days – and paced the claustrophobic stage for a few seconds. He then began describing how much his ex now hated him.
"If someone wants 52 percent custody, you know they want to kill you," he said.
There were some knowing giggles, but the response was muted. The audience was eavesdropping on a therapy session. Rock mentioned that he had slept with only three women on his last tour. Some of the women hissed, and many of the men stared into their drinks. Rock smiled. "Men, it's a lot easier to be faithful when no one wants to fuck you."
There was uneasy laughter. Someone whispered he was glad he hadn't brought his wife. Rock spoke about Donald Trump for a minute, predicting his victory. In October in New York, this made the crowd pity him like a sad clown. He quickly returned to his own life, occasionally glancing at some notes he kept on a stool. He mentioned he might have to take on some shitty TV work to make his alimony payments. He then went into a bit about being in court and realizing he was paying for everyone – his lawyers, her lawyer, the court reporter: "Everyone woke up today and said, 'I'm billing Chris Rock.'" There was more unsure laughter. Then he ended his set with a rhetorical question.
"Would I ever get married again?" He paused. His voice raised an octave. "Not if it would cure AIDS."
The crowd clapped, because Chris Rock is one of the greatest comedians of our lifetime, but they wondered what the hell they had just witnessed.
Rock was at the bar about an hour later watching the Los Angeles Dodgers try to stay alive in the playoffs against the Washington Nationals. Desperate for a win, the Dodgers brought in Clayton Kershaw, the Chris Rock of pitching, to make his first relief appearance of the year. Kershaw had pitched just two days earlier, and the bar speculated whether he would have his good stuff. He did, getting a pop-up followed by a strikeout with high heat. Rock watched with wonderment. "Man, he still has his fastball," he said. "After all that, he still has his fucking fastball."
A few months later, Chris Rock headed out on the road for the first time in nine years, openly wondering "if I still have my fastball." He had just signed a two-special, reportedly $40 million deal with Netflix and was adjusting to sharing custody of his girls. The stakes had never been higher.
By March, the world has changed. Rock is in Denver on an early leg of his Total Blackout tour that will lead to the taping of the first special, in December. "I can't tape it now," jokes Rock. "It's the alimony tour. I've got to make some money first."
Tonight, Rock is riding over to do a soundcheck at Denver's Bellco Theatre with opening comedian Ali Wong and a longtime friend, the writer Nelson George. Few comedians do a soundcheck, but Rock is a self-described "anal little bitch when I've got to do a gig. Meanwhile, Dave Chappelle can get off the plane and, like, tumble into 30,000 seats and blow everybody off the stage."
His Trump prediction came true. The talk turns to how Trump stole Rock's nine-year-old joke about how could John McCain be a hero if he got captured. "He messed it up," says Rock. "The man can't tell a joke." Someone asks how he knew Trump could win, and Rock delivers a well-reasoned argument about how "of the moment" candidates like Barack Obama and Trump always beat the "it's my turn" candidates like McCain and Hillary Clinton. "Presidential politics is like show business, it doesn't give a fuck – 'Whoever's hot,'" says Rock in a mocking tone. "'Ooh, you paid your dues. We don't give a fuck. Migos has the Number One record, fuck you.'" Rock gets out of the van, and someone mumbles props about the Trump pick but whispers sotto voce that Rock also keeps predicting the L.A. Clippers will win the NBA title.
Rock looks out at the 5,000-seat theater and tries to remember if he's been here before. He steps to the mic and checks his level with an old-school rap.
"He is DJ Run, and I am DMC, funky-fresh for 1983."
From predicting Donald Trump's presidency to where he draws his comedy inspiration from, here are the five things we learned hanging out with Chris Rock.
Rock was raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and was bused to a school where he was the only black kid in his grade; the white kids threw bags of piss at him. (Those memories provided the inspiration for his sitcom Everybody Hates Chris.) Despite the hazing and abuse he suffered, Rock doesn't reflexively reject white culture. His tastes are expansive, and his fandom runs deep. On the day of his father's wake, Rock, the eldest of seven, had to decide if the casket would be open or closed, yet still found the time to run to the record store and buy U2's Rattle and Hum, which had been released that day. "I love Bono," he declares.
