In person, the 49-year-old comedian turned filmmaker may not quite be the bombastic firebrand from famed HBO specials Bring the Pain and Kill the Messenger. But he is occasionally excitable: At points, his eyes open wide, his voice leaps up a couple of octaves, and he flashes a broad smile with more than a hint of mischief, inhaling two Cokes, fries and a hamburger with Gorgonzola as he talks. The emphatic performer with the audacious theories is never gone, it seems—just occasionally out of sight.
He has a lot to say about Top Five, the new movie that he wrote, directed and stars in, and for good reason. The New York–shot film is a step up from his past efforts, as indebted to Annie Hall as it is to hip-hop. In it, he plays a comedy bigwig with serious-actor ambitions being profiled by a journalist (Rosario Dawson). Unlike I Think I Love My Wife and Head of State, Top Five’s storytelling, performances and banter carry with them an easy assurance. It’s the sort of project that could make people think of Rock not as a comic who makes movies but as an auteur with an oeuvre that just so happens to be funny as hell.
You cast comics like JB Smoove and Cedric the Entertainer in big parts in your film, but you also cast comedians for parts with just one line. Why?
I’ve directed before, and I was in love with my words. I took myself seriously and wanted an actor-actor to say my fuckin’ words. So this is me taking myself way less seriously and deciding I’m going to have fun. I wanted to do funny shit with friends. Tom Papa is funny saying, “All the water on the Internet!” That’s what it took me a minute to learn: You hire the actor—it’s your movie, but it’s their part. They should take it over on a lot of levels.
Are you hoping, like your character Andre Allen, that this movie will make the industry take you seriously?
I feel like I have been taken seriously, way more than most comedians—social commentary, all the crap people write about me—almost to the detriment of asking, Is the guy funny or not? Making this movie is me saying, I want to be taken funny.
How much pressure have you felt to deliver a great movie?
People assume a stand-up is going to have a big movie career. With the exception of Eddie Murphy, that’s not how it really goes. Cosby: mostly misses. Carlin: never happened. Pryor: five bad ones, one good one. There’s a little bit of fear that I’d never have a movie as good as my stand-up. So let’s see if we can do it.
The film has a real sense of community and some bawdy set pieces. It reminded me a bit of Judd Apatow’s movies. Were you influenced by him?
I love Judd, and he saw early versions of most stuff in the movie, but it’s got almost nothing to do with him. It’s a Linklater movie! I’m Ethan [Hawke], she’s Julie [Delpy], we’re walking around New York and talking.
Also, I know you love Woody Allen. This lets you get closer to what he does.…
…without robbing him. And there’s some Soderbergh. “What would Soderbergh do?” was said a lot on the set. He’s so good about making a lot out of a little, making this conversation important. [Rock’s phone rings. He picks it up and hits a button.] I just didn’t take Jeffrey Katzenberg for you.
Eh, it was probably for me anyway. How was shooting in so many outdoor Manhattan locations?
A sound nightmare, but there’s no way in the world I’d get to make this in a studio. No way in the world I’d get to hire [cinematographer] Manuel [Alberto Claro] to shoot it. “Let me get this straight: You’re doing a comedy and you want to use the guy from Melancholia?” No studio is letting me do that.
You did a Broadway play, The Motherfucker with the Hat, a couple of years ago. What influence did that have on you?
Best thing that ever happened to me. Fifteen years ago—when I was Kevin Hart, I like to say—I just got thrown into things. No one asks, “Can you do it?” You’re kind of learning on the job. But I didn’t realize how much I needed that play until I did it. It’s a writing education, an acting education, a directing education. That’s how dumb I was going in there: I thought, Why do they need directors in plays? Really, to walk from here to here?
They say it’s a director’s medium.
It’s totally a director’s medium! [Motherfucker director] Anna Shapiro, she beat the shit out of me, got rid of a lot of bad habits. I learned how to focus on people and really connect and make a scene work. I’ve been playing the audience for 20 years, but there’s no audience when you do a play; you’ve got to play the person. I had no problem being told what to do. I never did a play in high school, then I’m on Broadway. What kind of psycho shit is that?
Kanye West gave you the name for your next stand-up tour: The Black Plague. Why didn’t it happen this fall?
My kids are young, and they’re only going to be young once. Nine hundred days. You can literally count the days before they want no part of me. While I have this time, why not spend it with my kids? Eighty percent of fatherhood is just availability. You’re just available for shit, and when they need you, you’re there. That’s all anybody really wants from their dad.
So you haven’t outgrown stand-up?
You can have ideas that are bigger than stand-up, but I don’t think I’ll outgrow it.
Is it hard to develop material at spots like the Comedy Cellar when everyone is shooting videos with their phones?
You used to be able to develop an hour over a year, but now because of the way people tape stuff, you’d almost have to sequester yourself [in a club] for two or three weeks. It would almost be impossible to develop Bring the Pain now. If something like the “niggas versus black people” bit got out before its time, it could end your career. I remember not having it right. I remember dying a miserable death in Oakland on New Year’s Eve following Cedric the Entertainer. Same stuff, but it wasn’t ready.
Comics are always getting shamed online for something they said—Artie Lange just took it for dishing slave fantasies on Twitter. Will a true comic defend anything said in pursuit of comedy?
You don’t have to agree with it, but yeah. And the problem is not the Internet shaming comedians, it’s comedians shaming comedians. Fuck all of them. Literally, fuck them, I hope they choke on big elephant dicks, because they don’t respect comedy.
