Seriously Funny

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DAVID LEE -- HBO

This summer Chris Rock filmed his acclaimed HBO special, Bigger and Blacker, at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem, below. Rock's comedy is sometimes blue, but, says Dick Gregory, "if you took out all his profanity, it would still be funny"

Some may inquire whether the subject of wit is worthy of such effort. In my opinion, there is no doubt about it...
--Sigmund Freud, 'Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious'

Chris Rock just got his butt whupped by a woman. It's midafternoon at the Chelsea Piers boxing facilities, and Rock is shooting a taped piece for his eponymous HBO talk show. The idea: Wouldn't it be funny if Rock went around New York City gyms looking for the next Great White Hope? The twist: he runs into female boxing champ Christy Martin, and in a staged fight, Rock gets knocked around the ring as if he's a shoe in a clothes dryer. Now Rock is seated on some bleachers, catching his breath. After a few minutes, Martin edges over and--in a surprisingly shy manner for a woman who batters other women for a living--asks Rock to pose for a commemorative photo. "Whatever you need," says Rock. "Just don't hit me."

You might expect a guy named Rock to be a little tougher. But Rock, 34, is a comic, not a fighter.He can't throw an uppercut, but he knows how to get a laugh. And right now, he's the funniest man in America. Dick Gregory calls Rock "a genius." Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels says, "There's always one comic a whole generation imitates. Chris dominates now. There's no one as good." Then again, Jerry Seinfeld, a pal of Rock's, says this about Rock's hip-hopping in-your-face style: "It's the yelling that makes it special. It's very easy to hear what he's saying. Beyond that, I don't see anything special about it." Among comics, such joking put-downs are the ultimate display of respect.

Rock is making the most of his moment. He could have stuck to the Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence path to fame and fortune: 1) sign up for a buddy-cop film; 2) ad-lib your way through the criminally formulaic script; 3) get paid; 4) repeat. But Rock is playing it smart and working with Hollywood's edgiest comic directors. He has a co-starring role in Dogma, a film by Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy); a lead opposite Morgan Freeman in Nurse Betty, a film by Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men); and a star turn in I Was Made to Love Her for the Weitz brothers (American Pie).

Even Woody Allen says he's looking into appearing opposite Rock in a comedy about sportscasters that's in the early-development stage. "Ninety-nine percent of the business is really talk," says Allen, "but I'd love to work with him."

Rock's gift is this: he can make hard truths sound funny. It's an invaluable talent in a disinformation age in which it has become more and more difficult to talk about things as they actually are. There's a near constant rush toward metaphorization, toward transmuting events into mediagenic terms. Oral sex isn't about sex, some pundit or other tells us, it's about honesty. Snorting coke isn't about drugs, it's about the media. Shooting up your high school class isn't about gun control, it's about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Rock cuts through the b.s. Suddenly we wake up, like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, and find ourselves in a tub of goo with robots ruling the world. "Rock says everything you want to say but that you're not quite sharp or smart enough to think of yourself," says MTV president Judy McGrath, who signed him up to act as host of this week's MTV Video Music Awards, to be held at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. "Once you hear him, you say, 'Exactly!'"

So here's what Rock said about the "assassination" of rap stars Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls: "Malcolm X was assassinated. John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Them two niggas got shot." His take on white poverty: "There's nothing scarier than a broke white man. The broker they are, the madder they are. That's why white people start forming groups and blowing up s___. Freeman. Aryan Nation. Klan. Poor, pissed-off white people are the biggest threat to the security of this country." And his view on single moms: "It doesn't take a scientist to tell when you're gonna have f_____-up kids. If a kid calls his grandmama Mommy and his mama Pam--he's going to jail."

Rock is like a hotel shower: his controls are hard to understand, and you never know whether what's going to come out of him is going to be soothing or scalding. "It's good, it's intelligent," says Allen about Rock's stand-up. "He sucks the audience in quickly and keeps them." And his unpredictability is part of what makes his comic take so fresh. "Somebody should always be offended," Rock says. "Somebody in your life should always be like, 'Why did you have to do that?' Always. That's just being a real artist. That's the difference between Scorsese and Disney."

A new joke operates almost as an event of universal interest. It is passed on from one person to another, just like the news of the latest conquest. --Ibid.

Rock's office in midtown Manhattan has a crisp, professional cool to it, as if he were running a start-up Internet company instead of a comedy talk show. Still, his eclectic personal taste is revealed in the decor: there are several Woody Allen posters on the walls, including one for Take the Money and Run, a small table with a couple of Jean-Michel Basquiat art books on top, a CD rack with a few old Prince albums. The Chris Rock Show starts its fourth season next Friday, and rows of index cards on a board next to Rock's desk chart out the show's upcoming guests. It's a varied list, featuring such not-so-celebrated celebrities as Ken Hamblin, a conservative black talk-radio host; and Les Nubians, a terrific but little-known French-speaking hip-hop/R.-and-B. duo. These are the kinds of off-center guests that would get on Leno or Letterman only if Pamela Anderson Lee canceled at the last moment.

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