The Self-Made Man: Chris Rock
Comedy, it seems, is a conveyor belt of self-made men. While just about every other avenue of the entertainment industry is impossible to break into without rich parents (or parents who also work in the industry), comedy is still the stuff of insecure workaholics who are willing to spend their adult lives on the road, grinding out a living. We saw this kind of work ethic last week with Jim Carrey, and we’ll see it again this week with fellow comedian, and In Living Color alumnus, Chris Rock.
Like Carrey, Rock’s beginnings were humble; Rock may not have lived in a van, but he did grow up in 1980s Bed-Stuy, which is roughly the same thing. Bed-Stuy (aka the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, NYC) was what yuppies would call a “transitional” neighborhood back then – gang violence, drug use, and rolling blackouts were commonplace. To make matters worse, Rock was bused to primarily white schools where other students beat the crap out of him all the time. He eventually dropped out of high school altogether and worked lots of menial jobs (including fast food service), eventually getting his GED. To this day, that is his highest level of education.
Rock began his stand-up career in 1984, feeling his way around the local comedy circuit and earning late night spots in comedy clubs by helping the staff stack chairs. Three years into his career, he befriended Eddie Murphy, who was still funny back then. Murphy took Rock under his wing and helped him break into film with a part in Beverly Hills Cop 2. Murphy also introduced Rock to a community of black comedians in LA that wasn’t available in New York, where promoters wouldn’t even schedule two black comics in the same hour because they were seen as a novelty.
Rock also picked up Eddie Murphy’s tireless work ethic; Murphy was a perfectionist who watched tapes of himself performing and picked them apart, sometimes with members of his entourage, to fine-tune his act. Rock is much the same way, and the rate at which he generates new material is admired by many of his contemporaries.
With the exposure he got from his friendship with Eddie Murphy, Rock got a spot on Saturday Night Live, where his Nat X character and impressions of black celebrities like Luther Campbell were popular. While he got along with the cast and crew, Rock felt stifled by his position as SNL’s Black Guy and left to join In Living Color, which ended after his first season with the show.
It’s safe to say that Rock’s career momentum had stalled somewhat; he’d sampled the good life with Eddie Murphy and gotten some regular TV work, but that wave had broken and rolled back. Still, that early visibility helped Rock as he refocused his efforts on his stand-up and acting careers, earning praise for his role as Pookie in New Jack City – which is still a shock to him – and putting out an HBO special and a comedy album. He was also introduced to black intellectuals like Nelson George during that time, and those relationships were a big influence on the material in his break out comedy special, Bring the Pain (aka the one where he talks about black people vs. n***as). That special is regarded as one of the finest hours of comedy ever performed, and Chris Rock has been a star ever since.
Rock’s career is interesting because it had two phases guided by two very different relationships. His mentorship under Eddie Murphy taught him what being a successful working comic was like, and where it could get him if he was both good and lucky enough. He also got to see LA and the film industry and all the temptations therein, which he says that he was much too young for at the time.
By contrast, Rock’s friendship with Nelson George, who wrote Michael Jackson’s biography right before Thriller was released, made a huge impact on his stage material. Rock is a public philosopher in the same way that Richard Pryor and George Carlin were, and his ability to deconstruct American social behaviors and racial attitudes can be traced back to what he learned from Nelson and his contemporaries.
But as beneficial as those relationships were, they wouldn’t have amounted to much without Rock’s natural curiosity, willingness to learn, and willingness to work. He has made a very nice living out of being a smart-ass, and that’s a credit to him as much as anyone who helped him along. He is living evidence that if men can’t be more faithful than their options, they can certainly be more successful.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.