My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
Two minutes into his second HBO comedy special, and Chris Rock has crossed the line.
How much Rock cares about this will become evident in roughly ten seconds, but first, some context is in order. The year is 1996, and Rock’s career is on a small upswing after a rise and fall that lasted about ten years. The rise began in earnest around 1987, when Rock got his first role in a major film after 3 years in the stand-up trenches, a bit part in Beverley Hills Cop 2. His career peaked in 1990, when he became a cast member on Saturday Night Live with Chris Farley and the future cast of the Grown-Ups film franchise, minus Kevin James (the biggest question I’ve always had about the Happy Madison crew is whether James knows that the only reason he’s friends with Adam Sandler is because Farley is dead). After three years at SNL, most of which has been spent playing extras as a predominantly white, Jewish writers’ room continually fails to give him decent material, Rock migrated to In Living Color just in time to go down with the ship, as the Wayans’ black sketch comedy show is cancelled. After an HBO special in 1994 that no one much remembers these days (its only existence on video today is as a DVD extra for 2004’s Never Scared), Rock found himself without prospects in the film and television world (he’d burnt some bridges at SNL, and his pal Adam Sandler was at the early stages of his movie career, meaning he could really only afford to bankroll Rob Schneider and David Spade). The result was a two-year period where he concentrated on his stand-up, honing his material at nightclubs and open mics, boiling everything down to a single explosive hour of comedy.
How explosive? Rock records the special in Washington D.C., in front of an audience that looks demographically blacker than D.C., which at the time was 90% black. He starts off with some shout-outs to the city: “Home of the Million Man March!” he says, to great applause. “Had all the positive black leaders there: Farrakhan…Jesse…Marion Barry.” Huge laughter. Rock’s already-large grin grows larger; you can almost see his eyes narrow. “Marion Barry,” he repeats, to more laughter, “at the Million Man March, how’d he- who let him in? How’d he get a ticket… it was a day of posi-tivi–ty,” emphasis on the last three syllables, laughter coming in comfortable waves from the audience, who, demographically, probably contain a number of people who re-elected Barry two years after he was arrested for cocaine possession in 1990. This is Rock’s opening bit, and a little more than two minutes in, he twists the knife further than everyone strictly finds comfortable. “You know what that means? That means that even in our finest hour, we had a crackhead on stage.”
Huge explosion. Laughter, applause, one woman who you can hear literally shrieking with laughter, her voice high in the audio mix. Rock smiles, gives the joke some space. Paces one, two times just smiling, long enough for some of the boos to become prominent. Gives them half a pace to be heard, then says, “boo if you want. You know I’m right.”
Later in the special, Rock will mention dropping out of high school and only getting a G.E.D. much later in life. He never attended any kind of higher education. But this bit shows that he knows one of the principal rules of composition: put your thesis statement at the end of your introduction, and then spend the rest of your paper elaborating on that statement. Whatever there is to be said about the impact of Bring the Pain, or its merits, or its flaws, they all go back to that first response: Boo if you want. You know he’s right. And if you don’t know that, well, then why is his material making you feel so uncomfortable? And why is everyone applauding?
I don’t know if Rock sat down the day after his first HBO special, Big Ass Jokes, and began working on new material, but I doubt he did, for two reasons. First, if you’re a standup comedian and you’re going to take a day off, the day after your HBO debut has to be one of those days. Second, Rock’s special aired on June 16, 1994, and nobody in America got much work done the next day. They were all watching the news, as the Los Angeles Police Department issued an All-Points Bulletin for O.J. Simpson, who was supposed to turn himself in on a charge of double murder, but failed to show up at the police station. And then of course the infamous chase, involving a white Ford Bronco, twenty police cars, and an equal number of news helicopters.
Looking back at Big Ass Jokes, there’s not a quantum leap of quality between that and 1996’s Bring the Pain. Rock had been doing standup for a decade by 1994, and he has the delivery and rhythms down. His material is tight and focused, and his stamina is awe-inspiring; in the one hour special he never takes a drink of water, never appears to be out of breath, never stops moving, but the experience somehow seems more exhausting for the people in the audience than the comedian constantly pacing onstage. He fires off joke after joke without giving the them time to recover, his voice inherently goofy, but also able to dig into the edges of a bit, give it that extra emphasis that elevates it from a chuckle to a body-shaking laugh. But Chris Rock in 1994 is insular even when he’s trying to be inclusive; his bits about growing up poor gradually evolve into bits about his mother buying name-brand waffles sponsored by Nipsey Russell- a delightful line for comedy nerds and a large section of his black audience (and no, not predominantly-black or mostly-black, just a sea of black faces at this point), but something that’s going to be greeted with indifference or confusion at best in White America, aka the large majority of HBO subscribers.
