Chris Rock transcends generations of fans with a signature combination of intelligence and contemporary comedy.
"I follow a couple people on Instagram. You’ve got to follow all that stuff. You have to understand it, because if you don’t, then you’re going to sound like an old guy. You got to have the ability to use it as a reference. A lot of the time, the difference between hip and unhip is just reference. We did some sketch the other night on SNL, and in it I tell my wife -- actually, we messed it up, but it was better in the dress -- anyway, I tell my wife, 'Hey, honey, the cab’s here.' Then I look at it again. I go, 'You know what? We got to rewrite this.' 'Hey, honey, the Uber’s here.' That little difference, it’s a big, big deal. I remember seeing Robin Williams at Town Hall. He did some Elmer Fudd bit, and I was like, dude, if you change that to SpongeBob... ".
-- Chris Rock. ("In Conversation Chris Rock", by Frank Rich, Vulture, 30 November 2014)
So, who else has been enjoying this recent Chris Rock renaissance? Or rebirth? Or reassertion? Or whatever else you want to call a comedian who broke through, got hot, hit some stumbling blocks, kind of/sort of went away, flirted with failures, took a couple meetings with irrelevance, and is now seemingly at the absolute peak of his career?
A lot of people might point to one of 2014's most unexpected cinematic treats, his perceived last-ditch effort at conquering the movie world, Top Five, as the jumping off point for his recent return to the top echelon of Popular Culture Mountain. But we'll get to that in a second. Besides: That's not the first step of this don't-call-it-a-comeback comeback story, anyway.
Instead, that award goes to the season two finalé of Jerry Seinfeld's criminally undervalued web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. The episode, which was first posted/aired on 18 July 2013, featured Rock as Seinfeld's guest. I had little expectation for it. Not because I felt passionately about Rock one way or the other; rather, it was because until this episode, I simply never took him seriously as an actor, comedian or anything else. He was in Grown Ups for God's sake. What more did I need to know?
But then he said this:
"Would I take a pill to be able to write and direct like Woody Allen? You're goddamn right I would."
Being a fan of Allen, that turned my head. What then officially bought my ticket onto the Rock bandwagon was the bit he shared later in the episode about how he feels kids need to be bullied to learn life lessons (I agree 1,000 percent). From there, I rented 2 Days In New York, a film written and directed by one of my favorite actresses, Julie Delpy. Sure, he didn't give a knockout performance, and yeah, the movie was a bit uneven, but the mere fact that he would agree to co-star in a film written by Delpy (whose role in the Before trilogy I adored, and whose prequel, 2 Days In Paris, I enjoyed thoroughly), made me smile and earned him a giant helping of my respect.
Enter the Saturday Night Live episode he hosted -- during which some of the smartest sketches the show has seen in years were conceived -- complete with a very uncomfortable and very funny monologue, and I personally made it a priority to see Top Five the weekend it hit theaters.
And, man, am I glad I did.
The film realizes Rock's fantasy of taking that pill to make him write and direct a movie like Allen would. The similarities are everywhere, the most prominent of which being the many call-backs to one of Allen's best films, Stardust Memories. A famous comedic actor wants to be taken seriously, and hopes to be recognized for his newest work rather than his most famous work. Flashbacks intertwine with a moving plot. The laughs are more biting than they are funny, the kind of jokes that don't necessarily make you chuckle out loud, but certainly make you think -- think not only about yourself with a certain amount of levity, but also a popular culture that's obsessed with obsessing about popular culture. If nothing else, it's an indictment on how stardom is both perceived by others and internalized by those who embody it.
What Top Five does best, though, is something Allen could never do: It takes the cinematic introspection that Allen has mastered through the years and marries it to hip-hop culture. The film's name is a nod to the type of conversation any hip-hop head could have on any given day at any given time, a conversation debating which artists land where in anybody's own personal list of favorite MCs. Those who have ever found themselves in such a conversation know precisely how impassioned and revealing those debates can be. Putting the Notorious B.I.G. over Tupac might suggest you prefer east coast hip-hop to its West Coast counterpart. Opting for a contemporary artist -- as Rosario Dawson's Chelsea Brown does near the film's end while rolling her eyes and revealing Kanye West as part of her list -- might suggest your knowledge of the genre's history is slim. And citing someone like Flo Rida?
Rock plays with that nuance brilliantly throughout all of Top Five, allowing these lists to tell the back-stories of bit characters in their own subliminal ways. It's a trick that's never been done nearly as intelligently as it's done in Top Five, Rock paying extra attention to making sure the audience gets a chance to hone in on the set piece that allows for those lists to be recited in the first place. It's like Annie Hall meets Friday or The Purple Rose of Cairo blending in elements of Boyz n the Hood. Rock didn't rip Allen off. Rock took the best parts of Allen and added Rock. And it worked fabulously.
