The Bling of Comedy

In one of the backstage hospitality rooms of the Theater at Madison Square Garden, Chris Rock sat on an ass-battered couch, arms folded tightly, and talked about the ambition in his “Black Ambition” tour.

“I want to have it so tight that it works in front of every audience: rich, poor, a strip club and the Senate. Literally like that,” he said. “If only smart people like your shit, it ain’t that smart.” He let out a laugh, a heh-heh-heh that was a cross between Eddie Murphy and Phyllis Diller. Heh-heh-heh .

“The greatest artists of our time were pop. Beethoven was pop !” Mr. Rock said, putting an emphasis on that last word as if he were participating in a poetry slam. “Beethoven was the fucking Justin Timberlake of his time. You know what I mean? Louis Armstrong, that shit was pop ! It wasn’t like just some cool-shit jazz people that listened to it. That shit was pop . Picasso was pop. Motherfuckers are eating burgers and going, ‘that Picasso shit is good.’

“So, that’s what you strive for,” he said.

If you were one of the more than 30,000 people who had the good fortune to see Mr. Rock during his six nights in the city-five at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, one at the Apollo Theater on Feb. 3-then you know that he, too, is pop, no small feat in the dying, fractionalized art of stand-up comedy. And not just pop, but maybe in the big Pantheon of American comedy.

For proof, all you needed to do was turn around in your seat on Feb. 2 and watch a melting pot of an audience-white, black, brown, Long Island mook, Manhattan snob and outer-borough homeboy-clutching their sides and letting out great big purgative howls of laughter as Mr. Rock’s nimble reindeer body leaped around the stage as he sweated, spritzing strangely reassuring controversy, clutching a cordless mike. He was the opposite of some of the old comedians who had reassuring surfaces and unsettling innards; Chris Rock blasted the air with street talk, orifice-probing language and invasive sounds, but seemed full of inner decency and secure values.

“Krispy Kremes,” he said gleefully, should have a new slogan: “So good, you’ll suck a dick.”

There were hints of the Pantheon in the montage of comedian’s photos that opened Mr. Rock’s show: Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx and Buckwheat were interspersed with Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce, Alan King, Woody Allen and Joan Rivers. They were white and black, Jews and gentiles, comedians who worked blue and comedians who worked black and blue and comedians who worked black and clean, but all at one point or another had gone pop. Chris Rock was playing Live at the Pantheon, but he was pop.

But most of all, the proof of his popness was in the comedy. Mr. Rock’s show was a clear-eyed deconstruction of American life right now-domestic life to foreign policy to celebrity culture-through the eyes of a bucking, braying, restless husband and new father. (Mr. Rock and his wife, Malaak, are the parents of a 2-year-old girl, Lola.)

Though he states that “the whole world’s gone crazy” and deflates the phony patriots who crush the complications of American life, “I’m a person,” says Mr. Rock. “I’ve got some shit I’m conservative about, I got some shit I’m liberal about. Crime, I’m conservative. Prostitution, I’m liberal.” Mr. Rock still concludes in his show that we live in “the best country in the world.”

On Feb. 2, Mr. Rock began his set with some observations about Janet Jackson’s breast-baring performance during the Super Bowl half time. “Ain’t that some sad shit?” he said. “Do you remember when she was so fine just a glance would do it? Now she got to whip out her 40-year-old titty on TV.” The crowd wheezed with laughter as Mr. Rock declared that this juggernaut of declining values had to be stopped “because someone gonna pull out a dick next. That’s right, when a nigga whips out a dick the game’s over,” he said. “Super Bowl’s over. Nelly whipped out his dick. That’s enough. That’s enough. Go to commercial.”

A lot of Mr. Rock’s show is dedicated to the U.S. as he knows it in 2004. Saying that he loves rap but has grown tired of defending it, Mr. Rock said that “even the United States government hates rap. You know why I say that? Because they won’t arrest anybody that kills rappers.” After contending that more people saw Tupac Shakur’s killing-which took place on the Las Vegas Strip after a Mike Tyson fight-“than the last episode of Seinfeld ,” he said: “You mean to tell me they can find Saddam Hussein in a fucking hole, but you can’t tell me who shot Tupac?”