Rock dismisses the pigeonholing of black acts, whether in comedy or music, as only commercially viable to American audiences, and he's proud of his global reach. "I mean, if Simply Red can play Wembley Stadium in London and then the Beacon in New York, I can do that," he says. After soundcheck, he lets me in on a secret. "The great thing about comedy is the low overhead," Rock says. "I don't have to split the money with a band. I make more money per gig than the drummer in Metallica."
In his dressing room, a few candles burn next to a framed portrait of Prince. Rock's crew is responsible at each stop for putting a new photo of the legend in a place of honor. Rock won't say he and Prince were close, but they talked, and Rock loved his music. He saw Prince do one of his final shows, at a New Year's Eve party in 2015 on St. Barts with Paul McCartney and Leonardo DiCaprio in the audience. He was distressed that his hero seemed to be surrounded by new people. Prince didn't appear to have brought a girlfriend or a buddy along. "He just seemed all alone," Rock says.
What's left unsaid is that, like Prince, Rock is divorced and in his fifties, as he heads out on a yearlong tour filled with lonely hotel rooms and FaceTime with his daughters.
Rock took another thing from Prince: He makes his audience hear the new stuff. He starts every tour with nothing, and doesn't sprinkle in a greatest-hits package like many comedians do; even Jerry Seinfeld adds only 20 minutes of fresh material a year.
"Would I ever get married again?" His voice raises an octave. "Not if it would cure AIDS."
"He has an incredibly high pain tolerance because it is difficult to go out there with material that you're not sure of," Seinfeld says. "To constantly go back and start over is very impressive, and a little insane."
Rock may be comedy-neurotic, but he isn't a performer who needs to sequester himself away before a show. It's 15 minutes until he goes on, and he talks about the old days versus the new days like anyone over 40 tends to do. He grouses about young comics asking for favors and selfies: "In my day, you didn't fucking walk up to Eddie Murphy – are you kidding me? No, you shut the fuck up and watched and waited."
That's precisely what happened to Rock. Murphy saw him at a New York club in 1986 when Rock was 21, told him he liked his set and invited him to see She's Gotta Have It the next day and meet then-first-time director Spike Lee. That night, Murphy invited Rock to fly to Los Angeles with him the next morning. Rock said his dad would have never given him permission, but he was working late that night. In the morning, Rock was on a plane for his first time.
"I got to hang around the real Eddie Murphy," says Rock. "Not Dr. Dolittle. Leather-suits-every-day Eddie. Elvis."
Someone gives Rock the two-minute warning. He paces a bit and then heads onstage to the sound of Jay Z's "You Don't Know." A large "CR" lights up. The crowd rises to its feet and gives him a long ovation. There are no smartphones flashing; Rock has insisted all concertgoers lock them in a sleeve that can only be unlocked when you leave the show. He grins with a scrunched, devilish face, a look you only see Rock give onstage.
He then launches into 90
minutes of controlled comic
rage. Rock has always been
a mix of Lenny Bruce social
commentary and his dad Julius Rock's fierce sense of personal
accountability. Julius was a longtime New
York Daily News truck driver, and he did
not suffer those who did not shoulder their
burden. His father's teachings could be seen
at the root of one of his son's most famous
bits, "black people versus niggas," from his
1996 Bring the Pain tour. It's a routine,
Rock says, that he couldn't do now. "The
joke wouldn’t work because there would be
so much freaking backlash," he says. "Too
much politically correct backlash."
This is a different Rock than the one I saw at the Comedy Cellar. He waits until about two-thirds through the show before hitting his divorce. He is more introspective. "I was a piece of shit," says Rock as the crowd goes quiet. He segues into his infidelities and gets disarmingly specific, describing three women: one famous, one semifamous, and one a member of the retail class. Nelson George warns me that "the 'I' onstage is not the 'I' of Chris. He's trying to create that persona of the new Chris and keep some separation for the real Chris." Still, this doesn't seem like persona, particularly when he urges his audience that if they love someone to hold on tightly. (And travel a lot, and fuck when you're angry.)
