The creator of `Nat X' has got more jobs than the oil industry.
By Rich Collins
July 8, 1997: By the mid-1990s, comedian Chris Rock had found plenty of outlets for his skills. He did skit comedy as a cast member of Saturday Night Live and a regular contributor to In Living Color. He acted in feature film comedies like CB4, Beverly Hills Cop II and I'm Gonna Get You Sucka. And he even played a dramatic role in New Jack City.
But during the past couple of years, Rock has expanded his boundaries even more. He now hosts his own talk show on HBO. He provided political commentary for cable TV's Comedy Central during the 1996 presidential campaign. And he's written a pseudo-autobiography that's due out in the fall.
It's all in a day's work for one the nation's most politically charged comedians. But during a recent phone interview, Rock said his heart is still in stand-up comedy, a format that requires an entertainer to keep an audience laughing using nothing more than skillfully delivered observations and a couple of pointed wisecracks.
"Stand-up is my forte," says Rock, who will perform his routine Friday at the Essence Fest in the Superdome. "It all comes from there. If it wasn't for comedy, the TV and movies wouldn't be there. I don't really differentiate that much [between the formats]. It's kind of the same stuff and gets taken to a different place."
After 13 years in the biz, Rock knows the ins and the outs of the craft -- and he can look back on his share of successes. He says he turned in his best stand-up work in Bring the Pain, an HBO comedy special that aired last year, but fans might also point to a well-received opening monologue for Saturday Night Live last season that was funnier than most of the show's scripted scenes. Rock has also used his stand-up chops to fuel the creation of memorable characters like SNL's Nat X, a militant talk-show host, and Penny Hardaway, the pint-sized basketball player who stars in Spike Lee's Nike ads.
Recently, Rock has been applying his skills to a grueling, months-long tour that will finally wrap up this Fourth of July weekend. But don't think that the guy isn't glad to be busy. In fact, he says he doesn't know what he would do if the work stopped.
"I really love it," he says. "I'm not in it to be famous or anything. I would do it for free. It's the only thing I can do well. If [it was illegal], I'd be a `drug dealer of comedy.'"
Wearing this love for his craft on his sleeve, Rock broaches issues that scare away lesser jesters. Because of his willingness to deal with race relations and other touchy subjects, some critics liken Rock to Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and others who have used their wit to comment on important issues of the day. One critic said that "Rock is an update of the comedians who supplied a clear mirror made all the more relevant through raw language and images." But Rock, as you might expect, says he just wants to make people laugh.
"If you can derive a message from what I'm saying, it's cool," he says, "but I'm really going up there just trying to be funny. My biggest fear is to be boring."
In the coming months, Rock will stave off boredom as he continues at a breakneck pace. After his tour ends this weekend, he will take a break and then begin shooting his talk show. He's also scheduled to film a video for his song "Champagne," a satire of the conventions of rap music in general and the "East Coast/West Coast" rivalry in particular. And he's putting the final touches on his first book, Rock This, which will be released soon.
The book will be "classic Rock."
"I approached it the same way I approach everything. I just turned it upside down," he says. "It opens with a fictional letter turning me down for the Oprah Winfrey Book Club because I'm not [safe like] Sinbad.
"The book is definitely autobiographical, and I actually did enjoy doing it, but it took a lot of time. I was doing so many other things. And writing for page [is different]; it's a whole other kind of delivery." .
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