As for Governor Schwarzenegger, “What kind of retarded shit is that?” Mr. Rock wanted to know, “Arnold Schwarzenegger can’t even play a smart guy in a movie.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Rock said he wanted to “smack the shit” out of Michael Jackson, Janet’s brother.

“What the fuck is with that family, man?” he demanded. “Janet’s whipping out her titty. This clown’s charged with child molestation. Again! You thought it was Groundhog’s Day when you heard that shit, right?” he said, on Groundhog Day. Mr. Rock then went on a riff about Mr. Jackson’s appearance on 60 Minute s. “Ed Bradley tried his best to make Michael look like a mammal. He just tried to make him seem like he drank water like everybody, and he couldn’t do it.” Mr. Jackson, he continued, had shown up in court “looking like Captain Crunch.”

“It might be a nice, celebrity-packed jail this year,” Mr. Rock said, invoking the names of Kobe Bryant, Mr. Jackson and Jayson Williams.” This provoked an “oooooh” from the audience. “Oh, come on,” Mr. Rock replied. “It’s gonna be star-studded. ‘Jailhouse Rock’ is gonna have a helluva beat.”

But then Mr. Rock changed the beat in an interesting direction. “All this celebrity news is just some bullshit to get your mind off the war,” he said. “I think Bush sent that girl to Kobe’s room. To get your mind off the war. He sent the girl to Kobe’s room. He took the little boy to Michael Jackson’s house. Bush killed Laci Peterson. Bush was fucking Paris Hilton. All of this shit is to get your mind off the war.”

The crowd erupted.

Mr. Rock continued. “Bush lied to me, man. He said we got to move on Iraq because they’re the most dangerous regime on earth. If they’re so dangerous, how come it only took two weeks to take over the whole fucking country? You couldn’t take over the Bronx in two weeks. You’d need a month to get the Grand Concourse, man.”

“They’re looking for weapons of mass destruction. They can’t even find a whiffle-ball bat!” he said. And later: “I didn’t go to no fancy school or no shit, but weren’t we after bin Laden. What the fuck happened?

“When I heard we were after Hussein, I was like, really?!” Mr. Rock said. “That’s so 80’s. The whole war feels like a bad VH1 special. Hussein is back. And Bush is back. And Cheney is back. And Paula Abdul is back. Shit, before you know it, it’ll be Hammer time again.”

“The whole country’s got a weird mentality. A really pumped-up gang mentality. Everyone wants to be in a gang,” Mr. Rock said. But the beauty of his comedy and the reason he is pop is that though a tough moral streak runs through his comedy, Mr. Rock remains steadfastly nonpartisan.

“Republicans are fucking idiots and Democrats are fucking idiots and conservatives are fucking idiots and liberals are fucking idiots. Pretty much anyone that makes up their mind before they hear the issues is a fool, O.K.?” he said onstage at Madison Square Garden to healthy applause. “Everybody wants to be in a gang. Why don’t they just fucking make up their own mind.”

Backstage, he was just as steadfast. Asked if he was following the Democratic primaries, Mr. Rock said, “Nah. It’s like college basketball. I wait for the Final Four.” He laughed and went into announcer mode. “Well, the Final Four! North Carolina’s back. Syracuse.” Said Mr. Rock: “It’s always like the same cats.”

When I said he had talked a lot about President Bush, Mr. Rock stopped me. “I’m talking about the President. In my last special, I talked about Clinton. I haven’t picked a side. I’m still where I’ve always been. It’s my job to talk about the President, no matter who he is,” he said. And a little later, worried that he’d be perceived as being co-opted, he said what generations of comics have said, “You want me to take a political stance. That’s career suicide.”

“I’m 38,” he said. “My whole life, no matter who’s been president, Harlem’s been Harlem. Fucking Bed-Stuy”-that would be the Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn where Mr. Rock grew up-“is still Bed-Stuy.”

