Multi-talented comedian-actor reflects on his influences, navigating his career and dealing with adulation.
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Chris Rock back to this program. Starting this weekend you can catch his latest project, “Death at a Funeral.” The terrific cast includes Tracy Morgan, Martin Lawrence, Danny Glover and Luke Wilson. Here now, a scene from “Death at a Funeral.”
Chris Rock: You cut out before Martin says, “He’s doing the wheelbarrow.” (Laughter)
Tavis: Now you know if this ain’t funny something is wrong, because you can’t have you and Martin Lawrence and Tracy – I’ll just stop right there. It’s got to be funny.
Rock: It’s funny.
Rock: This is a funny, funny, funny movie. (Laughter) This is comedy with a big C. This is not a documentary trying to win a little award. This is the big time.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. When you put together a cast like that, how does everybody find their footing? You’ve got three comedians here, and everybody’s got to find their -
Rock: Well, we’ve got a really good script, and when you’ve got a good script people kind of stay in their lanes. Plus the fact that we’re a little older now so we are – there’s a little competition but it’s – we’re all working for the movie.
If we’d have done this movie 10, 15 years ago we probably would have hated each other. (Laughter) You know what I mean?
Tavis: “Why did he get that line?”
Rock: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It would have been like yeah, oh, you funny, huh, huh? (Laughter) But now we got kids, we got bills, child support, all sorts of things. You want to get right to it.
Tavis: I was laughing when I saw this, because I’m thinking you are so original in your standup and you’re becoming the king of these remakes. There’s something about these remakes that you really like.
Rock: It’s not – I don’t even view them as remakes. It’s almost like a cover song, you know what I mean? There’s Barbra Streisand singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and then there’s Aretha Franklin singing it, and it’s not the same song. (Laughter)
Rock: You can hear them back to back and not – there’s the Carpenters – people, I know people that have heard the Carpenters’ version of “Superstar” and Luther Vandross and not known they were the same song. (Laughter) It’s like, that is not that song.
So when I do one of these remakes I’m trying to flip it, you know what I mean? I’m trying to, like, really put a spin on it.
Tavis: But what’s the challenge, though, to flipping something that was just out three years ago? You haven’t done a remake that close.
Rock: Well, no, no one’s done one that close, but it was a movie a lot of people didn’t see. The general audience, you’re talking about a movie that made, like, $2 million or $3 million in the States. So most people never, ever, ever saw it. Almost ever – you ever hear the original version of “Hey, Joe?” No. (Laughter) You didn’t. You didn’t know “Hey, Joe” was a remake. You thought Jimi Hendrix -
Tavis: Did the original.
Rock: Right. Did you know there was an original version – (laughter) do you know that “Man on Fire” was a remake? Scott Glenn played the Denzel part. You didn’t even know that.
Tavis: Yeah, no, I didn’t.
Rock: Joe Peschi was the Christopher Walken part. That was, like, in the last 10 years. “The Bourne Identity” is a remake. So there’s a lot of remakes out there that you don’t even know that you – as long as the audience that’s going to see it hasn’t seen the first one, it’s a new movie.
Tavis: How, then – and I’m not naïve in asking this – but how then does a cast that stars not just three comedians but three African American comedians, how dramatically different does that make it for the two people who did see it the first time it came out?
Rock: Hey, man. Put it this way – if Tracy Morgan asked me the exact same questions that you just asked me, it’s another show. When you put Tracy Morgan in something, Tracy Morgan is Forrest Gump, that’s another movie. (Laughter) That’s a whole nother – you don’t got to change one line in that movie and you’d be like, “I never saw this before in my life.”
Tavis: All right, so could have asked this question -
Rock: Yeah, Martin Lawrence as Malcolm X. That’s another movie. (Laughter) Whoa.
Tavis: I could have asked this question 10 minutes ago. Now seems like a good time to ask it. So, the movie is – I’ll let you tell the back story on this.
Rock: The movie is about my character, Aaron, is going through the worst day of his life. He’s got to bury his father and what he finds out is his father is gay and his gay lover comes to blackmail him. The gay lover just happens to be a – what’s the word? It’s not midget anymore, it’s smaller person?
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs)
Rock: So – and Caucasian, and on top of this my wife is ovulating on this same day and wants me to try to get her pregnant. She was trying to have sex on the day of my dad’s funeral. So it’s just a bad day, man. (Laughter)
Tavis: A lot going on there.
Rock: There’s a lot going on, man.
Tavis: You happy with it, though?
Rock: I’m real happy with it, man. When I see this thing play in front of an audience, people go crazy, man.
Tavis: This is one of those “Inside the Actor’s Studio” questions. What’s your process once you do this? Do you want to watch it with other audiences, you don’t wanna see it, you study this thing? What’s your process once they say, “Cut” and “That’s a wrap?”