But more than that, listening to Rock the evening before O.J.’s Bronco chase is like looking at a Da Vinci sketch of a helicopter, or finding a mammal fossil from the early Cretaceous, or listening a tape of a John Lennon musical recital circa 1958: it’s a glimpse of something whose time has not yet come. Rock riffs on relationships, and growing up in the hood, and the black experience in America (this last one to a much lesser extent than the other two), but there’s no sense than any of this could be – or should be – transgressive or shocking; it’s only profane in the most literal sense. The timing of Big Ass Jokes is as amazing as it was bad for business, it came at the lowest ebb of black/white dialogue in the ’90s: the O.J. case was still about a famous football player/actor rather than a black man, the Rodney King riots were as far from the public consciousness as they were going to be until the Clinton impeachment, and Spike Lee’s movie that year was Crooklyn, which didn’t make back its own budget.
But as Rock tested his new material over the next two years, the racial dialogue in the country heated up, and Rock came into his element. His intensity, his delivery, his honesty, something – just something about his act works as a release of the racial tension that so much of the nineties seemed embroiled in. Not to get too hyperbolic about it, but Rock’s material represents that idea that even if America can’t shake off the racial baggage of its past, it can at least be honest about its inability to do so. If we’re going to have prejudice, we can at least be honest about it- in fact, it might feel good to get all this shit out in the open. The reaction to Bring the Pain, both in the audience and among the general public, serves as a new affirmation of an old truth: that comedy is cathartic, that in its ability to confront painful subjects it can offer no small amount of release. Black and white people alike were in need of catharsis eight months after the conclusion of the Simpson trial, and Rock brought them this catharsis in such a full and completely satisfying manner that it turned him into a comedy legend overnight.
In 2005, Comedy Central ran a countdown of The 100 Greatest Stand Ups of All Time (if there’s one thing to remember about the early aughts, it’s that cable TV was absolutely filthy with top 100 lists, which were cheap to produce, eminently watchable, and ate up a ton of broadcast time). Richard Pryor was number one, Rock was number five. If Rock had died the day after taping Bring the Pain, the state of modern stand-up would unquestionably be worse than it is today. But Rock would be number two on that list at the lowest, and would stand a good chance of beating Pryor.
“Lotta racial shit going on this year.” At some point between Big Ass Jokes and Bring the Pain, Rock adopted the style of a revivalist preacher, tempering his rapid-joke attack by returning to the same phrases over and over, repeating it twice for emphasis, thrice for extra emphasis, going off on a five-minute tangent and returning to the same basic phrases to remind his audience what he was talking about in the first place. “Lotta racial shit going on this year” is by far the most frequent (challenged only by “tired, tired, tired,” but we’ll cover that later): The phrase introduces the concept of Colin Powell running for president, from there Rock launches into a series of what-if scenarios regarding Powell’s potential candidacy, ending with Rock volunteering to kill any white president who has a black running mate: “Whatcha gonna do, put me in jail which a bunch of black dudes who’ll treat me like a hero the rest of my life?” Moving from there to a catalogue of the various horrors of jail (and inadvertently bringing the phrase “toss my salad” into the mainstream), and an explanation for high incarceration rates – “If you’re living in an old project, a new jail ain’t that bad” – that manages to say more about the state of neo-conservative politics in thirteen words than George Will managed in a year of Time columns. At which point Rock repeats, “Lotta racial shit going on this year.” And then the O.J. trial. It’s a new subject, but the constant repetition of that phrase let’s us know that it’s all the same subject, that each of these events tells us something about the state of race relations in America.
By the way, the takeaway line from the O.J. material? “Black people too happy, white people too mad.” Every time I hear that, I’m always surprised that anyone needed to write more about it than that one sentence. That’s two years in eight words.
What makes Chris Rock really interesting as a comedian is how he possesses a point of view that is unapologetically black, and yet never shies away from attacking the black community. Take the opening bit about Marion Barry: Rock seems to be implicating the largely black population of Washington D.C. that re-elected Barry in 1992, and they do take most of his attention- on the other hand, can you imagine a white stand-up comedian who would unapologetically list Louis Farrakhan as a positive black figure? One of the enduring fascinations of Bring the Pain is the dialogue between Rock and his nearly-all-black audience, and the cultural assumptions that lie just under the surface of everything Rock says. Here are some statements of his that get cheers:
– On the War on Drugs: “That’s bullshit, it’s just a way to get more motherfuckers in jail.”