Later, Rock will describe the current set
as less rap-influenced than his earlier material
and more of a Mary J. Blige record. "This is all 'hold tight, fight through it,'" he
says. "This is all R&B shit."
He ends the set with the story from the New Jersey courthouse where he is footing the bill for everyone. But this time he slyly turns it around. Now Rock sees it as a sign of success. He exits the stage to rapturous applause and beelines it back to the dressing room, where George and Wong tell him it was the best show of the tour so far.
"Tomorrow will be
better," says Rock. "Tonight's
show went on
sale first. Tomorrow
there will be more black
people." He smiles. "Black people don't like
to tie their money up
for six weeks." Rock hasn't chosen a spot, but he will
record his special before a predominantly
black crowd. Someone asked him what
he thought of a special from SNL's Michael
Che. "I liked it," he says, "but it's too
many white people in the audience. You do
cutting-edge humor about race and you
cut to white people – it does not have the
Rock's stand-up hero is Richard Pryor. He mentions Pryor's famous routine about Africa: "Pryor does the Africa bit, about 'there's no niggas here,' but it's a bullshit bit if it's done in front of a bunch of white people. When black people laugh, there's a rumble." Rock pauses for a second before going back to his favorite metal band. "You watch Metallica – I want to see them in front of fucking metalheads. I don't want to see them in front of guys in suits."
A little later, Rock sits in the corner of
the lounge at Denver's Four Seasons with
George, Wong and Matthew Claybrooks,
a comedian and former Everybody Hates
Chris writer who is helping Rock decide
what is working and not working in the set.
Rock nurses a mojito.
His three decades of material suggest
that his ambivalence about marriage has
always been there. He made a movie called
I Think I Love My Wife, and he did a bit about Nelson Mandela splitting from Winnie
Mandela: "Marriage is so tough, Nelson
Mandela got divorced. ... He got out
of jail after 27 years of torture, spent six
months with his wife and said, 'I can't take
this shit no more.'"
Reminded of that, Rock half-grimaces, half-laughs.
"Some of it was a prophecy," he says. "I
wasn't a good husband a lot of the times."
Perhaps trying to deflect, he asks me if I am married. I tell him I am, for a second time. I joke that my first relationship lasted nine years and I was seeing if I could break the nine-year barrier. He asks if we have kids, and I tell him we have a toddler. Rock insists it will work out.
"You got a kid now," he says. "You'll be
fine. You need each other. Need is big.
A woman breaks up with you, the first
thing she says is 'I don't need this shit.' She
doesn’t say, 'I don't love you,' she says she
doesn't need you."
He doesn’t mention whether this wisdom
comes from hard-won personal experience. A few minutes later, Rock looks at
his phone. He shakes his head and laughs. "My own daughter has blocked me on Instagram."
He stands up and heads to his
hotel room. "They grow up so quick."
There are two kinds of talent in the world: the guy who shows up hungover 10 minutes before the game/gig (think Keith Richards or Yankees legend Mickey Mantle) and coasts by on natural charisma; and the grinders (think Seinfeld or Tom Brady), who hijack their talent to another level solely on their obsessive work ethic. Rock is firmly in the second camp, and owns it. Rock and Louis C.K. have been friends for 20 years, and C.K. told Rock a story about his early days in Boston when he would pester older comedians for advice and beg clubs to put him onstage when he wasn't on the schedule.
"All those comedians kind of hated me," remembers C.K. "They would write mean graffiti about me on comedy-club walls. I told Chris about that and how I was ashamed I was such a pain in everybody's asses. Chris just yelled at me, ‘No, you’re wrong. They're wrong. That’s what it takes.'" Rock even threatened to break off their friendship if C.K. didn't stop writing for other people and write for himself.