Rock: You got to watch it with an audience. It’s not drama. Drama is whatever you want it to be. When you make drama you are like Picasso. And it’s like, “Okay, whatever.”
When you make comedy you’re not that kind of painter. You’re like a painter down at the promenade painting portraits to people. So, “Oh, you want more blue in your eyes? I’m going to put more blue in your eyes.” (Laughter) “You want to be taller? Okay, you’re taller.” I’m one of those guys. So when you make comedy, you make it for the people and you try to have as many screenings and as many tests and you do focus groups and you read the cards and you try to give the people what they want in this comedy, man.
Tavis: To your point, Chris, of testings and screenings, and obviously you’ve got a pretty good sense of this, given the success that you’ve had, but how do you know that what you see on paper that you think is funny is, in fact, going to translate?
Rock: How do you know? Well, A, you hire funny people, and B, I always try to – me, when I’m acting on a set I’m trying to make the crew laugh, because the crew lives normal lives. The cameraman didn’t see the original. The cameraman -
Tavis: So you’re saying these guys are normal here?
Rock: Yeah, these guys are – (laughter) they’re as close to the general audience as you’re going to get.
Rock: So if you crack up the crew, you’re doing good. You will probably crack up the bus driver and the post man and the Fed-Ex guy.
Tavis: The same strategy works when you’re working on your standup material?
Rock: Yeah. When you’re working on standup you’ve always got to go to the people, so I remember the last tour, I remember I went to Atlanta, I just hung out in Atlanta for a few weeks and just went to the little, Blackest club. (Laughter)
Tavis: The little Blackest club. Is that the official name of it?
Rock: I forget the name of it. (Laughter)
Tavis: “The Little Blackest Club.”
Rock: They should have called it Harpo’s. (Laughter) It was leaking, it was leaking, they had a jukebox, they sold fish there. I went to the comedy club, they sold fish. Fish and a jukebox.
Tavis: Speaking of fish, I read the book your mama wrote.
Rock: Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
Tavis: Was it last year? I guess last year or so.
Rock: Yes, yes, yes.
Tavis: She talked about how she used to, when you first moved she used to send you food.
Rock: Yeah, I would, like, have her Fed-Ex me a chicken.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Rock: It’s like chicken supplies coming in. (Laughter)
Tavis: And that got you through?
Rock: Oh, yeah, that definitely got me through – chicken and biscuits and boiled peanuts. Like, real country stuff. (Laughter)
Tavis: Every time I see you after all these years, and every time we talk, I am still fascinated by and I haven’t figured out yet how it is that by your mother’s own admission you were so quiet and so shy and now you’re, like, Mr. In-Your-Face. How did that transition happen?
Rock: How does that happen? I don’t know. I was quiet, I was – and I’m still quiet and shy. Then I cut it off and then the lights come on and it’s show time. Hey, I’m on the Black “Charlie Rose Show” tonight. (Laughter) How you doing?
They should just call your show “The Black Charlie Rose Show.” Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the Black Charlie Rose, Tavis Smiley.
Tavis: Somehow I think Charlie would want a cut of that, knowing Charlie as I do. (Laughter) He’d want a piece of that and I ain’t got a big enough piece to share with Charlie.
I had your wife on our radio show last week, and she’s doing some pretty serious philanthropy work.
Rock: Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
Tavis: How do y’all balance this? You’re over here cracking jokes and she’s saving the world, and it works.
Rock: Well, you just try to like you go do your thing and I’ll – I guess I’m taking some kids to school this morning. (Laughter) You just try to balance it as best you can, because happy wife, happy life. (Laughter)
Tavis: Is that how that works?
Rock: Hey, man, if she wants to be a philanthropist, you’ve got to support that. If she want to fight dogs, then I’m in there with the meat, like, “Okay.” (Laughter)
Tavis: So there are a few things in the news I want to try to get your take on. You mentioned, since you went there – you’ve got me sweating up here, man, making me laugh so hard.
Rock: Oh, man, Charlie Rose don’t sweat, man.
Tavis: Yeah, I know, exactly. But I find you funny and Charlie should as well.
You mentioned Harpo a moment ago, just kind of parenthetically. So what do you make of this tell-all book that’s out about your friend, Ms. Winfrey?
Rock: I don’t know, man. Hey, is it out?
Tavis: Yeah, I think it’s dropping now.
Rock: I don’t pay any attention to any of that stuff. You’re the richest woman in the world, so that’s going to happen from time to time. You don’t get to live in a big house for free. (Laughter) It’s just what it is. I try to tell my wife that all the time – people are going to say things.
Tavis: How do you navigate that?
Rock: We’re not going to live without people saying things.
Tavis: How do you personally navigate it? Is it really that easy for you, that simple? You crack a joke and keep moving?
