HOW FUNNY IS Chris Rock? His new HBO special, Bigger & Blacker, isn't as revelatory as Bring the Pain. In that Emmy-winning 1996 breakthrough, Rock dared to hang black America's dirty laundry in public, mixing black-comedy staples (the quivering white voice, parents whupping kids) with castigations of everyone who reelected Marion Barry or disrespected upright black men in favor of lazy "niggas." Bring the Pain made him a star, not least because it let white listeners wallow in stereotype and congratulate themselves on open-mindedness at once.
Bigger & Blacker has its moments, but it elicits fewer gasps of humor and outrage. Rock savors the ironies of Littleton ("If you're white and under 21, I'm running for the hills"), slams the NYPD, and spends a quarter of the show wondering, "Women...what the fuck do y'all want?" As much communal conscience as jokester, he rips parental neglect. "If you said more words to him than 'Mommy be back,' he might know something," he snarls about a cousin left back in the first grade. His funniest line roots Clinton's impeachment in sexual jealousy ("You ain't never gonna hear Newt Gingrich go, 'Man, I wish these hos would back up off me'"); his most audacious blames Hillary ("She's the First Lady. She's supposed to be the first one on her knees to suck his dick"). Although the crowd gasps at his impudence--he can still bring the pain--Rock also turns surprisingly p.c. He attacks black racism and homophobia, though not in a way suggesting actual gay friends, but he has no illusions about the payoff for playing nice: "There ain't a white man in this room who'd change places with me...and I'm rich!"
At his best, Rock's willingness to call out absolutely anyone reads as cultural and political courage. But too often he takes the easy way out: Men cheat and women yammer too much. Yawn. Black leadership since Malcolm and Martin has been "a bunch of substitute teachers," but then Rock sends mash notes to Jackson, Sharpton, and Farrakhan. The shock value of his Hillary joke devolves into mere piggery: "It's 1999, and some women don't give head!"
Yet what does it mean for a white boy to call this special "less funny"? That Rock feels less amenable to telling in-group jokes that he knows damn well will get misused? Artists bear no responsibility for how people appropriate their work; should Matt Stone worry about movie audiences that roar when Cartman sneers, "Jew"? But as an article on racial profiling in the New York Times Magazine pointed out, white cops on drug detail cite Rock's black/"nigga" bits to support traffic stops that outsiders consider sheer racism. Consider also that white audiences seem much less interested in black art, as created by actual black artists, just now. White viewers avoid black TV. Rap-loving teenagers who crossed the color line find that Insane Clown Posse, Eminem, Kid Rock, and Limp Bizkit are whitening the neighborhood. The post-Jordan NBA, devoid of a star who could makes black athletic dominance unthreatening for white people, saw its ratings tumble.
"The really ghastly thing about trying to convey to a white man the reality of the Negro experience," James Baldwin once wrote, "has nothing whatever to do with the fact of color....He will face in your life only what he is willing to face in his." Given our present racial retrenchment, what are whites willing to face? Can we laugh at Rock without minimizing our own complicity in the pain every joke delivers?