Photo: Rob Howard
Note: This interview appeared in the June 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
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.
Oprah: I've read that you were teased a lot in high school and used humor to deflect it. Were your school years traumatic?
Chris: Yes. I'm over that now, but at the time it was bad. School was my entire world.
Oprah: When did the teasing begin?
Chris: In second grade. And it lasted until tenth grade—the year I left high school.
Oprah: That's brutal.
Chris: Yes, and when all you know is school, you think you're going to know the people around you forever.
Oprah: When did you first know you were funny?
Chris: I didn't know I was funny—I just knew that people responded to me in a humorous way. Funny is only something that others know about you—you can't be funny by yourself. I often hear people say, "I always knew I was funny." I want to say, "You idiot—you didn't know anything."
Oprah: But didn't you know you had a gift for making people laugh?
Chris: You only know that you're smart because you're around dumb people from time to time! That's the moment when you say to yourself, "Hey, I know a thing or two."
Oprah: So then you did know you had a talent?
Chris: When I was about 6, I said to myself, "Wait a minute—I'm dead serious, and everyone else is cracking up." I thought, "I've got something here. Let me learn how to work it."
Oprah: And that you did.
Chris: Yes. By the time I was 7 or 8, I wanted to be a comedy writer. When I'd see the credits roll after a comedy show, I'd say to myself, "I'm going to write for one of these shows one day."
Oprah: Who inspired you back then?
Chris: Bill Cosby was the first comedian I was exposed to, because he doesn't curse. As a boy, I'd sneak to stay up and watch Cosby guest-host The Tonight Show. A lot of people don't remember that he hosted that show back in the seventies—and he was a genius at it. He'd be smoking a cigar with his cool plaid suit on.
Oprah: Sitting in for Johnny Carson?
Chris: Yes. Cosby was in rotation with David Brenner and a few others. He'd also come on and do stand-up comedy from time to time.
Oprah: Were you actually studying Cosby or were you just taking in everything?
Chris: Both. But I never had the confidence to say I was going to be in front of the camera as a comedian until I saw Eddie Murphy years later. After I left high school and got my GED, I studied broadcast journalism for a year at a community college. Though part of me had always wanted to be a comedian, another part of me had always wanted to be Bryant Gumbel or Dan Rather.
Oprah: Where is that part of you now?
Chris: It's gone. Broadcast journalism involves presenting other people's words.
Oprah: You're more than just funny—you take difficult subjects and make them entertaining. What gives you the chutzpah to delve into the hard stuff?
Chris: I don't know! I was raised on rap music—the first art form created by black people who were free to say anything they wanted. So the rap on those first NWA and Public Enemy records—the good rap, not the garbage—already contained much of what I've said.
Oprah: One of your funniest routines is about a black woman trying to use a maxed-out credit card that she prays won't be rejected at the department store.
Chris: Every time I see you, you request that story like it's a song or something. You're like, "Hey, Chris, can you do the one about the black woman in the department store?"
Oprah: That's because I have been that woman. Years ago when I first moved to Chicago, I was in a grocery store and the cashier actually took my card away. I left there with my groceries sitting in the aisle. It was one of the most humiliating moments a human being can ever experience.
Chris: The next most humiliating thing is when you don't have enough cash at the checkout and you're trying to decide: Should I buy milk or toilet paper?
Chris: My mother was the woman who had all the credit cards from stores that shouldn't even give credit cards. If a store is already dirt cheap and has all its clothes in bins, why should it even have credit?
Oprah: Part of your talent is taking those real-life moments that aren't necessarily funny and making them humorous. How do you do that—are you always on the lookout for humor?
Chris: Yes, and I get bored very easily. Also, when I take something that's not so funny and find humor in it and put a new angle on it, then I'm not just a comedian—I'm a journalist.
Oprah: That's the Bryant Gumbel in you coming out.
Chris: That's how I contribute. That's how I am an artist. To merely talk about something that's funny is one thing, but there's no real art to that.
Oprah: When you're out someplace and you think of something humorous, do you stop and write it down or do you just catalog it in your head?