Rock never lacked confidence, but, sometimes, it didn't stick around. He has always toggled between Muhammad Ali's "I am the greatest" and Rodney Dangerfield's "I get no respect." His stand-up career rose and fell meteorically. According to Rock, he was around 19 years old when he stepped out of a line buying tickets for an Eddie Murphy show at Radio City Music Hall, wandered over to a Manhattan club and killed in his debut performance. The next half-dozen times out, he killed some more. Then he bombed, and, the way Rock describes it, bombed for the next three years.
Murphy's first comedy album came out
when Rock was 16. He wasn't overly impressed: "I thought it was
OK; I was that much of an
asshole. I was like, 'I can
do that.'" But then Delirious
was released, and Rock
was properly cowed. During
the Nineties, Rock was
playing a theater in Chicago
with Martin Lawrence
opening for him. He heard
what he thought was a fight
in the audience and looked
out from the wings: It was
just people losing their
minds over Lawrence's set.
Rock wasn't even 30, but he
feared the game had already
passed him by. So he worked
harder. A few years later,
Rock and his brother went
to a Lawrence show in New
York. As they were leaving,
his brother told him, "You're
better than that."
"It never occurred to me,"
recalls Rock. "But it was a
key moment in my life. A
year later, I did Bring the
Pain and realized I didn't
have to wait in line."
Besides work ethic and
talent, Rock has his shit together.
There was nothing like Pryor setting
himself on fire, Lawrence disoriented
and wandering in traffic, or Chappelle
disappearing into Ohio. Sure, Rock once
owned a gun, and it once went off, putting
a hole in his mattress, but those things
happen. He has joked onstage about the
benefits of a breakdown: the ability to start
again. But it hasn't happened.
"I never had one," says Rock. "Getting divorced,
you have to fucking start over. You
get to reset. It's not a breakdown, but something
in your life broke down."
Rock spends the day after his first
Denver show holed up at the Four Seasons
with George working on a script that he will
only say is centered on pundits. He’s worked
with George for 25 years, since they collaborated
on the Spinal Tap-ish rap-spoof
movie CB4, which was pilloried upon its release
but has aged well. (That night, a fan
outside the hotel asked Rock to sign some
CB4 material. "Damn, there's, like, a cult of
CB4," Rock says with amazement.)
Every artist wants to be good at something else; musicians want to be actors and actors want to be musicians. Rock is no different, but much of his film career has lurched from forgettable to forgettable. (Rock defends the Sandler stuff as "good hangs.") It wasn’t until the Julie Delpy-directed 2 Days in New York and Rock's own Top Five that he began receiving respect from critics. Not coincidentally, both were released after Rock spent six days a week on Broadway working on his acting in The Motherfucker With the Hat. And yet, the much-sought roles haven’t been rolling in.
"Maybe I'm like an alcoholic – I have to show I'm sober, make a series of good movies," jokes Rock. "I'm never gonna get the Chiwetel Ejiofor part, so I have to write my own stuff."
"I asked myself, 'Do I want to be angry for a year?' It's not healthy. I'm not Sam Kinison – I loved Kinison, but that's not where I want to hang out every night."
Offstage, Rock is quiet, almost
reticent. He's not a comedian
with an insatiable
need for endless yuks. He is
a fan of authenticity and even
gives Donald Trump a little
credit on that front (at least
the Trump of ancient times).
Rock did a stint at Saturday
Night Live in the early Nineties
and would sometimes
run into Trump at the China Club, a New York hot spot.
"Trump would walk in
and women would be all over
him," says Rock. "And you'd
say, 'That's Donald motherfucking
Trump.' I give him
this, too: He just never really gave a fuck.
You'd see him out all the time, but he'd have
his suit on, his red tie. He was never trying
to be someone else."
That minor key of admiration doesn't
prevent Rock from ripping Trump in his
new show. His main point is that the President is a
classic bully, and in sissified modern America
we have no clue how to deal with a bully. Rock's set is surprisingly pro-bully; his reasoning
is that being bullied toughens you
up and gets you ready for the real world,
which is filled with assholes. There's more
than a little self-reference here: Rock's
drive to succeed began with those school
days in Brooklyn, with the grandsons of
Irish and Italian immigrants stealing his
lunch money. Onstage, he wonders why
cops don't occasionally shoot a white kid
just to make it look better when they mow
down black kids. Speaking of black kids,
Rock half-jokes during his set that any responsible
African-American father should
begin his son's day with a punch to the face.