It also served as proof of how far Rock has come as an entertainer. He's matured. He's gained just a tiny bit of edge. Life has kicked him in the face through the years and he's learned how to get back up, stronger and wiser than ever. The 2015 Chris Rock is not the same Chris Rock that debuted his first HBO comedy special, Big Ass Jokes, in 1994. Not even close, actually. Do you think the same guy who used to exaggerate his voice to obnoxious decibel levels for laughs could really go toe-to-toe with NPR's Terry Gross in a recent Fresh Air interview when she took exception to a bit in Top Five that could have been perceived as homophobic? Noting how the joke came from stories he heard from friends, the transcript reads as such:
Rock: I'm going to say about four or five women told me similar stories.
Rock: Yeah. And, yeah, that's how jokes happen. It's never like one person or two. It's like you got to hear it a few times when you do stuff like that, or else, you know, you're just being mean. So I'd heard stories about stuff like this. And I don't know. That's all, that's all I got. I don't think, I, you know, I, you know, I feel your pain, but I've never thought about any joke or anything like that deeply.
Gross: Do you think I'm overreacting?
Rock: I mean, you're Terry Gross. So, I mean, it's your job to analyze this and, you know, fight the good fight and, you know. But, you know, it's, I'm probably, I'm the only, I might be the only black comedian in the country that hasn't gay-bashed ever.
Later in the conversation, he then calls the radio host out in a way you rarely hear guests on Fresh Air do:
Gross: People are so used to gay bashing jokes in comedy. It's such a common thing. I think that's why...
Rock: It's not a common thing. It's like...
Gross: Gay bashing and comedy?
Rock: It's name two comedians that do it right now.
Gross: Oh, I've heard so many jokes.
Rock: Give me two.
Gross: Oh, I'm not good at remembering things.
Rock: If somebody asked you, you say something happens all the time. And then somebody says, give me two, they didn't say, give me ten; they said, give me two.
Gross: No. OK, I will refer you to...
Rock: You're probably wrong, right? ("Chris Rock on Finding the Line Between Funny and Too Far", NPR, 8 December 2014)
It doesn't matter who's wrong and who's right, of course, because my point is this: It takes a confident, well-thought, intelligent person to even think to challenge one of the most respected voices in all of talk radio, let alone actually hold your own. Rock rebutted with respect and calculation (the transcript doesn't do the awkwardness of the audio any justice whatsoever). He went to bat for his fellow comedians. He stood his ground for what he believed in.
It's the sign of a fully-formed human being, not to mention the sign of a guy who has spent almost his entire adult life under the intense spotlight that gleams from being a well-known entertainer. Rarely do actors, comedians, musicians or artists transcend generations, and it's even rarer that they do it on their own terms.
But armed with a penchant for independent film, a plethora of really famous friends, a few misfires behind him (I Think I Love My Wife being the most notorious), and a seemingly unwavering desire to constantly evolve, Rock has done just that with Top Five. He's become cool to like again, but only this time, it's for an entirely new generation. And more so, he has earned that admiration by refusing to give in to anything other than his own opinion, his own true self (telling a recent crowd that "Scott Rudin is not a racist; Scott Rudin hates everybody" while accepting an award is proof enough of that).
It's an inspiring resurgence for one of comedy's most essential contemporary voices. There aren't many other comics today, white or black, more willing to look beyond a type of arbitrarily founded acceptance that currently plagues a world filled with people so determined to be so heard at all costs. His contrarian world view is one vital not only to comedy, but also to popular culture, if only for how fearless it continues to be. Rock hasn't merely regained his groove over the last handful of months; he's been a strident example of how necessary it is to mature as an artist. An artist, more than two decades in, that is still of legitimate and wide-spread consequence.
"It’s not that people were offended by what I said," Rock told Frank Rich in November after he was asked about the controversy his SNL monologue caused. "They get offended by how much fun I appear to be having while saying it. You could literally take everything I said on Saturday night and say it on Meet the Press, and it would be a general debate, and it would go away. But half of it’s because they think they can hurt comedians."
Rock has embodied the reality that you can maintain relevance through decades of work in the entertainment industry as long as you stay true to who you are, and stay true to what you believe in. As he approaches 50 , the most remarkable element of this equation is the reality that the guy is only now beginning to hit his stride. It's an exciting thing to witness.
"I'm glad he exists," Rock told Rolling Stone in December while referring to his friend Kanye West. "He's the most interesting artist in the history of hip-hop. I can't really fuck with nobody that don't like Kanye." (, by Brian Hiatt, 3 December 2014)
Yeah, I can't really fuck with nobody that don't like Chris Rock, either.
Splash image: Press photo of Chris Rock (photographer unknown)