Chris: I catalog it in a PalmPilot, or I call up my answering machine at home and tell a joke into it so I can remember it later.
Oprah: When you do a performance, you don't just get up there and stand—you stalk back and forth onstage. There's a rhythm to it.
Chris: I'm trying to give you your money's worth. An entertainer's reputation as a live act is the most valuable thing he or she can have. If people know you give good shows, you'll never be broke for the rest of your life. Your agent and manager may even swindle you, but you'll always make money. Someone like Patti LaBelle can go back on the road anytime, because we all know that Patti is going to throw down. She doesn't even need a hit record.
Oprah: She can just sing "You Are My Friend."
Chris: Yes! So, early in my career it was very important that I gain that reputation. I haven't been on the road in two or three years, but when I say tickets are on sale, I know they're going to be gone, even if my movie bombed or my TV show sucked. For years I've been laying the groundwork for my routine. My style is half rapper, half preacher. My grandfather was a preacher, and when I'm talking to an audience, I am doing the same thing he did—giving people a new perspective on their lives.
Oprah: Do you believe everyone has a calling and that humor is yours?
Chris: This is absolutely what I was put on earth to do—to make people laugh about things that weren't so funny to begin with. That's why I'm here.
Oprah: And now you're preparing to take on another huge calling—fatherhood.
Chris: Our child is such a 9/11 baby. I said to myself, "The world's falling down, and what have I done with my life?" We've been married five years, but we've never planned anything—it has always been about today. After September 11, I said, "It's time. Let's have a baby."
Oprah: So it was a conscious decision?
Chris: Very conscious.
Oprah: Was marriage difficult for you in the beginning?
Chris: Yes. It's hard working in the benevolent dictatorship of show business and then coming home to a democracy.
Oprah: So the early days were rocky?
Chris: I wouldn't say rocky—it was just life. I had a lot going on back then, and I couldn't trust many people around me. I met so many people after I got rich and famous, and I learned that you can't ultimately trust people unless they were your friends when you were broke.
Oprah: You think so?
Chris: Yes. If you're broke and I'm broke, and you say, "Let's go hang out," then I know you really do want to hang out with me. There's only trust in hard times, and that's the only time when you really know people. I mean no disrespect to my friends and loved ones, but it's too easy to be my friend now.
Oprah: You don't have friends you knew before the fame and money?
Chris: A few.
Oprah: So now you're having a baby you can offer your love to.
Chris: Babies don't know who's rich and who's poor. You love 'em and they're happy.
Oprah: Would you prefer a son or a daughter?
Chris: It doesn't matter. I'd prefer a girl actually. I think I'd be too hard on a boy.
Oprah: What part of parenting are you most looking forward to?
Chris: I'm looking forward to being happy around my kid.
Oprah: I love that answer!
Chris: I'm also looking forward to not being tired around my child. My father was tired a lot. I want to play ball with my child without having to grab my shoulder because I'm not physically fit. And I want to really teach my child and become his or her friend.
Oprah: Does the prospect of parenting scare you at all?
Chris: When you see my face, you know the only thing I'm doing is looking forward to it.
Oprah: That's true. When you first told me about the baby, I could sense your joy and excitement. I'm always happy to see that in black parents because so many of our children came into the world with no one anticipating our arrival. Have you thought of names?
Chris: If it's a girl? Holiday.
Oprah: Holiday Rock. Where did that come from?
Chris: When I heard the song "Holiday," I just thought, Yes, that's it.
Oprah: What does your wife say about that?
Chris: She's picking out normal names, like Pam and Bob.
Oprah: I'm sure that having a child will soften you in places you would never have imagined. Do you enjoy being married now?
Oprah: Are you and your wife pretty domestic?
Chris: Very domestic.
Oprah: What would you be doing on this Saturday afternoon if you weren't sitting here with me?
Chris: I'd be at home watching DVDs, or I'd be at a basketball game.
Oprah: When you're out all day, do you come home and spend the evening with your wife?
Oprah: I'd say that's pretty domestic. What excites you in life?
