Busy Chris Rock Is Just Itching for Dirty Work
by Dave Itzkoff, NY TIMES
In a sumptuous beach-side house here in this coastal community north of Boston, surrounded by sand, grass, ocean and all the DVDs one could ask for, Chris Rock was feeling cooped up. “I haven’t done any dirty work in a while,” he said through the Nike-swoosh of a smirk on his face. “I’m ready to curse. I’m ready to really, really be a bad boy. I’m ready to actually be Chris Rock.”
On a recent morning Mr. Rock, the 47-year-old comedian and actor, was waiting to be called into work on “Grown Ups 2,” a sequel to the lucrative (if critically derided) Adam Sandler comedy about reunited school pals, which he’s been filming since May. Nothing else coming up on his schedule is emblematically Rock-like either, from his role in Julie Delpy’s “2 Days in New York” — a sequel to her film “2 Days in Paris,” opening Friday, in which he plays her live-in boyfriend who is overwhelmed by the arrival of her French relatives — to his work as executive producer of a new FX talk show, “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell.”
Feeling compelled to engage with live audiences again — “It’s time for me to hit the stage or something,” Mr. Rock said — he dove into this conversation as if it were a warm-up act. He was in an expansive, reflective but talkative mood, eager to discuss his career trajectory; why he says “Grown Ups” is better than “The Artist”; recent controversies in comedy (including one he started); and what could keep him from returning to the stand-up clubs anytime soon. Whether he was double-fisting glasses of lemonade and Starbucks coffee, sprawled out on a couch or falling to his knees (as sometimes happens when he gets worked up), Mr. Rock was endlessly animated and never, ever shy with his feelings.
These are excerpts from the conversation.
Q. Was it unusual for you to make an indie movie like “2 Days in New York”?
A. I’m from indie — just not from artistic, Angelika indie. “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” “New Jack City,” you’re not going to get much more indie than those two. “New Jack City,” we had eight bucks. I made more money today than I did doing “New Jack City.” Just to put it in perspective.
Q. What interested you about the character?
A. It was good to get a part where someone didn’t want me to just do what I do as a stand-up. To just be a man, essentially. Most parts in comedy, they’re not really written for men. They’re written for, like, these boy-men. So it’s cool to play a man-man. They don’t make adult movies anymore. Go to a multiplex. If Sydney Pollack was around today, he’d be directing episodes of “True Blood.”
Q. Had you been to France before?
A. All the time. I’ve never met those people in France, but it’s a country. There’s all sorts of people. They’re there.
Q. This isn’t perfectly analogous, but I was in Japan a few months ago, and I felt very self-conscious in a place where I was noticeably different from everyone around me.
A. It’s like being black. It’s like every day. Especially if you’re black and you have money. I remember bumping into Sofia Coppola, and I said: “Dude, ‘Lost in Translation’ is, like, the blackest movie. Bill Murray, that’s exactly what it feels like to be black and rich.” It’s not horrible. It’s a little off.
Q. You did your first Broadway show, “The ____________ With the Hat,” last year, but you picked a play where you weren’t the center of the story.
A. I wanted to be in a play. I didn’t want to be a play. When I do stand-up, I’m basically doing a one-man show. I wanted to show people I can act. I realize you’ve got to remind people you do this stuff. Sometimes a girl has to let people know she’s available. Go to a party with someone you didn’t want to go with, just to let people know you’re dating. “What’s Halle Berry doing with that loser?”
Q. Would you do Broadway again?
A. Oh, I would love to. I realized with Broadway everything written for black people is usually written in the past, and I’m kind of a contemporary guy. I don’t think you want to see me in “Raisin in the Sun.” The other thing — everything on Broadway with black people, at some point, becomes [stereotype voice] “Is it ever gonna get any better?” I don’t feel like saying that. What’s the play they wanted me to do? “A Behanding in Spokane.” I almost did that one. But I didn’t feel like leaving my nice house, my palatial estate to drive into Manhattan and get called nigger every night. [He laughs.] It’s like, really?
Q. So how do you strategize on your acting career, going forward? What are you looking for?
A. I’m actively trying to be in some good stuff, and mix it up and do some fun stuff too. But sometimes your fame gets in the way of what you’re doing. If you get the poster for “Good Hair,” it looks like a Tyler Perry movie. It looks like a big, broad comedy. The movie’s a success for a documentary, but the company that you’re making it with realizes that you’re really famous, and they don’t promote it like a normal documentary. They kind of get greedy. [He laughs.] And in the process of that greed, they overshoot. Not that there’s any more video stores, but if you went to any place that had DVDs, it’d be hard to find “Good Hair” in the documentary section. It’s next to “House Party.”
