Thursday, April 15, 2004

Imagine the weight on Chris Rock’s wispy shoulders every time he steps on stage.

Entertainment Weekly declared the 39-year-old firebrand America’s funniest man only a few weeks ago, and Time magazine bestowed a similar mantle upon him not too far back.

Perhaps Mr. Rock dubbed his current stand-up tour “Never Scared” to signal he’s taking the pressure in stride.

Or maybe, instead, there’s little left to frighten him after all the negative reviews his middling film work has drawn in recent years.

For those who missed Mr. Rock’s triple shot at DAR Constitution Hall last month, HBO is broadcasting the best of those three nights as part of “Chris Rock: Never Scared,” airing at 10 tomorrow night. Preceding the stand-up special will be the cable network’s premiere of “Head of State,” the satirical 2003 film Mr. Rock co-wrote, directed and starred in as a black presidential candidate.



Watch it, and see why the comic is wise to get back to his stand-up roots, and fast.

Suffice to say Mr. Rock wobbles but remains standing under the weight of those oh-so heavy expectations during the District leg of his tour.

It’s been more than five years since Mr. Rock last worked the stage. He’s become a father in the meantime, and marriage and its responsibilities are very much on his mind.

Raising a little girl, he said in that trademark bark, boils down to a single duty.

“My only job in life is to keep her off the stripper pole,” he says.

That voice — an amalgam of rage, anger and mischief — is the perfect vehicle to deliver his oft-incendiary lines.

At times it’s hard to believe that the scrawny young comic wasting his gifts on “Saturday Night Live” during the early ‘90s would become the standard-bearer for American humor. Mr. Rock managed a few bulls-eyes during his inconsistent “SNL” run but seemed destined to follow in the ignoble footsteps of Kazurinsky, Piscopo and Sweeney.

Instead, he retreated to the stage, channeled his dormant intellect and caught us all napping. Past HBO specials such as “Bring the Pain” and “Bigger and Blacker” cemented his status as the country’s premier stand-up, even though Jerry Seinfeld was still walking the beat.

Mr. Rock circa 2004 seems bent on making up for lost time and easy targets missed.

Regarding Michael Jackson: “We love Michael Jackson so much we let the first kid slide,” or, “He don’t even wear a proper suit to court — he comes in looking like Cap’n Crunch.”

On magician David Blaine: “He says he’s gonna get in a box and not leave — that’s no trick. That’s called living in the projects. I did that for 15 years.”

Mr. Rock may hold sway over us simply because he fearlessly tackles racial matters with an honesty others can’t touch. It helps that he’s black, which gives him the license to critique black and white with equal fervor.

His current stance on rap music is only B-level Rock. Today’s rappers may degrade women, he says, but as long as they have a “phat” sound, the women don’t care. “If the beat’s all right, she’ll dance all night,” he said.

He uses rap music as a segue into more substantial fare.

“The government hates rappers,” he cries, pointing to too many unsolved rapper deaths, like those of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.

“If you wanna get away with murder, kill someone and put a demo tape in his pocket,” he says.

Turning his sights on the U.S. of A., his critiques are as uneven as the nation’s foreign policy through the years. He lets fly a smart barb — “America’s the only country in the world where the people go hunting on a full stomach” — only to follow with a puzzling bit about the differences between being “rich” and “wealthy.”

“Shaq is rich. The white man who signs his checks is wealthy,” he says without sufficient elaboration, beginning the weakest portion of his performance.

Early in his monologue he blasted both liberals and conservatives for forming opinions before the facts come in. But his political rants too often skew predictably liberal and lack the incisive bite of his best commentary.

Even at three-quarters strength, however, Mr. Rock-the-stand-up comic’s fearless assault on social taboos sets him far apart from Mr. Rock-the-actor. He earned his elevation from stand-up comic to leading man, but after a string of forgettable features it’s time to admit film may not be his forte.

There’s little shame in accepting that the role of a lifetime is standing in front of large crowds with only a microphone and your considerable wit for protection.

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