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Chris Rock returns to his roots

Chris Rock is a writer and an actor, but his heart lies in stand-up and that electric connection with a live audience.
Comedian Chris RockWin Mcnamee / Reuters file
/ Source: Dateline NBC

Entertainment Weekly just named him "the funniest man in America" and he has three Emmys and two Grammys to back that up. Chances are you saw Chris Rock for the first time when he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live 14 years ago. But that's not what made him a star. Chris Rock made Chris Rock a star, with a blend of charm, anger and brilliant comedy that cuts across the racial divide. He's a writer and an actor, but his heart lies in stand-up and that electric connection with a live audience.

Chris Rock: “The most valuable thing an artist can have is your reputation as a-- as a live performer.  That's it… You know, you come to see Chris Rock, I'm bringing it. “

Whether it's the Apollo Theater in Harlem or Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall, Chris Rock can bring it -- and bring down the house -- no matter who's in the audience. 

Rock: “You know, politically, things can change from city to city. When it comes to sex or relationships, men and women are the same all over the world. You know, you complain about your wife in Bangladesh. There's a guy laughing, you know. If bin Laden was here right now, it's like, ‘Oh, yeah, my eight wives are killing me too.'"

Living the married life
At age 39, Rock can riff on husbands and wives from personal experience. He and his wife, Malaak, have been married eight years.       

Rock: “Marriage is beautiful. But if you think you're going to hold onto your individual self, you're an idiot.”

Stone Phillips: “If you're a guy.”

Rock: “If you're a guy, that part of you is dead. Get rid of you. Take yourself to the door and wave.  Hey, see you later. It sounds horrible. I'm happier than I've ever been now that I've shot myself in the head. You don't walk around the house like you're Stone Phillips. You're her husband. That's it. That's it.”

Phillips: “I know that. I guess the sooner we realize that, the better off we are.”

Rock: “I'm Malaak's husband. I'm like, you know, when I get on stage, hey, Chris Rock.  But you get home, man…”

Phillips: “Do you run material by Malaak?”

Rock: “No. I don't run it by her. I mean, I only trust comedians, essentially.  I don't really deal with civilians when I'm like, telling jokes.  Would you run a story by your wife, really?”

Phillips: “Well, I might bounce something off of her, kind of see what she thought about something.”

Rock: “Yeah. But if she didn't like it, you'd be like, yeah, big deal. Let me call Ted Koppel." I want to know if it's funny, I call Adam Sandler.”

Childhood pain leads to adult comedy
The oldest of eight children, Chris was born in South Carolina, but grew up in Brooklyn. Home was Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Rock: “Bed-Stuy, do or die.”

Phillips: “Tough neighborhood.”

Rock: “Yeah, pretty tough. Nice block, but a tough neighborhood.”

Phillips: “Did you manage to stay out of trouble?”

Rock: “I was lucky enough to have two parents. And you know, that kept me out of trouble. A man in the house really goes a long way. And that is the sole reason that I'm here before you.”

Like so many comedians, he's found humor in those hard times. Like this joke about the Rock family elixir: cough medicine. But there was no medicine for the meanness Chris says he experienced as a young boy, when he was bused out of the neighborhood to a predominantly white school.

Rock: “When I was bused to white school, I basically became a hermit. I basically, like it killed a part of me. I retreated into myself. And I mean, it helped me become a comedian because a) it helped me live in my own head.  And you know, b) you can tell by the experiences, I've seen the worst of people, at a young age.”

Phillips: “What kind of things did you experience?”

Rock: “You know, Being a small boy, being a skinny kid is going to get you beat up anyway. You know? You're just -- even if I was white, I would have probably gotten my ass kicked every day. But being black, and being one of the only black boys in my grade, you're really a pioneer. So, you're dealing with, n*****, this, n*****, that. It was very painful.  I mean, I'm not going to dwell on it now. I think I won. You know?”

Even as Chris learned hard lessons about life, he was teaching himself valuable lessons about comedy, reading books on humor and listening to the men who became comedic gods to him: Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Rodney Dangerfield, and Bill Cosby. He also watched television sitcoms, but wasn't amused.

Rock: “As I look back, I was a snob as a kid, comedically. Like, my whole family would watch ‘The Love Boat’ and ‘Three's Company’ and think it was funny. I go, ‘This stuff sucks. This is horrible.’ And I'd be naming the jokes as they come. I was, you know, whatever, nine years old, and I could tell you everything that was going to happen on that show before it happened.”

Phillips: “See around the corner?”

