FORGET ABOUT "GREAT black comedian." Forget even "great comedian." Chris Rock's raspy voice of reason and L.L.-like media ubiquity make him a bona fide cultural presence. "You can't make a video without Puff Daddy in it," he joked at the MTV Video Music Awards, which he hosted. Well, you can't channel-surf without seeing Rock's "Little Penny" ads or 1-800-Collect spots, or his Puffy-spoofing "Champaign" video. After years of comedy-circuit toasting and SNL coasting (remember CB4?), Rock broke out like acne last year, hilariously "reporting" the Republican National Convention for Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect. "People say Colin Powell 'speaks so well,'" he observed. "What'd they expect him to say? 'Ahmma drop me a bomb'?"
Rock showcased his emerging body of social commentary with an above-par HBO concert, "Bring the Pain," which, like P.I., won an Emmy. Now the 9-7 finds our Will Rogers from Bed-Stuy sporting a weekly show on HBO (Fridays at 10:30 p.m.) and a Prince Paul-produced comedy album people actually are buying (Roll With the New). Completing the product troika with a "book" was inevitable. Ergo Rock This!, a transcribed collection of live riffing with some personal, jotted-down observations mixed in.
Like that other "king of all media," Howard Stern, Rock plays to everybody by picking on everybody. His relationship with his growing white audience is complex--a post-Pulp Fiction balancing act of winking and abuse. He writes this about The Jeffersons: "The best thing about George: He hated white people. I don't know how they got away with that on national TV." White readers can bond with Rock on this point to feel less like the jive turkeys they are: It's the same basic appeal of Eddie Murphy's Beverly Hills Cop movies and Chris Tucker's Money Talks.
But Rock's swipes at white supremacy are surprisingly empathetic coming from a guy who heard the "n" word every day as a kid. Recognizing a friendly limo driver as a one-time childhood bully, Rock reflects on the past: "I realized that this guy and I had just been playing our roles. He was a white boy. I was some nigger in an all-white school. It was his job to treat me like shit."
Rock also bonds with whites in a more disturbing way: His famous "niggers vs. black people" routine is preserved here for office-coffee-break posterity. "I love black people, but I hate niggers," he writes, proceeding to dump on black thugs 'n' disharmony. "I know what all you black readers think," he adds. "'It isn't us, it's the media.' Please cut the shit. When I go to the money machine at night, I'm not looking over my shoulder for the media." Rock's coarseness shows a deeper despair than the wry tone he takes to dispense with white paranoia.
Granted, his self-admitted racism against black screwups may be a legitimate emotion that needs to be aired--many blacks feel the same. But like the rightist welfare abolitionists, Rock stupidly conflates class and morality. "Black people don't give a fuck about welfare," he writes. "But niggers are shaking in their boots."
Rock's incipient conservatism creeps up in other areas; one wonders if he might not be able to share a polite lunch with Oklahoma congressman J.C. Watts. Rock steps lightly over the homophobic current in African American stand-up: "I love my Aunt Tom," he says about his gay uncle. "I know that if I was in a fight, Aunt Tom would take off his pumps and whip some ass." (The cross-dressing appetites of Uncle Eddie--Rock's show-biz mentor--pass without comment.) Later on, he yay-says abortion rights: "I wouldn't want a bunch of women voting on what I could do with my balls."
But his views of women and relationships are predictably littered with generalizations gleaned from his select pool of partners. You may chuckle, as I did, when he says long-term relationships come down to a simple choice between "Commitment" and "New Pussy." But brace yourself for this nugget: "There's nothing more crazy, more out of control, more likely to embarrass you in a restaurant than a woman who knows you aren't going to hit her." Even though he makes it clear he's personally against violence (except in the case of spanking), the queasiness from this passage lingers.
Still, Rock isn't about making people comfortable; he's not the kind of self-deprecating shit-talker who lets you see social pathos in his characters, as Richard Pryor did in the day. Rock is a preacher with a grin: He's got the offstage Cosby's moralism tempered by the offstage Murphy's hip intelligence. And it works: Rock makes you forget that racism, crack, prison, and poverty are not just natural comic fodder.
Yet if he's broken from the Def Comedy pack, it's less because Rock's forged out on his own than that he's made his and his family's pain funny to a mass audience. As Rock recalls, "My father grew up so poor that he would wake up at three in the morning, in a cold sweat, with 'poor flashbacks.' My mother would say, 'Baby, what's wrong?' He would say, 'I dreamed I was eating a dirt sandwich.'" This book is Chris Rock's dirt sandwich, ready for consumption.