Well, did Mr. Rock think that Republicans or Democrats were better at creating the kind of distractions to which he was referring earlier? “People like distraction,” he said with a smile that suggested he was not going to be fooled into committing career suicide. “Nobody likes to sit down and write a novel. You can’t wait for something to distract you.” He laughed. “Nobody wants to do work. Hard work ahead of you? Look, a bunny rabbit!

“I’m just saying the world’s addicted to distraction,” Mr. Rock said. “It’s the oldest drug in the book, distraction. We know what has to be done. We know how to do it. But it never gets done because we’re addicted to distraction.”

But Mr. Rock has clearly not given up on good old American democracy. During his show, he says something that seems shocking at first-then he explains himself. “I love to see the flag burn, because it lets me know I’m in the right spot,” he says. “People only hate the winners. People the hate the Yankees. People the hate the Cowboys. People hate the Lakers.”

In other words, Mr. Rock like, like the other big comedians in the Pantheon-Redd Foxx, Bill Cosby, Lenny Bruce and Will Rogers-likes being in the free speech vortex of the world. “Come to my show, laugh,” he said. “I kind of write a show the way I write it because I don’t really take any laughs for granted. My whole philosophy is even if you don’t think it’s funny, hopefully you think it’s interesting.

“It’s jokes, man,” he said after the show. “It’s jokes.

“Look at Bill Cosby. Look at Dick Gregory. As far as who’s the bigger activist, who’s got more stuff done.” Mr. Rock cupped his hands around his mouth and whispered, ” Bill Cosby .” Then he said, “That’s how you do it. Do I want to march down 125th Street or do I want to put myself in a position to give Tuskegee [University] $40 million? That’s where it’s at. That’s the real gangster shit. That’s the real activism.”

About half of Mr Rock’s show is built upon a different kind activism, the kind he said that resulted when he became a father.

“After the 9/11, I gave up the ‘Keeping It Real’ part of my life. The whole artist lives in Brooklyn thing,” he said backstage. “It was weird. I just realized that I was in a stalling pattern in my life. I was in Los Angeles when it happened. My wife was in New York.”

That day, Mr. Rock said he thought, “Maybe I should have a kid. I should move.”

Though Mr. Rock said he keeps an office and a home here in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn, he calls Alpine, N.J.-just down the block from Eddie Murphy, another photo in the opening montage-home. “I lived in a house I bought,” Mr. Rock said. “Now we live in our house. It’s our house. And it’s the baby’s house. There’s something liberating about that.”

Mr. Rock talks in the act about the perils of raising a daughter. “I realized that I’m the man in her life. And her relationship with men is going to be based on my relationship with her. If I fuck up, you know”-the crowd applauded here-“every guy in here knows some girl with daddy problems.”

Mr. Rock said that he had come to realize “that my only job in life is to keep her off the pole.” By this he meant the pole that strippers use in their dance routines. “If your daughter’s a stripper, you fucked up,” he said. Not that he had anything against strippers. “But I do have a problem with the stripper myth,” Mr. Rock said. “The stripper myth is, ‘I’m stripping to pay my tuition. No you’re not! If there’s all these strippers in college, then how come I never got a smart lap dance. I’ve never had a girl sit on my lap and say, ‘If I was you, I’d diversify my portfolio. Ever since the end of the Cold War, I found NATO obsolete.'”

Backstage, Mr. Rock said that the birth of his daughter had indeed changed his way of thinking. “I don’t know, it’s made me look at the universe, I guess,” he said. “I have so much in common with so many people now – with most of the world – where I didn’t before. I can literally have a conversation with any parent in the world.” He let out a signature chuckle. “It’s a beautiful thing. You sit here in your little celebrity body and you can’t relate to a lot of people and then you have this kid, and it’s like, please. I can talk to anybody. It’s great.”

