What’s saving America.
The last time Frank Rich had a conversation with Chris Rock was in early 1996, when they and the 1950s teen heartthrob Pat Boone were thrown together in a New York television studio as panelists on Bill Maher’s old show Politically Incorrect. This time they had two conversations in a New York hotel lounge as Rock prepared for the release of Top Five, a bittersweet film comedy in which he does triple duty as director, screenwriter, and star.
We’ve just come through an election that was a triumph for Fox News and a fiasco for Obama. What do you make of it?
Jon Stewart has said the reason Fox News works better than CNN is because the people at Fox News figured out how to make themselves into victims.
So will it now be harder for Republicans to play victims?
They have no problem playing victims.
Even in victory?
Even in victory. America—not black America, but America as a whole—started in England and was ruled by kings and queens and had a class system. I’m almost of the mind that that’s what America wants at the end of the day. Maybe America wants monopolies.
They always seem to want a Bush or a Clinton.
Maybe they just want a Bush. Maybe they want no regulations. It’s hard for me to figure out people voting against their own self-interests. At some point you go, Okay: Is that what they want?
Is it possible that they’re just angry, whether it’s anger at Obama or Washington in general, and they just want to lash out? If you’re angry, you don’t rationally consider what’s in your self-interest.
Maybe. But we had Bush for eight years. They saw what that was. Apparently a lot of people want to go back to that. A lot of people think rich people are smart.
For all the current conversation about income inequality, class is still sort of the elephant in the room.
Oh, people don’t even know. If poor people knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets. If the average person could see theVirgin Airlines first-class lounge1, they’d go, “What? What? This is food, and it’s free, and they … what? Massage? Are you kidding me?”
You recently hosted Saturday Night Live, and in the monologue, where you were talking about the opening of One World Trade, my wife and I both felt just like you: No way are we going into that building. But you look online the next morning, and some people were offended2and accused you of disparaging the 9/11 victims. The political correctness that was thought to be dead is now—
Oh, it’s back stronger than ever. I don’t pay that much attention to it. I mean, you don’t want to piss off the people that are paying you, obviously, but otherwise I’ve just been really good at ignoring it. Honestly, it’s not that people were offended by what I said. They get offended by how much fun I appear to be having while saying it. You could literally take everything I said on Saturday night and say it on Meet the Press, and it would be a general debate, and it would go away. But half of it’s because they think they can hurt comedians.
That they can hurt your career?
Yeah. They think you’re more accessible than Tom Brokaw saying the exact same thing.
What do you make of the attempt to bar Bill Maher from speaking at Berkeley for his riff on Muslims?3
Well, I love Bill, but I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.
In their political views?
Not in their political views—not like they’re voting Republican—but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.
When did you start to notice this?
About eight years ago. Probably a couple of tours ago. It was just like, This is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember talking to George Carlin before he died and him saying the exact same thing.
A few days ago I was talking with Patton Oswalt, and he was exercised about the new reality that any comedian who is trying out material that’s a little out there can be fucked by someone who blasts it on Twitter or a social network.
I know Dave Chappelle bans everybody’s phone when he plays a club. I haven’t gone that far, but I may have to, to get an act together for a tour.
Does it force you into some sort of self-censorship?
It does. I swear I just had a conversation with the people at the Comedy Cellar about how we can make cell phones into cigarettes. If you would have told me years ago that they were going to get rid of smoking in comedy clubs, I would have thought you were crazy.
It is scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like fucking Sammy the Bull,4 you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, “Oh, I went too far,” and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.
I assume you worked on the SNL material in the confines of the studio and that it never went before an audience?
Comedy Cellar all week. If I messed up a word here and there, which I did, it could really be get-him-out-of-here offensive. But you just watch to make sure nobody tapes it. You watch and you watch hard. And you make sure the doorman’s watching. What Patton’s trying to say is, like, comedians need a place where we can work on that stuff. And by the way: An audience that’s not laughing is the biggest indictment that something’s too far. No comedian’s ever done a joke that bombs all the time and kept doing it. Nobody in the history of stand-up. Not one guy.
What is the worst audience you’ve ever played to?
I had a really bad show in Biloxi, Mississippi. That sounds so cliché. Last tour, Obama was running, and I was doing all my stuff, and it was hostile.
Was the audience black, white, mixed?
Probably more white than black. A few thousand seats. Playing a casino.
Always a problem, I suppose.
Especially on a Friday night. Friday-night second show’s the worst because they’ve been drinking since they got off work. We definitely were like, “Wow. Let’s drive to another town. We should not sleep here.”
Do you use social media at all?
You know, I got my Hulu account. Is it the Hulu account? Wait, what is this thing? Not Hulu.
Hulu’s to watch TV.
Dude, I’m getting old. It’s WhoSay,5 which allows you to tweet, Facebook, and Instagram simultaneously. It’s perfect for someone that’s not 25.
Do you sit around and read other people’s Tumblr accounts, or their tweets, or follow them on Facebook?
A little. I follow a couple people on Instagram. You’ve got to follow all that stuff. You have to understand it, because if you don’t, then you’re going to sound like an old guy. You got to have the ability to use it as a reference. A lot of the time, the difference between hip and unhip is just reference. We did some sketch the other night on SNL, and in it I tell my wife—actually, we messed it up, but it was better in the dress—anyway, I tell my wife, “Hey, honey, the cab’s here.” Then I look at it again. I go, “You know what? We got to rewrite this.” “Hey, honey, the Uber’s here.” That little difference, it’s a big, big deal. I remember seeing Robin Williams at Town Hall. He did some Elmer Fudd bit, and I was like, dude, if you change that to SpongeBob—
You’ll get the laugh.
You’ll seem a lot hipper. I do not wish to become Alan King6 quite yet.
I haven’t thought about him in a long time. He had an incredible longevity.
He was amazing. But there’s a certain type of These kids today and the rock and roll, you know?
Whereas Joan Rivers …
Great person, underrated comedian. Who the hell’s funnier than Joan Rivers? That whole reference thing: Joan updated constantly.
Well, she was voracious.
Okay, these Liz Taylor jokes are gone, and they are now Lindsay Lohan jokes. The compliment you give of a comedian is: Who wants to follow them onstage? Nobody wanted to follow Joan Rivers, ever. Even in her 80s, nobody wanted to follow her.
You’ve always been incredibly respectful and a fan of great comedians ahead of you. Have any ever been disdainful of you?
I mean, maybe Cosby early on, but he turned pretty quick. Other than that, nobody.
What do you make of what’s happening to Cosby now?
I don’t know what to say. What do you say? I hope it’s not true. That’s all you can say. I really do. I grew up on Cosby. I love Cosby, and I just hope it’s not true. It’s a weird year for comedy. We lost Robin, we lost Joan, and we kind of lost Cosby.
*This article appears in the December 1, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.