Chris Rock: Forever in a hard place
CHICAGO — Chris Rock, one of the most successful comedians on the planet, is pretty much in constant pursuit of peace of mind.
"I worry about every show. Every time there's a camera on, I worry about it," he says.
Promoting his latest movie, the comedy documentary "Good Hair," Rock got serious in an interview, addressing the perils of being funny. "You just don't take for granted that you are good. Not at this."
He's not just being modest. "I obsess. Yes, I'll admit that."
You might say he also should cop to neurotic.
"Somebody said the other day, 'Larry King likes you.' Dude, are you saying I'm not funny on the show? Forget 'like.'" When it comes to his job — "I've got to be funny" — Rock is looking for full-blown love.
He goes into every video appearance, whether an interview on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" or an HBO special, thinking, "I can totally mess this up. I'm very conscious of that," he says.
"You're never going to accomplish anything unless you know how bad it could be," says Rock, pausing frequently before offering thoughtful answers to questions about his job. It's something he thinks about a lot, though seldom talks about.
Does he agree with the conventional wisdom that comedians are troubled and crazy? "I hit my rough patches," he says. "Friend of mine, Rich Jeni, shot himself in the head ... If somebody asks me, 'Was he depressed?' He was a comedian!"
Over an outdoor lunch on a sunny weekday at a Chicago hotel, Rock elaborates. "A comedian is like half a psychic. Very aware. It is very, very, very aware to be a comedian. You kind of gotta notice everything ... Stuff doesn't get by you.
"You just notice too much," he says. "Like a little computer and you can back it up with data. It's like you've got a Google in your head."
And the result of all that? "It's so much easier to not know in life ...You just end up knowing too much about people."
Despite a career of pitching his movies, television shows and specials to TV talk show hosts, Rock preps as though it's the first time.
Getting ready to go on "Oprah," he's trailed by an assistant whose job it is to tape every funny thing Rock has said for the past three weeks so that all successful jokes, comments, one-liners and observations are preserved for possible use.
And, "I went onstage probably five times last week," just messing around and "getting a feel for an audience" with appearances in small New York comedy clubs "because I haven't been onstage for a while. Just getting ready for 'Oprah.' ... Just get that muscle going." Despite all that, "You could always do more."
Rock confesses he's not the funniest member of his family. At least not according to his younger daughter, Zarah, 5, who, out of nowhere, started rating people on their funniness. Rock says Zarah thinks her mom is twice as funny as her dad.
He does get points for trying.
For instance, for his last HBO special, Rock says he probably did 200 stand-up comedy club shows to prepare. "The average comic probably does 30 shows before he shoots a special. I normally do 150. ... Because I'm doing other things (like movies), I figure I've got less time to work on it than the younger guys, so let me work harder on it."
At 44, Rock is conscious that there always are younger comedians waiting to take his place in the funny firmament. "I see a new kid, I flinch a little bit. 'Hmmm. New kid.' But they say something funny and I fall in love with them.
"Jonah Hill is my favorite. I'd walk across any room to say hi to Jonah Hill. That kid is hysterical."
In addition to the guy who tapes every funny thing he says, in his six-member entourage Rock has a hair person and a makeup person accompanying him for his "Oprah" appearance. This although he barely has any hair.
"I know. But you're going to be on TV. You're going to be on 'Oprah.' Stuff is forever. Foreverrrrr.
"It's just peace of mind," he says.
"That's all it is. Like, OK, when I'm on Teeee Veeee, which will show, all over the world, am I happy with these choices?"
It's not vanity, insists Rock, who is impeccably and expensively dressed all in black from his Ray-Bans to his suede oxfords. "Vanity's just horrible for comedians. Your faults are what people are into you about anyway. ... That's your connection to the audience."
Time magazine once anointed Rock "the funniest man in America," but he says the minute a comedian starts to believe that kind of hype, well, "you're on VH1 doing a reality show."
He gives an example taken from his "Good Hair," movie, a riotous look at the black hair culture and industry. In it, Rock interviews African-American men about whether their women let them touch their high-cost hairdos during sex. (No!) It's an obvious question to ask Rock as he peddles his movie, and he's ready with an answer. "My wife doesn't let me touch anything! Ha. Ha. Ha. Big laugh throughout the audience. It probably took me four days to figure out the best response."
But what if he had taken that question seriously instead?
"Give a straight answer. That's it! Give me 20 more of those, you're on the UPN or something."