Given some of the subject matter of his show, was Mr. Rock worried about his child’s future? “No, no,” he said and then riffed on the one area where he does take a side: “The future of black people is always better, let’s just say,” he said. “The future is bad for white people. It’s never going to get better than having a whole race of people that fucking did whatever you said. It’s only downhill from there. I mean it in a practical sense. Do you know how much easier your life would be today if you had-look at the slaves-an unpaid assistant? How much easier would your life be. And we’re not even talking to assist. Slaves actually did the work. I have an assistant. She doesn’t write jokes. Slaves actually did the work.” He loosed another guttural chuckle. “So, it’s always going to be downhill if you’re white.”

Fatherhood, Mr. Rock said, has paid other dividends. “The kid got me more into my marriage, I guess,” he said. “I thought I was married before, but I was kind of show business married-like hey, whatever happens, happens. Now I’m like in it. There’s an acceptance of marriage. I know people that get married and somewhere in the marriage, they get committed. So I’m like really committed to my marriage now.”

In his show, Mr. Rock offers less sentimental perspective of marriage and fatherhood. “Men! You marry, have kids. You live to be about 38,” he said on stage. “Don’t get me wrong, guys. You’ll breathe another 40 years, but the living is over. You’re a fucking dead man…Your life’s fucking over. Ain’t no new shit happening to you. You want to see new, look at your kids.” People in the crowd were gurgling. “You don’t think you’re dead, look at your parents. Mom, alive. Dad, dead.

“Whatever job a man got at 35 and he’s married with kids, he gonna have that job for the rest of his fucking life! Don’t try to tell your wife you’re going to find your spirit.” Mr. Rock imitated the man: “‘Honey, I’m not happy. I’m not fulfilled. I need to find my spirit.'” Then the woman: “‘You better take your ass back to work. And find some overtime.'”

The Black Ambition tour ends in March, though HBO will record a Washington, D.C. performance to be telecast on the network sometime in the spring. In the meantime, Mr. Rock said that he has no movie roles lined up. “I mean I’ve read stuff, but everything sucks,” he said. “That’s the best thing about touring: You make enough money to turn down bad movies.”

Mr. Rock said he’ll continue to do stand-up “as long as I can do it strong.” though he recognizes that the art-form is dying.

“It’s going to be like jazz man,” he said. “It’s going to die in our lifetime.” There were only a few people, among whom he counted himself and Jerry Seinfeld (“He’s the funniest he’s ever been in his career” ) who could both love performing and could fill venues with 1,000 or more seats. “You’re going to see people covering jokes. It’s like jazz and reggae,” he said. “It’s dead.”

The culprit, he said is television. “In the old days, you really had to wait ten years to get a shot on The Tonight Show or whatever. That’s the only place they’re doing comedy. And now there’s 300 channels. And there’s probably about four just comedy channels.” Not only that, but he added: “Everybody thinks they need a comedian now. So the NFL’s got a comedian on. I’ve been offered sportscasting gigs. Everybody on the news: OK we need a funny weatherman. So, nobody develops.

“The hard part is not really coming up here,” he said. “It’s leaving your nice house, your wife, your baby, food, you got your perfect couch, your cable. You got to leave your house at night 10 o’clock, something like that, to go to a smoky club and hang out with comedians that just started. You literally got to go back to high school.” It was like, he said, Mr. Schwarzenegger having to go back and win the Mr. Olympia title every time he wanted a new acting role.

But, he said, “I actually like smoky clubs” and “seeing how my act stacks up against the kids. I want to be better than the kids.” It was odd hearing Mr. Rock say this. In person, he still looks boyish, trim and taut-skinned. But he’s gone through the same transition Eddie Murphy did, from Puck-like stand-up to man. “A lot of guys aren’t better than the kids,” he continued. “They’ve become like banquet comedians. They do charity events. Their stuff only works in front of audiences of industry people or people that paid to see you.”

But Chris Rock was no banquet comedian. He was a man who had disciplined his distractions; a comedian who’d gone pop. “Right now,” he said, “I could walk into any club in the country and I don’t care who’s headlining and I’m gonna kill.”

Chris Rock was backstage at Madison Square Garden. He was sweaty, skinny and happy. Heh-heh-heh .