Chris Rock: ‘We’re not as funny as we used to be. It’s not as important as it used to be’
In ‘Top Five’, his new film, the comedian plays a stand-up comic trying to cut it as a ‘serious’ actor – but he’s not giving up on comedy’s artistic merits yet
Straight face: “How can we be the elder statesmen?” says Chris Rock. “I’m not an elder anything. I’m not ready for that. It’s a little scary.” Photograph: Vivien Killilea/PSIFF/Getty
Leading man: Chris Rock with Gabrielle Union in Top Five. Photograph: IAC/Paramount
Behind the camera: Chris Rock, who has also written and directed Top Five, on set. Photograph: IAC/Paramount
Can Chris Rock really be 50? Can it really be 25 years since he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live? Can two decades have passed since he spat out the infamous words “Niggers always want credit for some shit they’re supposed to do. They’ll brag about stuff a normal man just does. They’ll say something like, ‘Yeah, well, I take care of my kids.’ You’re supposed to, you dumb motherf***er. ‘I ain’t never been to jail.’ What do you want? A cookie? You’re not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherf***er.”
Looking at the comedian-actor-writer-director, you’d never place him anywhere north of 35, a fact he attributes to good luck, having money in the bank, and a cultural shift.
Fifty may not be what it used to be, but in the aftermath of what he calls “a weird time for comedy” – a period that saw the deaths of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers plus mounting allegations against Bill Cosby – Christopher Julius Rock III finds himself among the last men standing.
“It’s weird,” he says. “There’s no buffer any more. In a minute we’re going to be the old people. I talk to [Jerry] Seinfeld about this. How can we be the elder statesmen? I’m not an elder anything. I’m not ready for that. It’s a little scary.”
Seinfeld, Goldberg and Sandler
“We don’t spend a lot of time hanging out, because we’re just so busy,” says Rock of his old chums. “But when we do get to spend time it’s always pretty fun. There’s not a lot of us. And we have this weird job. It’s not like a job that a lot of other people can relate to.”
Top Five takes acknowledged cues from Louie, Curb Your Enthusiasm and one of Rock’s idols, Woody Allen. Its quasiautobiographical dimension looms large: in common with Rock, Andre Allen was once declared the funniest man in the United States, although his biggest box-office returns have come from wearing a bear suit as Hammy in a trilogy of cop-buddy movies. That’s not a million miles away from Rock’s biggest box-office returns, voicing the wisecracking Marty the zebra in the Madagascar sequence.
Andre is plagued by the notion that he isn’t funny any more – “I don’t feel funny,” he laments – a paranoia that Rock admits he shares. “None of us are as ‘funny as you used to be’,” he says. “Let’s just get that out there right away. And that’s okay. We’re not as funny as we used to be. Because it’s not as important as it used to be.”
Andre’s response is to play Dutty Boukman, a prominent figure during the Haitian revolution, in a historical epic named Uprize. It’s not something that Rock, who has said he never wants to be in a movie that is set before “the Jackson 5 ended slavery”, would ever do.
“Workwise I’m not really into period films,” he says. “And I do think the Jackson 5 knocked down racial barriers. There was just something about the Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson that sucked the anger right out of people.”
And, besides, Rock is understandably less than keen on embracing the traditional Hollywood snobbery towards comedy. “I thought Steve Carrell was great in Foxcatcher, but I don’t think he’s as good as he is in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Don’t get me wrong: they’re both genius performances. But Foxcatcher was always going to get recognition that Virgin didn’t.”
Rock has proven his worth in “serious” roles – he played a crack addict in New Jack City in 1991, early in his career – but doesn’t he find that ancient genre prejudice trying?
“It’s slightly annoying,” says Rock. “But for the most part comedies suck. There are so many bad ones. People just become immune to the fact that they’re watching horrible comedies. So there’s an assumption that comedies don’t have artistic merit. And 90 per cent of the time they’re right. Most of them exist to get a quick laugh and get out of there. But that’s okay. Hopefully people keep let me making movies. Woody does lots of movies that do okay, and then every now and then it’s Midnight in Paris.”
Top Five is peppered with Rock-style monologues, playful exchanges about music (specifically, various people’s top five artists), fellow celebrities (including Cedric the Entertainer, Charlie Rose, Gabourey Sidibe and DMX performing a hilariously odd version of Smile) and a motor- mouthed exchange between our hero and Kevin Hart on the etiquette and correct usage of the N-word. “It’s like anything else,” Rock says. “It’s okay between friends. Friends are allowed to do and say things to friends that nonfriends can’t.”
But the film is, at heart, a genuinely funny romance that sparks over one fateful day, during which Andre is shadowed by Rosario Dawson’s Chelsea Brown, a journalist from the New York Times. The profession has rarely been represented so warmly or gorgeously. “Well, you know, I actually have friends who are journalists. So I have to be nice,” says Rock. “Most of my experiences with the press are positive. I’m not a press basher.”
Against this there are moments that will make any reporter cringe, as Rock’s screenplay has much fun with the most trotted-out questions. “‘Were you the class clown?’ has to be the number-one question,” he says. “Or ‘Were you funny as a kid?’ Which is kind of the same question as class clown. Or ‘So do your kids think you’re funny?’ – that’s up there.”
Julie Delpy, Rock’s costar from Two Days in New York, was a big influence on the project. “Two Days in New York was very influential. And the Before Sunrise trilogy. I’m a big, big fan of Richard Linklater. I’ve told him a bunch of times, ‘I’m going to rob your movie.’ And now I have.”
WHY SO SERIOUS?
The tricky switch from comedy to critical acclaim
It may not be fair, but Jennifer Aniston had to star as a pill-popping, grief-stricken car-crash survivor in Cake in order to get her first Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture.
Hollywood’s inherent snobbery against comedy is one prejudice it has never sought to rectify. Sometimes it’s dead right: Adam Sandler was rightly praised for his impressive turns in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love and Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me. He received less ecstatic notices for his silly voiced grotesques in The Waterboy and Little Nicky.
Richard Pryor, too, put in his best screen work in Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar. Mo’Nique deservedly took home an Oscar for Precious and not for Phat Girlz. Still, switching to serious is a fraught business: Steve Martin’s forays into drama, including Shopgirl and Novocaine, aren’t nearly as impressive as his comedic roles in, say, The Jerk or Bowfinger.
For others the transition is seamless: Lily Tomlin went from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In to Robert Altman regular; Jamie Foxx went from stand-up to Academy Award winner with Ray. And then there are those who straddle both worlds, sometimes in the same movie: see Kirsten Wiig, Billy Connolly and – best of all – the late Robin Williams.
Top Five is on general release