On the second night in Denver, the significantly blacker crowd stamps and howls. Rock was right. The theater rumbles all night long.
Rock and his small crew
pile into a rented Gulfstream
after the show for a red-eye flight
across two time zones for tomorrow's
show in Richmond, Virginia.
The jet isn't exactly a party
plane. Rock and I order PB&J
sandwiches, and the flight attendant
apologizes that there are no
lemons on board for Rock's tea. Everyone
else dozes off. "I told you this was the alimony
tour," says Rock, munching his sandwich
and explaining the overnight country-crisscross. "I can't waste time."
We settle in as the plane sails over the Midwest and talk for the duration of the three-and-a-half-hour flight. I tell him that I saw him at the Comedy Cellar and noticed that the current show has less pure anger than the October set.
"You might have caught me just coming
out of court," says Rock. He pauses for
a minute and looks out the window into
the night. "I asked myself, 'Do I want to be
angry for a year?' It's not a cool place to be.
It's not healthy. I'm not Sam Kinison – I
loved Kinison, but that's not where I want
to hang out every night."
Rock mentions in his act that he thought
he could get away with bad behavior in
his marriage because he was the famous
breadwinner. He now knows the opposite
is true. "That's bullshit," he says, rolling his eyes. "That actually goes the other way. My faults
are magnified. Your significant other, if
they really love you, has a high opinion of
you. And you let them down."
Rock admits that he has toned down the
marriage part to keep the peace and not be
a dick. "It's not fair," he says. "I have a mic,
she doesn't. God forbid people are bugging
her in the supermarket. That's not cool. I'm
going to have to see her at weddings and
Still, it hasn't been an easy time. His mother came down with cancer during his divorce. She was treated at Sloan Kettering in New York, which happens to be on the same street as his divorce lawyer. "I thought that was the most evil street in the world," says Rock with a wan smile.
Rock cared for his mother at the New
Jersey home he bought in the same neighborhood
as his ex-wife. "There was days
where I just prayed she would die when
the girls were at their mother's," he says. "I
didn't want them to see that."
But happily she recovered. Rock began to see some slight benefits of having shared custody. He got out to see more comedy and could slip over to Brooklyn and check out an art gallery at his leisure during his noncustody nights. But Rock is the son of Julius Rock, the eldest of 14. I get the sense Rock felt his divorce set a bad example for a family that he proudly attests has had no out-of-wedlock births and no one in jail. He says being the oldest has its burdens, but it has gotten easier over the years.
"It's not so much a job now," says Rock. "Well, I gotta find my brother Brian a job.
Like, that's a literal thing I have to do. It
only comes into play during emergencies.
Then your rank matters."
Rock orders a Coke, a dietary splurge
rare for him. He nearly jumps out of his seat
when I suggest he couldn't be serious about
his bit advocating that black fathers start
the day by punching their sons in the face.
"You have to physically show them – the
consequences of not listening to your parents
are death," he says. "It's death. This is
not a joke. I was in Bed-motherfuckingStuy."
Rock gives me a name to look up on
my computer. "He is in jail for rape and
murder. That guy used to take me to the
fucking baseball games. What's the only
difference? We were on the same block. I
got a father that did not play that shit."
He sips some Coke and clenches a fist.
"Maybe I don't have to punch a kid in the face, 'cause I have fucking time up the ass. But if I'm working 12 hours a day, you tell me how I’m gonna do this, how I'm gonna keep this black boy alive."
Rock dropped out of high school, but
George describes him as an autodidact
who is well-read and devoured the Bible
and the Koran. George insists Rock could
have been a great music critic if he’d chosen
that path. It is the critic’s cold-eyed approach
that made him certain that Trump
would defeat Clinton. He shut up around
his teenage girls as they celebrated Clinton’s
impending victory, and he was there
to comfort them after the loss. As Rock is
telling me this, George wakes up.
