Chris Rock’s sense of humour
Stand up comic, actor, voice artist, general funny man, political commentator. I’ve been tracking Chris Rock’s career since the early nineties and have listened to his stand up material pretty much on loop for the past decade. Seen him live once in London. His shows are more or less usual stand up comedy fare: anecdotes and social commentary punctuated with the odd piece of whimsy. Let’s move on.
Fairly rugged overall. Rock doesn’t hold back in upholding any afro-American stereotypes and is pretty ‘niggerish’ in his idiolect. Lots of profanity, casual use of ‘motherfucker’ and nigger to punctuate his jokes, and lots of shits, fucks and damns thrown in for good measure. That’s only half the story though, so shame on you if you’ve read on already. Rock is well-known for his infamous ‘Niggas vs Black People’ routine from ‘Roll With the New’, in which he details the differences between “ignant ass” niggas and normal, hard-working black people. Rock definitely affiliates himself with the latter, despite language that identifies with the former. He’s a clever man, educated, informed and articulate, using language to at times create a rough and ready persona, before switching it up into an almost an academic lexis. That’s why I said he’s partly political commentator, above. Case in point (on the ‘Stripper Myth’- “If strippers are stripping to pay their way through college, how come I ain’t never had a smart lap dance? I never had a stripper sit on my lap and say, ‘you know, I really think you should diversify your portfoliooooo…’ Or ‘Ever since the end of the Cold War, I find NATO obsolete!’ Love it.
Weirdly, as his career has progressed, Chris Rock has let a little poetry sneak into his jokes. Every now and again he throws in a rhyme (“if it’s all white – it’s all right!”), or some repetition (“the government – hates – rap!”) , or some alliteration (“you can have the alimony, but I want some Pussy Payments…!”) All done for capital E Effect.
Not much to say here. Chris Rock is quite prosaic in style and keeps the descriptive imagery to a minimum. Let’s move on.
One of the marks of a great comedian is being able to control the audience, something that Chris Rock does with supreme confidence. His stand up shows are seriously measured in pace, never rushed, never too eager to crowd-please. He never has any wild forays into comedic abstraction and moves fairly seamlessly between major topic areas. One thing he does that I bet many less seasoned comics wouldn’t dare attempt is to repeat large chunks of routine with slight tweaks to the specific subject matter. Case in point, his discussion of how “people with the most shit, have to shut the fuck up, around people with the least shit” from ‘Kill the Messenger’. He basically says the same thing about tall people around short people, fat girls around thin girls and rich people around poor people, using the exact same language each time round. Creates a nice rhythm for the audience to lock into and is actually quite relaxing – to know what’s coming next.
That said, (as you’d expect), Rock is no stranger to the Punch-Line, and delivers them with devastation. A great example is his diatribe on OJ Simpson following the hyper-controversial murder charge. He details the circumstances surrounding the case, summarises, then ends with “Now I ain’t saying he should of killed her – but I understand”. Cue wild applause. Then, after another quick summary he hits us with the same punchline again, and the applause is even more rapturous. All in the timing.
Though belligerent in his early days (listen to ‘Born Suspect’), Chris Rock was a lot softer in his delivery – actually quite quiet. Probably due to apprehension. Nowadays, he comes out shouting. Literally. He bellows jokes at you from the outset, sounding like his own hype man. He does maintain a slight hip hop aesthetic that partly explains it, there being a level of anger and frustration in his overall tone that is born of the socially charged subject matter he tends to deal with. He tells his audience what’s what, not so much inviting us into his perception of things but loud-speaking his grievances with the world, decorated with examples from his own fraught past.
Sometimes though, between the hollers, he gets silly and acts the clown, coming up with ludicrous abstractions. Case in point, when describing how when in love you have strong feelings for your partner – starts with: “if you haven’t considered murder, you ain’t been in love”. Ends with: “if you haven’t stared at that bottle of rat poison for 14 hours straight… you ain’t been in love.”
In all of this he relies quite heavily on exaggeration, blowing things out of all sensible proportion to ridiculous effect. And we all know a bit of exaggeration can be hilarious.
There’s a few subjects comedians always return to that have become something of a staple in the funnyman repertoire. Relationships, money, politics, celebrity, class and (especially for black American comics since Richard Pryor) race. What I’ve noticed about Rock is that he’s moving further into socio-political commentary in his old age, having got most (if not all) of the angsty racial stuff out of his system. Here’s a little video of Rock on love and marriage for the meantime:
That’s about it really. Just a quick post on the man the myth, as I’ve been listening to him a lot recently. Right. As you were.