So you’d say the audience’s judgment is sufficient?
In the vast history of stand-up, since the caveman, no comedian has ever repeatedly done some joke that the audience hasn’t laughed at. When you sit there and tweet, “So-and-so did a rape joke, fuck him.” There are rape jokes that are funny. But this selective outrage. Did you laugh at any Michael Jackson jokes? Well, those are child-molestation jokes. Did you laugh at O.J. jokes? Well, those are jokes about murder. What I’m trying to say is: If you know comedy, if you respect comedy, you just wait. The audience will let a comic know they said something wrong.
What about Twitter, when things aren’t live?
Twitter is weird because there’s no audience. You take what I did [last month, about 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing] on SNL and take away the audience, it’s pretty fucking offensive. But you put an audience in there, get the context of what’s being said, you’re like, Okay. When you do a monologue like that on Saturday Night Live, how much do you expect to rattle people’s cages?
In the world of a show that has a Snapple commercial on it, yeah, someone might be a little upset. But I’ve done those jokes in clubs, in New York, downtown, within walking distance of the Freedom Tower. I’ve done the Boston joke in Boston. I’m not gonna do material I don’t know is going to work.
How do you structure, say, 9/11 material so a potentially skittish audience stays with you?
If I were a new comic, could I get away with it? Probably not. But there’s over 20 years of a relationship here. It’s no different than a restaurant you eat at a lot of times: “Okay, what is this thing they’re putting in front of me? So-and-so’s a good chef, let me try it.” The first bite wasn’t great, but you keep chewing because you trust the chef. If it were a place you’d never eaten, you’d spit it out the first time it felt uncomfortable.
What keeps you pushing into those potentially uncomfortable places?
Why be famous if you’re just doing stuff, if you’re not using it to dig a little bit deeper? I got all this trust. You’re with a girl or a guy or whatever, and the relationship’s deeper. You going to fuck her like you did when you met her? No, now it’s time to really fuck her! Oh, shit! She really trusts me now. I’ve made her come a few times, now it’s really open.
What was different about being back at SNL?
I’ve watched people host, musical guests, sometimes I’ve shown up to the party because there’s food. I treat it like my alma mater. I’ve sat with [SNL showrunner Lorne Michaels] many a night, but that was the first time I’ve been back in the offices. And just being in Lorne’s office, looking at the board, eating Lorne’s popcorn. It was nice to deal with him as—I won’t say a peer, that would be presumptuous—but a grown child. I made him proud.
He said that?
No, but he mentioned the movie a couple of times. It’s nice to go there and have a movie that people are talking about. In his own way, when we win, he wins. It’s validation that he picked the right people.
Do you see a parallel between making this movie and developing your voice in stand-up?
Hopefully this movie is like Bring the Pain. I was a successful stand-up before Bring the Pain, but it took me a while to figure out my voice. I was good enough to get on SNL and do TV spots and make money in clubs. I had a living. And then I had a spurt. David O. Russell had a spurt. Always made good movies, always made good movies—and then The Fighter came out and…what the fuck? What the fuck? Let’s hope I’m having a David O. Russell moment.
How much interest would you have in doing something like The Chris Rock Show again?
The reason I quit The Chris Rock Show was not because of movies. When you win Emmys, guys break off. I had Louis CK and Wanda Sykes in my writing staff. Writing! You can’t hold talent like that down for long. I liked doing the show with my friends but during the last year it was like I didn’t know half of the people in the room. Do I want to do The Chris Rock Show? No. Do I want to do a show with Louis, Wanda, Ali LeRoi, Lance Crouther, Nick DiPaolo, all these killer, heavyweight writers? Yeah.
Well, with so many networks and the success of stuff like Louie, there’s a lot more opportunities to design your own thing.
You’re right; you can do almost anything you want to do now. But it’s like toys. You get really good at a toy, you put it down. I did a show that went well. Now let me see if I can do a couple of movies like this one.
You grew up in Bed-Stuy. What do you make of the neighborhood’s $3 hibiscus doughnuts?
It’s so funny—I made miracles happen to get out of Bed-Stuy, and now it’s a cool spot. Not all of it’s bad. I’m not Spike [Lee] on it. The stories you never hear: There’s a lot of black people that owned houses in Bed-Stuy or Fort Greene that sold them for real amounts of money. When you go to Florida now, you see rich black people. Black people actually retire now because of gentrification. That never happened before.
Didn’t you have a recording contract before you turned to comedy?
I had a rap deal 30 years ago. What the fuck. I sound like Della Reese, I sound old. I had a contract, a contract. It was a 12-inch deal—that’s how long ago it was. There were no rap albums then. There’s a demo out there somewhere; I keep waiting for that horrible shit to pop up. Maybe you’re the guy who finds it.
Well, my other job is rap anthropologist, so.… Know any hip-hop stories I may not have heard?
“99 Problems” is an Ice-T record that he gets no credit for. Jay won’t even mention it, but it’s a fucking remake. Rick [Rubin] likes to play records in the studio, and he didn’t know what to play Jay, so I said, “Remember ‘99 Problems’? I played it to you a few weeks ago.” He played it for Jay, and Jay loved it so much they made it right there and then. I don’t get a dime from it. But “99 Problems” was my fucking idea! I’ll take “99 Problems” and my cameo on the Kanye record. “Blame Game,” yep, that’s me.
In some ways, that’s better than having a hit movie.
Top Five opens Dec 12.