Chris: Art—I love music and painting. Seeing black people do well when they're trying to do the right thing also excites me. I was watching a sports show on HBO, and a lot of the reporters were black. They weren't reporting on "We Shall Overcome" stuff, just regular sports stories. As I was watching these guys, I had a big grin on my face. I love seeing black people do normal things, being judged as normal people.
Oprah: Is race always a part of how you think?
Chris: Yes. Just last week there were two football play-off games, and there were two black quarterbacks. I'm old enough to remember when there were no black quarterbacks—there were no blacks on TV. I hope my son or daughter doesn't have to be as fixated on race as I am, because he or she will grow up in freer times. In 1972 I got bussed to a school where I was still one of the first black kids.
Oprah: In 1972?
Chris: There were pickets with NIGGER, GO HOME signs. Even as late as 1982, there were race riots at my school.
Oprah: In just a few years, you've already raised our expectations of comedy. Is there another accomplishment you're striving for now?
Chris: I want to build what you have: a brand. You have a brand in the uplift business—I'm going to get you a little badge that says UPLIFTER. In that same way, I want my name to be a brand in comedy. I hope my name stands for comedic excellence.
Oprah: That's solid. How does the hierarchy in comedy compare with other areas of entertainment?
Chris: Being a comedian is a lot like being an athlete. If you're Carl Lewis and you're the fastest, then no matter what you're the fastest. Someone would really have to cheat in order to take that away from you. You can't fake comedy—it's not like a movie, where a director can just cast a pretty face. No one wanted to give me my own show—they would much rather give a show to some stocky, handsome guy. No one wanted to give Roseanne a show, either. But only in comedy can people like me and Roseanne win. For the most part, comedy is the only fair part of show business.
Oprah: Isn't that because humor crosses all lines?
Chris: Yes, and people basically aren't that racist. They want their laughs. If I make a white guy laugh, he's gonna come see me. He's not gonna go see the white guy who doesn't make him laugh just because that guy is white. That's why comedy is one of the few places in the world where you can absolutely transcend race. And you don't have to even try to cross over. Some of our biggest stars, like Redd Foxx and Bernie Mac, never crossed over.
Oprah: Don't you just love Bernie Mac?
Chris: I love Bernie! For years I've been pushing that guy forward. NBC, ABC, CBS—all of them lost out [to Fox]. Whenever someone used to ask me who the next big thing was, I'd always say Bernie Mac.
Oprah: When I talked with Bernie, he said he wouldn't ever undermine his culture or compromise any part of who he is just to do a sitcom. And he has mastered that in a way few people have. His show is great because he plays himself.
Chris: He has totally embraced his culture while also using a classic comedy structure. He talks to the camera in a way that's no different from George Burns with Gracie Allen.
Oprah: Haven't you been approached to do sitcoms?
Chris: I get approached to do shows all the time. There's a lot of money in sitcoms, but I've never been the kind of guy who wanted to do one. I don't think people want to see me saying "Honey, I'm home." It's just not my thing. But now that I have this baby coming, who knows what will happen?
Oprah: Why did you stop doing The Chris Rock Show?
Chris: I really wanted to do movies, and it's difficult to do movies on the side. Only if you're Oprah can you say, "I will shoot between July and September." And let me tell you—if I'm ever Oprah, I'm going to say, "Can we shoot for one hour a day?" It probably sounds crazy, but I may eventually go back to my show. I miss informing people and being an immediate part of the culture. I miss being able to do a whole piece on reparations. I miss the mix of having Adam Sandler on to sing some nasty song and then talking with Cornel West.
Oprah: We miss you, too, Chris. Not having your show is a loss, because there's no one else like you on television. So are you definitely going back to the show?
Chris: If I can figure everything out. This next movie I'm filming is very important.
Oprah: You told me that about your last movie!
Chris: But I wrote and directed this one.
Oprah: Between 1998 and 2000 when I was trying to get you on my show, you had pulled way back. I've always appreciated how you explained it: "I'm not doing anything because I'm tired of looking at myself, tired of hearing myself—and I don't want to burn out."
Chris: And I also respect your show. To go on your show means sitting in the same chair that Nelson Mandela sat in, and I don't want to waste the spot.