Q. Where does “Grown Ups 2” fall on the spectrum between good and fun?
A. This is fun and good. Dude, people love “Grown Ups.” I don’t care what the critics say. Who won the Academy Award this year? “The Artist”? Hey, “The Artist” was great. “Grown Ups” is better than “The Artist,” and it’s better than “The Artist” ’cause the audience says so. No film critic’s going to say it, but “Madagascar 3” is better than “The Artist,” and it’s better because it makes people feel better. That’s ultimately what it boils down to. Carrot Top’s better than Mort Sahl. Is he a better writer? Are we going to jot down Carrot Top’s prose 100 years from now? I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is, Carrot Top makes people feel better than Mort Sahl ever made people feel.
Q. You’re also producing a new talk show hosted by a young comedian, W. Kamau Bell. Where does that fit into your master plan?
A. I already had a show, years ago. [Nostalgically] Awww. I saw him, and I just thought he could do a show. Simple as that. I thought he was separate from the pack. This other kid I just made a deal for at Comedy Central, Deshawn Raw, he’s the real deal. That’s what I’m here for. They did it this year with “Key & Peele,” but most of the time you see black guys on TV, they’re already famous. I don’t see the leap of faith that often with the young, black talent. If I don’t do it, who’s going to do it?
Q. Louis C. K., who is everywhere these days, is someone else you’ve helped out and collaborated with. What do you think about his ascent?
A. I feel like I’m James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix was in my band. He was just some kid I used to beat up, and now he’s back, and he’s Jimi Hendrix. Is he better than me? I don’t know, maybe. He used to write for so many people. “I’m going to L.A. and take some pitch meetings, write some shows.” Dude, write for yourself, I would constantly tell him. And some people are funny older than they are younger. Rodney Dangerfield was that. Redd Foxx was that — had careers as young people but when they got older, it was, like, this guy’s hysterical. And Louie, at 44, it’s the sweet spot for him.
Q. On July 4 you tweeted: “Happy white peoples independence day the slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed fireworks.” Were you surprised at the outrage that stirred up?
A. That’s the kind of joke I would have told on Letterman. We just live in a world where the audience gets a say now. My actual belief? Only fans should be allowed to criticize. Because it’s for the fans. When I hear somebody go, “Country music [stinks],” I’m like, well, country music’s not for you. You’re just being elitist. Only a fan of Travis Tritt can say the record [stinks], because he’s got every one. Same thing with jokes. You’re a fan of mine, that joke’s not even a single, it’s a B-side that never gets released. It’s no big whoop.
Q. Whether it’s your tweet, or Daniel Tosh joking about rape, or Tracy Morgan saying he’d kill his son if he came out to him, does it seem like the Internet is just adding more fuel to these fires?
A. Are they real fires? Or are people just reacting to something? Just because there’s an alarm going doesn’t mean it’s a fire. And I think that people are confusing the two. It’s only a fire when it offends the fans, and the fans turn on you. Tosh has fans, and they get the joke. If you’ve watched enough Tracy Morgan, you let the worst thing go by. When did Tracy Morgan become Walter Cronkite? You have to mean something to me to offend me. You can’t break up with me if we don’t date.
Q. You don’t think some kind of threshold has been crossed?
A. When you’re workshopping it, a lot of stuff is bumpy and awkward. Especially when you’re working on the edge, you’re going to offend. A guy like Tosh, he’s at the Laugh Factory. He’s making no money. He’s essentially in the gym. You’re mad at Ray Leonard because he’s not in shape, in the gym? That’s what the gym’s for. The sad thing, with all this taping and stuff, no one’s going to do stand-up. And every big stand-up I talk to says: “How do I work out new material? Where can you go, if I have a half an idea and then it’s on the Internet next week?” Just look at some of my material. You can’t imagine how rough it was and how unfunny and how sexist or racist it might have seemed. “Niggas vs. Black People” probably took me six months to get that thing right. You know how racist that thing was a week in? That’s not to be seen by anybody.
Q. What’s the solution?
A. Honestly, I’m just trying to figure out how I’m going to do it. ’Cause the few times I’ve gotten onstage and thought about touring, immediately, stuff’s on the Internet, I’m getting calls, and I’m like, this isn’t worth it. I saw “Dark Knight [Rises]” the other night, and Bruce Wayne’s walking into this party, and he presses a button, and no one’s camera works. If I find a comedy club where no one’s camera works, I’ll go. I’ll go back to comedy clubs when they get a real no-camera policy, the same way they did with smoking. But hey, they used to be the smokiest places in the world.