Rock: I just keep moving, because – and here’s the thing with me. I don’t take the adulation that serious, because if I put – if “The New York Times” says, “Oh, he’s a genius,” and I just run around going, “I’m a genius, ‘The New York Times’ says I’m a genius,” then if they say I’m an idiot I’ve got to say that too. (Laughter) That has to be important to me too.
So I find that if I don’t pay attention to any of it, then I can ignore the bad stuff. That’s me. A lot of people take criticism more to heart. I just worry about my fans, that’s it. That’s the only people I’m worried about.
Tavis: When you say worry about your fans, you mean by that what?
Rock: I’m just concerned with what my fans feel, like how they feel about the movie, how do they feel about me as a person, the people that are into me, not the people that aren’t into me.
I don’t listen to country music, so I am not qualified to say the Travis Tritt album is not good. So I think only people that are your fans can be your critics, you know what I mean?
I could maybe say a Prince album I don’t like, which there are none, but you know what I mean? Because I listen to Prince. So yeah, I’m fine.
Tavis: This does raise a serious question, though, about how you – because I think it’s easier said than done, that is to say, how you not take the adulation, the adoration too seriously, because you know you are in a business where people let this stuff go to their heads all the time and they become – nobody wants to be around them after a while.
Rock: You know what, man, first of all, I’m lucky to be a comedian. So when I do something good, the audience lets me know immediately. They laugh. That’s it. When people try to read between the lines – critics, they have a job. Their job is to make something bigger than it is.
You’re in news. Most stories can be really told within three lines, you know what I mean? (Laughter) But somebody has a job to write a paragraph, and they have to create things.
Tavis: And embellish it.
Rock: And they have to embellish it, and some things are true and some things are not true.
So I got love from my family. I don’t really need love from a paper, you know what I mean? I got love from my kids, I got love from my mother, I got love from my brothers. I got love from my friends and my wife and everybody, so I can’t get too happy because somebody said something nice about me. I appreciate it, but let’s not get it twisted – this is not changing my life, and it’s not going to change my life if you say something bad about me.
My parents used to always say, “If they don’t pay your bills and they can’t whup your ass, what do you care what they think of you?” (Laughter)
Tavis: But what if they can do the latter?
Rock: Well, then you have to – then you should worry about their opinions. (Laughter) You should worry about the people that hire you and the people that can whip your ass. (Laughter)
Tavis: Again, I love – this is inside baseball, I admit – but when you have done so many different things and done them reasonably or relatively well, inside the Chris Rock world, how do you navigate what the next step is, the next project is, the next thing we’re going to attempt?
How do you – because obviously you want to – there’s a benchmark. You’ve set a high benchmark, certainly where the standup is concerned, a high benchmark. How do you keep pushing past that line?
Rock: It’s almost like every – it’s like Jay-Z said it best – make your first your last. Everything you do, you have to do it like it’s the last thing you’re ever going to do, to get maximum effort out of it. But it also goes when you start something, it’s almost like it has to be a calling, again.
We’re all like preachers. I was called into standup, I was called into comedy, and the next project has to be something that just calls me. I’m a decent businessman but I just really have to be emotionally attached to something. I don’t even know what the next thing is. It could be a documentary, it could go on tour. It’ll probably be another movie, because I don’t want to leave my kids for a long period of time.
Tavis: How did you know – this is important to go back and pick up, I think – how did you know when you were called, and I ask that because whether as a comedian or a school teacher or whatever the calling may be, there are a lot of folk, I think especially in today’s environment, trying to figure out what that calling is, what that vocation is, what that purpose is.
For you it’s comedy, but how did you know that was the calling that you were hearing?
Rock: You know what, I had always been – everybody kind of likes comedy. I was very interested in comedy, beyond just liking it. I had friends that took apart radios; I wanted to take apart jokes. I’d be watching Rodney Dangerfield or Richard and I would really just curious on a whole nother level.
When I finally did standup for the first time and was at a standup club and hung around stand-ups, I realized this is what I should be doing. This is where I should be.
The thing about standup comedians, most people are friends with their friends because of their attributes. Standup comedians are attracted to one another because of their faults. So we’re all kind of messed up in the same way, and once I was around a group of people that saw the world in a different way, it’s like this is where I need to be.
Tavis: When you first came out, you killed or you tanked?
Rock: It’s weird. When I first came out I killed for about two weeks. Like, I thought I was – it was like I literally killed my first two weeks on stage. Then I got a little too cocky and it probably took me two and a half years to get another laugh. (Laughter) Like, really.
Tavis: So to your point now, you come out the first two weeks, like I’ve been called to do this. You come out and for two weeks you kill, so you know you heard the right calling. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. Then for two and a half years you try to get it back. (Laughter) How do you navigate that period?
Rock: It happens in sports all the time. A guy tears up the league his first time around, then people can see that joke coming. (Laughter) You haven’t been doing it long enough to hide the thing you’re doing that’s tipping off the joke, so it takes a learning period.