– On Colin Powell’s presidential hopes: “You can tell [white people] won’t vote for him because of the way they compliment him: ‘oh, he speaks so well, he’s so well-spoken’… what type of voice were you expecting to come outta his head?'”
– On Powell’s vice-presidential candidacy: “He could beat Dole. Only white people would expect a black man to run under a man he could beat. You think they’re asking Al Gore to run under Al Sharpton? No!”
– On O.J. Simpson murdering his ex-wife: “I ain’t saying he shoulda killed her… but I understand.”
– On higher education: “If you’re black, you get more respect coming out of jail than college.”
– On legacies: “I don’t give a fuck where you are in America, if you’re on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there’s some violence going down.”
– On the jury at the O.J. Simpson trial: “White people would do the exact same shit, ’cause if that was Jerry Seinfeld up there charged with double homicide, and the man that found the glove just happened to be from the Nation of Islam? Jerry’d be a free man. Be eatin’ cereal today.”
It’s that last one that seems the most shocking- Chris Rock just described the relationship between black and white people in America as equivalent to the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, and everybody in the room seems to agree with him. Any illusions that we’re living in a post-racial society vanish once that line gets a standing ovation, even if you’re a white kid living in a largely white state who learned that Martin Luther King Jr ended racism in 1968- possibly especially if you’re that white kid. Watching Bring the Pain, if you’re white, feels like a sort of cultural eavesdropping, like Rock is saying things that black people have learned not to say in front of a white population that increasingly views every means of cultural expression as an attack on their way of life.
Of course, this sort of honesty cuts two ways. The most famous segment of Bring the Pain, one that Wikipedia diplomatically refers to as “the segment on race in America, in which Rock used the N-word extensively,” and which everyone in real life refers to as “Niggas v. Black People.” Well, I guess me and my white friends generally say “the bit about the civil war with black people, you know, going on between black people, and, well, people that he uses the n-word for,” but that’s because we’re educated, so we’ve learned to be clear and straightforward about these things. But listening to this, or watching it, and hearing Rock acknowledge every stereotype about black people, and hearing his black audience laughing at it- this is some amazing shit. We’re all told comedy is powerful, but you don’t really know this until you see it get past every one of the built-in social defenses that the audience has rightly put up. Comedy that provokes offense is impressive, but comedy that causes an audience to willingly surrender its right to be offended is on another level entirely.
Is it clear that I’m nervous, talking about this? If you’re white, the last thing you should be writing about is a black man talking about problems in the black community. So let’s just admit that I have no relevant perspective here other than being able to see that it is expertly timed, rhetorically brilliant, both in the way Rock is always able to keep his audience assured that they’re on the right side in the black civil war, and in the way that he shifts gears halfway through to point out that the majority of people on welfare are white. No, not just white: “All over the country there’s white people on welfare, livin’ in trailer homes, eatin’ mayonnaise sandwiches, fuckin’ they sisters, listenin’ to John Cougar Mellencamp records.” It’s a huge release of the tension that’s been building, and probably necessary in order for Rock to complete the bit without the audience turning against him.
But of course I’ve been remiss in my duties, because I’ve failed to mention the subject that takes up nearly half of Bring the Pain‘s running time, a subject that, on the whole, has been much more fruitful to Rock over the years than the material on race: the nature of monogamous relationships, how they inevitably take work and wear both people down, the constant temptations for men who want to cheat, how women use their platonic friends like “a dick in a glass case. In case of emergency, break glass.” As far as I know, this performance brought the phrase “the friend zone” into the vernacular as well. Rock’s approach to the gender wars is the same as his approach to racial issues: tell the whole truth, and you give the people in the audience permission to laugh at themselves.
A lot of those laughs come from shockingly dark places, like Rock’s insistence that women never tell anyone how many people they’ve actually had sex with, and especially his line “there is nothing more crazy, more out of control, more likely to embarrass you in a fucking restaurant, than a woman who knows you ain’t gonna hit her.” I’ve always thought that famous people have skewed views on relationships because it’s so much easier to have sex, but as I’ve been involved in more and more relationships, more and more of this part of Bring the Pain rings true to me. Again, part of what makes it work is the concession Rock is willing to give to his audience: he’s not saying monogamy is wrong or unnatural, in fact he seems to think it is necessary in the long run. But it takes maturity, and wisdom, and constant work in order to maintain this state, and you can’t have any illusions about that going in. Throwing off such illusions is scary, and flies in the face of what we all silently agree to agree on, and speaks to some ugly undercurrents in human nature that most of us would rather not spend too much time thinking about. But as Rock shows throughout Bring the Pain, it can also be exhilarating, even liberating. Boo if you want. You know he’s right.