"There's white and gray,” says George sleepily. "He veers toward the gray." Rock doesn't disagree. "I have no trust in mankind," he says.
Rock later tells me where that comes
from. Partially, it's the loss of his beloved father when Rock was 23. His dad died on
Election Day in 1988, and Rock dreaded
that day until President Obama’s victory in
2008. He cites a stat that a high percentage
of U.S. presidents lost a parent early. "You
have to succeed because you have no lifeguard,”
he says. “With a lifeguard, you can
do flips and shit. But without one, you've
gotta go, 'Shit, how long is it going to take
me to reach shore?'"
The other grind on Rock is simply being black in America. Fame doesn't get him a free pass. Rock doesn’t travel with an entourage and knows the stares he will get when he walks alone into a strange place, like another school where his daughter is playing a game, until everyone realizes it's Chris Rock.
"I see the looks: 'What
are you doing here?' Shit
that white people, especially
white men, don't have
to deal with. I literally get
treated like a nigger a few
times a day." He pauses. "I
can't imagine what it is like
for my brothers and what
they go through every day.”
So Rock looks for some serenity
in a familiar place. He
talks in his set about finding
God before God finds
him. That is not persona
Rock. “I wanna find some
peace, 'cause people usually
find that peace in a horrible
time," says Rock. It's now 4
a.m. somewhere, and Rock
looks more vulnerable than
before. He talks in a small voice. "Why does
that have to be? Maybe I can find God without
being in shambles. Maybe I can reach a
higher plain spiritually without being in a
The pilot announces that we're approaching Richmond. We talk about the stereotype that the only way to create art, whether you're a comic or Picasso, is by being irresponsible and an asshole.
“It doesn't have to be that way," says Rock, rubbing his red eyes. "You can be fucking nice."
At the Altria Theater in Richmond, tonight's Prince picture features the artist scowling.
"There’s so many shows that I
got to stand right at the side and
watch him get mad at motherfuckers,"
says Rock. He impersonates
his hero for a moment: "That
was a B-flat, motherfucker."
Rock and Claybrooks, the Everybody
Hates Chris writer, are in Rock's dressing
room to go over the Denver shows and see what worked and didn't work. Rock
brings up his bullying bit. He worries it's
too preachy. "I used to do 'I wouldn't be
here right now if it wasn't for bullying. I'd
be, like, a Fed Ex guy – don't get me wrong,
I'd be the funny Fed Ex guy.'"
"You should do it," says Claybrooks. "Especially
in a town like this."
"It brings it back to me," says Rock. "Makes it less preachy."
"I see the looks: 'What are you doing here?' Shit that white people don't have to deal with. I get treated like a n--ger a few times a day."
It's a common concern for Rock. His
grandfather was a Southern preacher, and
you can hear the cadence and repeating
of lines like in a sermon.
Rock occasionally tunes in
to preachers like T.D. Jakes
or Joel Osteen. "I can watch
them like I watch George
Carlin," he says. He fantasizes
about collaborating with
a preacher on a set. "You'd
gotta get a preacher who
is down," says Rock. "Do a
Claybrooks and Rock move on. Claybrooks asks him if he wants to do his bit on the reality show Basketball Wives.
The gist of the material
is that women on TV used
to be known for their independence,
like on The Mary
Tyler Moore Show, and now,
according to Rock, "Women
just want to be known for
guys they used to fuck. Half
of them aren't even wives.
They should just call it 'Ho's
of the Pros.'"
Rock decides to table the bit for tonight, but it touches on the third rail of Chris Rock scholarship: Onstage, he is an essentialist; Rock sees women as one way – not always kindly – and men another way, two species with very little in common.
I ask him about it. For the only time,
Rock gets a little defensive. "Most singers
have, like, three songs, four songs that they
keep writing over and over again," he says. "If you're Prince, you might have five or six.
So I have four or five jokes."
In the end, Rock argues that the material
works because people laugh, the surest
sign that comedy has the ring of truth.