Rock: “I could-- yeah, so I had a, a knowledge of humor at a young age.”

Phillips: “Did you know that you were funny, early on?”

Rock: “I would notice every now and then that people would laugh really hard, and I'd be serious about something.”

STONE “Was that a little disconcerting?”

Rock: “It was very disconcerting.”

But it was also an indication that there might be a future in comedy, making people laugh at things that, on the surface, aren't funny at all.

Rock: “To talk about stuff that's already funny, you're just being a reporter.”

Phillips: “Hey.”

Rock: “Not that there's anything wrong with being a reporter. Some of my favorite people are reporters.”

A little dig, followed by that infectious grin. It's vintage Rock. He got you, but it's nothing personal.

Chris was a teenager in the early eighties when he started showing up at Manhattan's comedy clubs, standing in line for the chance to perform on open-mike nights. We interviewed him at The Comic Strip, a club that's still very special to him. Chris logged a lot of hours here, not all of them at the mike. He wasn't ready for prime time, so he hung around until his time came.

Rock: “I remember I used to stack chairs in here. And you know, it was like one of those things where, hey guys, I'm not going. It's like, I failed the audition, but I'm not going anywhere. And I got to go on, like, you know, 1:30, two o'clock in the morning.”

Phillips: “Was anybody in the room or was it empty?”

Rock: “No, there's always a few drunk people that late. But if you can get people to laugh at 1:30 in the morning that are drunk you're really saying something. If you can cut through all that crap, this guy over here's trying to get laid from this girl.”

Phillips: “And if he's paying any attention to you at all?”

Rock: “Right, it's like what's going on here?”

But whatever was happening off-stage didn't matter, as long as Chris was on stage.

Rock: “I was more cocky then, than I am now. I had way more confidence back then, than I do now.”

Phillips: “So, it's been a gradual erosion?”

Rock: “Yeah. I had to actually learn how to be a human being. You know, as a 19-year-old comedian, I thought I was hot stuff.”

Phillips: “Your hair has changed a little bit from—“

Rock: “My hair-- yeah, my hair-- yeah, I used to have a big, you know, curls were in though, back then. And there was anchormen with curls back then. The Gumbel brothers definitely had something -- had a sheen to their hair. Yeah, see?”

Phillips: “Well, you notice those things.”

Rock: “You know, it wasn't a lot of brothers on TV back then…”

Making a name in comedy
"Who's this guy? He's good," was pretty much Eddie Murphy's reaction when he discovered Chris at The Comic Strip 20 years ago. It led to a bit part in "Beverly Hills Cop, Two,” a friendship, and the first big step in Chris's rise up the ranks.

Though he's added numerous movie and TV credits to his resume, what he loves most is a singular pursuit, one-man, one mike.

Phillips: “You work blue, as they used to say. I mean, there is a bit of adult language in your act.”

Rock: “There is adult language.”

Phillips: “Would it be as funny, without the profanity?”

Rock: “Yeah. I think so. I mean, I've been on TV.”

Phillips: “So, what does the profanity add?”

Rock: “My cursing is my punctuation.”

Everything in Chris's act has a purpose, every word, every pause, every gesture. To him, stand-up is an exact and exacting science.

Phillips: “Are you hard on yourself?”

Rock: “Oh, horrible on myself. I see all the mistakes. I see all the cracks.”

Phillips: “The timing's off on this one or...”

Rock: “You're listening for timing, you're listening for the wording of the joke. Can I say that in less syllables? Did I need to curse on that one?”

By the time Dateline joined Chris in Washington D.C., his new act had been honed. After five months on tour, he was pointed toward this last stop and the taping of his upcoming HBO special.

Phillips: “Are you ready for Constitution Hall?”

Rock: ”I think I'm ready for Constitution Hall. Yeah, totally ready.”

Phillips: “Is Constitution Hall ready for you?”

Rock: “Yeah.”

This hall was once the site of a blatant racial snub. In 1939, the great singer Marion Anderson wasn't allowed to perform here because she was black. Tonight, Chris Rock will play to a packed house. He's not looking to make history, he just wants to make us laugh and maybe make us think.

Phillips: “Can you get better at this?”

Rock: “I definitely can get better, because I'm not the best. You know?”

Rock: “Cosby, Pryor, Carlin -- the big three. Whoa. Yeah, I'm not there yet. I got a long way to go.”

Life will soon get richer for a man who mines so much of his material from family life: Chris Rock and his wife are expecting their second child next month. Chris Rock's new comedy special, "Never Scared,” airs April 17 on HBO.