By Ken Scrudato; photos courtesy Magnolia Pictures on August 7, 2012
A funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. As music, film and literature bought into postmodern narcissism and confessional angst lock, stock and barrel, comedy emerged as the true voice of contemporary resistance and dissent. While the artistic output of so many indie authors, songwriters and filmmakers droned on insufferably about parent-and-relationship-inflicted emotional “damage,” the likes of Jon Stewart (political and corporate corruption), Bill Maher (religion, ignorance, religion), Dave Chappelle (race), Louis C.K. (hypocrisy), Janeane Garofalo (third-wave feminism), Sacha Baron Cohen (xenophobia, homophobia), Stephen Colbert (see: Jon Stewart), Sarah Silverman (social uptightness) and Trey Parker and Matt Stone (everything) raged against the bullshit machine with an eviscerating incisiveness and, more importantly, side-splitting hilarity that has constituted nothing less than a genuine golden age for the business of making people laugh.
Chris Rock beat most of them to the punch line. His now-hallowed 1996 HBO special Bring the Pain caught him at the very moment he emerged as perhaps the most scathingly brilliant comedian of his generation. His shockingly fearless 80-minute tirade saw him stalking the stage like a paranoid panther, while he verbally lacerated a rapidly escalating culture of systemic pre-Millennial venality (regarding Marion Barry: “How are you gonna tell little kids not to get high when the mayor is on crack?”). And were it coming from anyone else, his unflinchingly controversial “niggas versus black people” bit might have caused a career-toppling furor. But behind it all was an indisputable passion for truth and, dare we say it, moral accountability.
Rock has continued to be one of the giants of this great comedic renaissance, his stand-up having matured without losing a whit of its caustic edge. He’s also become a major movie star, though it’s an entirely different Chris Rock that is generally found occupying the silver screen (which is why they call it “acting”). If we’re being honest, though, he’s really yet to secure the sort of iconic role that made comedic celluloid legends of Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy. His newest film, the Julie Delpy–written and –directed 2 Days in New York (oui, the sequel to 2007’s 2 Days in Paris), will not remedy that situation. But it will, mostly due to him, make you laugh a lot.
In it, Rock plays Mingus, the live-in boyfriend of Delpy’s Marion, she having moved from Paris to New York with her young son—who, most amusingly, refers to Mingus as “fake daddy.” Marion’s almost-clichéd French family (the dirty old socialist dad who keys a Hummer, the hot nymphomaniac sister that likes to walk around the house in le buff) comes to visit and it all quickly descends into slapstick lunacy. Mingus, the rational one, eventually turns to chatting with a cardboard cutout of Barack Obama in a futile search for sanity.
2 Days comes to a fittingly existential and culturally biting climax (it is French, after all), with artist Marion conceptually selling her soul to the ever-unpleasant Vincent Gallo essentially playing Vincent Gallo (he lacks the substance to actually play Beelzebub himself). In the film’s best moment, a pigeon shits all over him (Oscar, Oscar!).
What 2 Days in New York does reveal is how Chris Rock can still be the funniest guy in the room even when he’s playing the straight man. But for those grown anxious to see Rock, the peerless, thundering comedic force, once again stalking the stage, indications are that it won’t be a long wait.
Bullshitters, consider yourselves warned.
The artist Jenny Holzer said recently that comedians are now doing what artists and punks used to do. What do you think about that?
Chris Rock: You know what’s weird? I said that to somebody else the other day. The comedians are the ones with real bodies of work now.
But Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Dave Chappelle…they’re doing things that are about getting up the ass of the system, which is what punk and hip-hop used to do.
Yeah, but also using your superpowers to the hilt. Chappelle…forget the show—the documentary with Michel Gondry, that block party thing, is just fucking incredible. Or Jon Stewart’s crazy rally. And those are the kinds of things musicians used to do.
Before working on this film, did you see 2 Days in Paris?
I saw 2 Days, and I saw Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. So I was a big fan of Julie anyway. She came to a screening of [Rock’s 2009 documentary] Good Hair and mentioned [the sequel] and sent the script…and I liked it.
So you like her as a comedy writer?
I love her as a comedy writer, she’s great, but also as a director; she knows what to do with the camera.
In a lot of ways you’re the straight man in this film, but you also rise to the comedic occasion. If it gets to be a little too slapstick in spots, you sort of bring it back down.
You’ve gotta pick your spots, ya know? If everyone’s loud, how you gonna get noticed? Talk soft.
Funny is very hard to do. Even De Niro said that playing funny is harder than playing evil.
Yeah, funny is much harder than being evil! It’s much harder to do Dumb and Dumber than Cape Fear.
You tend to play a lot of roles that are very dissimilar to your stage persona. Is there some other part of you you’re trying to get at in film?
Well, my stage persona is so weird. It’s just not something you can walk around with in normal life. Jay-Z raps like he talks, but the old rappers yell. So I do comedy like Run–DMC. You can’t really talk like that in a movie.
But you also do that stalking thing on stage, back and forth, like you’re ready to go in for the kill. Is that just nervous energy?
I think part of it is nervous energy. But you’ve also got to fill up a space that [the audience] just saw Prince in, with 12 musicians and screens and explosions…and you’re in the exact same place. So a little movement…
And as comedian, you’re fucked if you don’t get everything right.
You’re up there alooone. It’s all on you, all on you. Even boxers hug at the end of the fight—the guy that just beat you up! Comedians are alone, man.
How do you keep up the fire, the edge? Does it get stranger, being a dad now and all?
Well, Eminem’s a dad. Axl Rose is a dad. Richard Pryor was a dad! Being a dad makes you madder. Happier at home, but when other shit doesn’t go right, you’re more upset, because the stakes are higher.
What was the Obama thing in the film really about? It is obviously a good time to address the question, because of the upcoming election; a lot of people who were behind Obama in 2008 think that he’s just played the middle.
The country was in such a bad spot. People don’t realize: when you’re properly cleaning something, it gets dirtier before it gets cleaner. Because you’re pushing shit around, you’re turning shit upside down. And that’s what the fucking first term is, the proper cleaning. You ever come back to your hotel room too soon? You think they blew it up. What’s going on is, the country is coming back to its room too soon. And besides, who knows about cleaning? Minorities know about cleaning.
You’ve had real mainstream success. But do you think anything has actually changed in the country with having a black president?
The change is not with us. It’s the kind of change you’ll notice 20 or 30 years from now. The reality is: my kids have seen a black president and, before him, two black secretaries of state. My kids will definitely live in a different world, different things will be expected of them. The accomplishment will be when we have the inarticulate black president, a black president that’s as dumb as Bush. When you really think about it, exceptional black people have always been compensated. Louis Armstrong was the biggest star in the world 70 years ago, entertaining kings and queens all over the world. He just couldn’t sleep in the same hotels.
Are there any other future projects you can talk about?
Not really. Just trying to get some stand-up together.
Is it a relief to go back to stand-up?
Once I get an act together, yeah! It’s just so fucking hard to get an act together.
And you can’t just make it up. The inspiration has to come, right?
You can’t make it up at Madison Square Garden! You can make it up at Caroline’s, just bullshit your way through it. They’re just happy to have you there. F