But it doesn't come without a cost. His
daughters are now at an age where they
occasionally voice their displeasure. Rock
shrugs it off – "That's how we eat," he says. "I would love it to be different." For the
first time, Rock makes reference to Megalyn
Echikunwoke, his girlfriend. Echikunwoke
is an actress who has starred on CSI:
Miami and Arrow. The two have been seen
canoodling at Knicks games. "Actually
I'm dating a girl now," he says. "She's got her own
dough, it's amazing."
The set review continues. Rock decides
to add a bit about how after a black funeral
everyone serves soul food: "It's the same
food that killed the guy!"
Rock cracks himself up, a rarity. The session
ends when a familiar Afro pokes into
Rock's dressing room. It's Questlove of the
Roots. He was in D.C. and decided to pop
down for the show. "It's Ahmir Questlove,
ladies and gentlemen," announces Rock.
Rock is clearly happy to see his friend.
Questlove has a nice surprise for Rock. He
gives him his headphones and whispers
he’s cueing up an unreleased Prince song
few have heard. Rock is a Prince completist
who owns nine versions of Computer
Blue. He goes wide-eyed. The music plays,
and Rock does a rubbery-leg dance around
backstage. The song is the adrenaline shot
that the jet-lagged/missing-his-kids Rock
needs. Soon, it's time for him to take the
stage. He's still grinning ear-to-ear. "Damn," he says. "I think this is gonna be
a good show."
A few weeks after Denver and
Richmond, Chris Rock did three
shows in New Orleans. That Saturday
night, the “CR" was illuminated, but Rock didn't come out. Instead, it was
Dave Chappelle. He did a half-hour before
Rock appeared and the two icons traded
riffs, to the crowd's delight. Chappelle
does not give a fuck about propriety and
asked Rock what kind of shitty lawyer he
had that made him lose his home to his ex-wife.
Then Chappelle turned shrink and
asked Rock if he cried during the divorce
process. Rock said he cried once: “During
the custody battle."
Afterward, Rock says it was a revelatory
moment. "No one's ever asked me that,"
he says. "I don't even know if a shrink has
asked me that. We live in a world where
men are assumed to not have feelings." He
gives an example. "All my friends assume I
moved into the city after my divorce, away
from my girls. When I say I bought a house
around the corner, it blows their minds."
Three days after the Chappelle catharsis, Rock is at Madison Square Garden for Garden of Laughs, a children's charity event affiliated with New York Knicks owner James Dolan.
It is, as they would say in the old days,
a cavalcade of stars. John Oliver; Leslie
Jones; Seinfeld makes a surprise appearance,
doing a droll piece on why bathroom
stall doors don't go all the way to the floor.
And then Rock closes the show. He looks
exhausted, having flown in a few hours
earlier. He does a compressed version of his set and ends on his divorce. Where he
usually says, "It was my fault, I was a piece
of shit," Rock pauses and improvises. "Was
it my fault?" He lets it hang in the air for
a moment. Then he mumbles, "Who the
I ask Rock a few days after the show
if this marked a new step in the divorce
spectrum, from denial to guilt to ambiguity.
He is sitting at the counter of a diner in
Tenafly, New Jersey, with SportsCenter on
mute on the TV. Rock maintains that was
just an exit line. He says the current set is
even more angst-filled and self-reflective
than when I saw it. He's even eliminated
some of the more Rock-ian bits, including "pussy costs money, dick is free."
He grimaces. "You go back and you're
like, 'Why the fuck did I ever say that?'"
Rock knows that most will focus on the breakup part of the set, but to him the crucial component is his quest for serenity.
"I've been thinking about that stuff for years, I just didn’t have the gravitas," he says. He hesitates. "Is that the right word" He then makes a final analogy before finishing his meal.
"It's like a kid singing the blues. Justin
Bieber can't sing the blues. You gotta go
through some shit. That's me talking about
finding God, but then God finds me."
He pauses for a moment. "That's my fucking U2 song."
After a bitter divorce, and frustrated with Hollywood, Chris Rock wondered if he could still kill. Find out the five things we learned hanging out wth the comedian, here.