Oprah and Chris Rock
One of America's funniest men on panning laughs from the everyday, his 9/11 baby-to-be, transcending race, and why he suspects he was put on Earth.
I will never forget the first time I saw Chris Rock perform—I laughed so hard my side ached. As he paced the stage in a rhythm that has often made him seem as much a call-and-response southern preacher as the consummate comedian he is, he unflinchingly took on the most sensitive topics, making the audience break into uproarious laughter with his own brew of wit, wisdom, and social commentary. That night I did enough cracking up to last me a year.

Chris Rock is on a roll. His talent has led him all the way from the tough streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, to comedy's center stage. The oldest of seven children, he credits his truck-driver father and schoolteacher mother with giving him a strong work ethic and moral compass. As a boy, he was bussed from the black section of town to an all-white school, where he was taunted and regularly beaten up. In tenth grade he dropped out of high school, earned his GED, then worked odd jobs—including busboy at Red Lobster and hospital orderly—while attending community college. But he'd always dreamed of a career in comedy, and in 1985 he got his first break. While waiting in the ticket line for Eddie Murphy's stand-up show at Radio City Music Hall, he read a newspaper notice about an open-mike session at a club called Catch a Rising Star. He auditioned and received such a strong response that he continued performing at the club.

In 1988 Rock landed a part in the blaxploitation parody I'm Gonna Git You Sucka . That role led to appearances on The Arsenio Hall Show , where Rock caught the attention of Lorne Michaels, executive producer of Saturday Night Live . Michaels invited Rock to a mass audition in 1990 and hired him as a featured player. In 1996, three years after he'd left SNL , he taped an HBO comedy special that garnered him two Emmys. Soon after, HBO signed him to host The Chris Rock Show , before he returned to host SNL in 1997. Even as his stand-up career skyrocketed, Rock, now 37, appeared in movies such as New Jack City (1991), Nurse Betty (2000), and Down to Earth (2001). This summer he stars in Bad Company with Anthony Hopkins, and he'll make his directorial debut next year with the comedy Head of State .

But what excites him most is his impending fatherhood. When I visited him at his office in lower Manhattan, a few miles from his home, he was beaming with the news that after five years of marriage he and his wife Malaak Compton-Rock—the executive director of a nonprofit organization—are expecting their first child. We spent that Saturday afternoon talking about everything from why comedy is his calling to the prospect of parenting—and the powerful life principle that sustains him during his most difficult moments.

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Note: This interview appeared in the June 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.