Oprah: But weren't you pulling back on a lot of things?
Chris: You only have a finite amount of time on television. When that time comes, you should be ready. You can't—
Oprah: Play with that.
Oprah: So you take yourself and your career seriously?
Chris: It's all I've got. Right now, if we opened up the paper and looked in the want ads, the jobs I'd be qualified for would pay minimum wage.
Oprah: What about the jobs you had before you became a successful comedian?
Chris: You know what? I don't remember them all. But I'll tell you this: When someone threw up, I was the guy who had to clean it up. And that was at every place I worked, whether I was a stock boy—
Oprah: Or a Red Lobster busboy.
Chris: Oooh, boy—I couldn't even work at Red Lobster now. I'm allergic to shrimp!
Oprah: Red Lobster brings back such memories. My friends and I would always go there, like after the prom.
Chris: At least you went to the prom! I'm the loser who served you while you were there. No prom for me!
Oprah: So when you first began making money, what did that mean to you?
Chris: In the beginning, it really just meant I could buy more food. I swear to you, I was like, "Wow, I can get two slices now!" When you've been on a ghetto diet your entire life, you're just happy to get a large soda instead of a medium.
Oprah: Since those times, how has your vision for yourself taken shape—is there a life strategy or plan for Chris Rock?
Chris: What is my vision for Chris Rock? You mean you want me to talk about myself in the third person?
Oprah: I know—doesn't it make you crazy when people refer to themselves as if they're not sitting right there?
Chris: That's a sure sign someone is going crazy—when he refers to himself in the third person, talks in low tones, and walks around wearing shades all day! But anyway, to answer your question, the only plan I have is to not do anything I don't want to do—and to never work just for money. I also want to always live below my means. That's the master plan. The rest will take care of itself.
Oprah: You've got it!
Chris: If you live below your means, you can turn down stuff all the time.
Oprah: And if you live below your means long enough, you'll never have to work for money again. I wish more entertainers would realize that.
Chris: I do, too. I see guys who can't make 10 percent of what I make, and yet they have four Bentleys, three houses, and four bodyguards.
Oprah: So that's never going to happen to you?
Oprah: Do you live pretty modestly?
Chris: Yes. I just bought a house next door to a doctor's home—that's not too rich. You know you're rich when you have to drive for a half hour to get to your house once you're on your property.
Oprah: In the coming years, what can the world expect from Chris Rock?
Chris: Lots more jokes, I hope. The biggest question for me now is this: How do I mature while at the same time not allowing myself to be watered down? Oprah, you're going to save the world—but I'm all about the comedy!
Oprah: Do you approach life from a comedic point of view, or are you serious most of the time?
Chris: Both. I can see the humor in just about any situation. After I lost my dad [his father died in 1989], I realized that none of us should take things too seriously, because everything except death works itself out. Everything. No matter what happens or how difficult things become, you will eventually feel better.
Oprah: So does anything bother you?
Chris: The ignorance of the educated pisses me off—the ignorance of the uneducated I just feel sorry for....
Oprah: Does that ignorance include racism?
Chris: Yes, all forms of ignorance. It also bothers me that we don't live in a humble society. So many people seem to be on a spiritual kick these days, so they should know that no matter which of the spiritual texts you read—the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, whatever—there is one characteristic that is mentioned more than any other: humility. And yet we live in a time of such braggadocio.
Oprah: Especially in entertainment.
Chris: The celebrities get up on stage to thank God—and by the way, they're wearing a $12,000 outfit.
Oprah: So aside from that, do everyday circumstances ever get you down?
Chris: I don't let 'em get me down!
Oprah: You don't?
Chris: No. It has often been said that tomorrow is not guaranteed—and that's true. But tomorrow is still the safest bet in the world.
Oprah: I call that sunrise faith—the belief that the sun is pretty certain to show up tomorrow.
Chris: Is Michael Jordan gonna score? We think he is, but he might not, yet we still know that tomorrow will probably be here. You see, tomorrow is even more sure than Michael Jordan scoring. In fact, if there's one thing I've learned, it is this: Tomorrow is more sure than just about anything else in the entire world.