And I say two years later I started getting laughs, and probably 12 years later I started making money, you know what I mean? (Laughter) So it’s going to take a while.
Tavis: I was so glad to not be on the road last weekend, so I was home, I wasn’t traveling, and I was flipping channels and stopped at one channel that was running this Richard Pryor, the old Richard Pryor TV show, like a marathon.
And I knew you and I were going to talk this week, and I wondered what it was or what it is that you watch in terms of old comedic material, because I sat there, like, all weekend, as much as I could, checking out this Richard Pryor telethon.
I’ve seen all of his standup; I hadn’t seen that many episodes of the old Richard Pryor TV show. So when you go back into the archives – because you’re not just a comedian, you are a student of comedy.
Rock: Well, you’ve got to be a student to last. See what people did right, see what people did wrong. Me personally, I watched some Richard, a lot of Richard, a lot of Carlin, a lot of Rodney Dangerfield, Monty Python, Steve Allen, especially like talk show stuff, because Steve Allen is, like, hysterical.
I try to mix it up. I find a lot of young, Black comics, they only watch Black comedians. I’m like, man, you’ve got to embrace all of this. You’re a comedian; you’re not just a Black comedian. You’re a comedian. I try to get that through to everybody.
And the women, watch the men, and the men, watch the women. You’ve got to watch everybody, so I try to watch as much stuff as possible.
Tavis: So you watch everything and you take a little bit from everybody in terms of what you glean from it. But is it true that making an audience laugh at the Apollo is different than making the Shriners laugh at their annual convention?
Rock: Is it different? Once you get to a point – it depends on where you are in your career, too. I’m sure James Brown at one point was much better in front of Black people than White people.
Tavis: That’s fair.
Rock: But then he got to this other point in his career -
Tavis: Where he was James Brown.
Rock: – where it did not matter. He could be in Poland and they’d be up, (laughter) get up-uh, get on up-uh, you know what I mean? I’ve seen Prince at the staunchiest private – somebody paid him a million dollars to play somebody’s birthday party.
It don’t matter where Prince play. It really doesn’t matter anymore. So yeah, it could be different for some people on some levels, but right now, you’re on PBS, you’re on BET, it don’t matter anymore, does it?
Tavis: Point well taken.
Rock: Right? (Laughter) There was a point that it did.
Rock: But now -
Tavis: Point well taken, Mr. Rock.
Rock: – you can sit here with Chris Rock or Netanyahu (laughter) and it’s like you know what you’re doing. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tavis: Thank you, Chris.
Rock: The Black Charlie Rose. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Before my two minutes -
Rock: I can handle anybody.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Except you.
Rock: Ahmadinejad, come on down. (Laughter) I am a confessional host.
Tavis: I’m sweating here. Yeah. Before I let you get out of here in these next two minutes -
Rock: You will not pigeonhole me.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Rock: Have me talking to Frankie Beverly every night. (Laughter) That’s not going down.
Tavis: All right, in the minute and 45 seconds I have left here, what’d you make of Tiger’s comeback at the Master’s. Not bad for a first outing, huh?
Rock: Not bad for a first outing. He hasn’t been – he had a little break there. (Laughter) Hey, man. You know what old cats always tell me? “Just come home.” That’s it, “Just come home.” “What advice you got?” “Just come home.” Whenever I’m done with something, I just come home. I did “David Letterman” the other day.
Tavis: I saw that.
Rock: I kissed my wife, “Honey, I’m going to do ‘David Letterman.’” I was back so fast you would have thought I got a pizza or something. (Laughter) I’m just trying to stay out of trouble. You would have thought I went to get a pizza.
Tavis: Okay. (Laughter)
Rock: So Tiger, just come home, and don’t say never again. Just say, “I’m going to try my best.” (Laughter) Say, “I’m going to try my best,” because you never know when Alicia Keyes might give you that look. What you going to do? You’re powerless. Alicia Keys have on that – you know, them tight jeans, boy, what you going to do? Be like, “This is worth getting hit with another golf club for.” (Laughter) I’ll take a golf hit for Alicia Keyes. You can mess up three cars.
Tavis: I am sweating so hard I’m about to completely embarrass myself. Back that camera up (unintelligible) so they can’t see all this. Anyway, that’s what happens when Chris Rock -
Rock: You got that Marion Barry sweat going on. (Laughter)
Tavis: Marion Barry, Eddie Levert, that’s what happens when Chris Rock comes on this set, I just completely lose it, and that’s why I’m kicking him out of here right now.
The movie is called “Death at a Funeral,” starring Chris Rock and his friends, Tracy Morgan and Luke Wilson and Martin Lawrence.
Rock: Martin Lawrence, yeah.
Tavis: Chris, good to have you back.
Rock: Oh, always good.
Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm