Chris Rock In A Hard Place


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Last October, Chris Rock drove from his New Jersey home to Greenwich Village’s Comedy Cellar and slipped inside undetected. The Comedy Cellar charges patrons $24 to see anonymous comics, with the unspoken tease that you might see Louis C.K. or Amy Schumer working on new material. Tonight was no different. The patrons sipped away their drink minimums and endured unknowns sprinkled with knowns – both Judd Apatow and Dave Attell did sets. Then the MC announced Rock. The audience went silent for a moment before jumping up in a roar as Rock, in jeans and a T-shirt, took the stage.

He hadn’t been seen much on the stand-up scene in a while; he’d spent his past few years starring in movies both sky-high (Top Five, which he wrote and directed) and crawl-space low (co-starring in Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups). There had been a turn as Oscar host in 2016 – the year of no black nominees. In fact, much of what the Comedy Cellar crowd had recently read about Rock was regarding his divorce from Malaak Compton-Rock after 18 years of marriage. Every divorce is unhappy in its own specific way, and Rock’s was no different. There were claims that Malaak kept Chris from their two daughters, Lola and Zahra, a charge she vehemently denied. After a tense two years of negotiations, the divorce became final in August.

That night, Chris Rock was still a wound that had not been cauterized. At 52, he somehow doesn’t look much different from when he played crack-addled Pookie in New Jack City exactly half his life ago. Still reed-thin, he smiled with perfect teeth – the one cosmetic change from his early days – and paced the claustrophobic stage for a few seconds. He then began describing how much his ex now hated him.

“If someone wants 52 percent custody, you know they want to kill you,” he said.

There were some knowing giggles, but the response was muted. The audience was eavesdropping on a therapy session. Rock mentioned that he had slept with only three women on his last tour. Some of the women hissed, and many of the men stared into their drinks. Rock smiled. “Men, it’s a lot easier to be faithful when no one wants to fuck you.”

There was uneasy laughter. Someone whispered he was glad he hadn’t brought his wife. Rock spoke about Donald Trump for a minute, predicting his victory. In October in New York, this made the crowd pity him like a sad clown. He quickly returned to his own life, occasionally glancing at some notes he kept on a stool. He mentioned he might have to take on some shitty TV work to make his alimony payments. He then went into a bit about being in court and realizing he was paying for everyone – his lawyers, her lawyer, the court reporter: “Everyone woke up today and said, ‘I’m billing Chris Rock.'” There was more unsure laughter. Then he ended his set with a rhetorical question.

“Would I ever get married again?” He paused. His voice raised an octave. “Not if it would cure AIDS.”

The crowd clapped, because Chris Rock is one of the greatest comedians of our lifetime, but they wondered what the hell they had just witnessed.

Rock was at the bar about an hour later watching the Los Angeles Dodgers try to stay alive in the playoffs against the Washington Nationals. Desperate for a win, the Dodgers brought in Clayton Kershaw, the Chris Rock of pitching, to make his first relief appearance of the year. Kershaw had pitched just two days earlier, and the bar speculated whether he would have his good stuff. He did, getting a pop-up followed by a strikeout with high heat. Rock watched with wonderment. “Man, he still has his fastball,” he said. “After all that, he still has his fucking fastball.”

A few months later, Chris Rock headed out on the road for the first time in nine years, openly wondering “if I still have my fastball.” He had just signed a two-special, reportedly $40 million deal with Netflix and was adjusting to sharing custody of his girls. The stakes had never been higher.

By March, the world has changed. Rock is in Denver on an early leg of his Total Blackout tour that will lead to the taping of the first special, in December. “I can’t tape it now,” jokes Rock. “It’s the alimony tour. I’ve got to make some money first.”

Tonight, Rock is riding over to do a soundcheck at Denver’s Bellco Theatre with opening comedian Ali Wong and a longtime friend, the writer Nelson George. Few comedians do a soundcheck, but Rock is a self-described “anal little bitch when I’ve got to do a gig. Meanwhile, Dave Chappelle can get off the plane and, like, tumble into 30,000 seats and blow everybody off the stage.”

His Trump prediction came true. The talk turns to how Trump stole Rock’s nine-year-old joke about how could John McCain be a hero if he got captured. “He messed it up,” says Rock. “The man can’t tell a joke.” Someone asks how he knew Trump could win, and Rock delivers a well-reasoned argument about how “of the moment” candidates like Barack Obama and Trump always beat the “it’s my turn” candidates like McCain and Hillary Clinton. “Presidential politics is like show business, it doesn’t give a fuck – ‘Whoever’s hot,'” says Rock in a mocking tone. “‘Ooh, you paid your dues. We don’t give a fuck. Migos has the Number One record, fuck you.'” Rock gets out of the van, and someone mumbles props about the Trump pick but whispers sotto voce that Rock also keeps predicting the L.A. Clippers will win the NBA title.

Rock looks out at the 5,000-seat theater and tries to remember if he’s been here before. He steps to the mic and checks his level with an old-school rap.

“He is DJ Run, and I am DMC, funky-fresh for 1983.”

From predicting Donald Trump’s presidency to where he draws his comedy inspiration from, here are the five things we learned hanging out with Chris Rock. Rock was raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and was bused to a school where he was the only black kid in his grade; the white kids threw bags of piss at him. (Those memories provided the inspiration for his sitcom Everybody Hates Chris.) Despite the hazing and abuse he suffered, Rock doesn’t reflexively reject white culture. His tastes are expansive, and his fandom runs deep. On the day of his father’s wake, Rock, the eldest of seven, had to decide if the casket would be open or closed, yet still found the time to run to the record store and buy U2’s Rattle and Hum, which had been released that day. “I love Bono,” he declares.

Rock dismisses the pigeonholing of black acts, whether in comedy or music, as only commercially viable to American audiences, and he’s proud of his global reach. “I mean, if Simply Red can play Wembley Stadium in London and then the Beacon in New York, I can do that,” he says. After soundcheck, he lets me in on a secret. “The great thing about comedy is the low overhead,” Rock says. “I don’t have to split the money with a band. I make more money per gig than the drummer in Metallica.”

In his dressing room, a few candles burn next to a framed portrait of Prince. Rock’s crew is responsible at each stop for putting a new photo of the legend in a place of honor. Rock won’t say he and Prince were close, but they talked, and Rock loved his music. He saw Prince do one of his final shows, at a New Year’s Eve party in 2015 on St. Barts with Paul McCartney and Leonardo DiCaprio in the audience. He was distressed that his hero seemed to be surrounded by new people. Prince didn’t appear to have brought a girlfriend or a buddy along. “He just seemed all alone,” Rock says.

What’s left unsaid is that, like Prince, Rock is divorced and in his fifties, as he heads out on a yearlong tour filled with lonely hotel rooms and FaceTime with his daughters.

Rock took another thing from Prince: He makes his audience hear the new stuff. He starts every tour with nothing, and doesn’t sprinkle in a greatest-hits package like many comedians do; even Jerry Seinfeld adds only 20 minutes of fresh material a year.

“He has an incredibly high pain tolerance because it is difficult to go out there with material that you’re not sure of,” Seinfeld says. “To constantly go back and start over is very impressive, and a little insane.”

Rock may be comedy-neurotic, but he isn’t a performer who needs to sequester himself away before a show. It’s 15 minutes until he goes on, and he talks about the old days versus the new days like anyone over 40 tends to do. He grouses about young comics asking for favors and selfies: “In my day, you didn’t fucking walk up to Eddie Murphy – are you kidding me? No, you shut the fuck up and watched and waited.”

That’s precisely what happened to Rock. Murphy saw him at a New York club in 1986 when Rock was 21, told him he liked his set and invited him to see She’s Gotta Have It the next day and meet then-first-time director Spike Lee. That night, Murphy invited Rock to fly to Los Angeles with him the next morning. Rock said his dad would have never given him permission, but he was working late that night. In the morning, Rock was on a plane for his first time.

“I got to hang around the real Eddie Murphy,” says Rock. “Not Dr. Dolittle. Leather-suits-every-day Eddie. Elvis.”

Someone gives Rock the two-minute warning. He paces a bit and then heads onstage to the sound of Jay Z’s “You Don’t Know.” A large “CR” lights up. The crowd rises to its feet and gives him a long ovation. There are no smartphones flashing; Rock has insisted all concertgoers lock them in a sleeve that can only be unlocked when you leave the show. He grins with a scrunched, devilish face, a look you only see Rock give onstage.

He then launches into 90 minutes of controlled comic rage. Rock has always been a mix of Lenny Bruce social commentary and his dad Julius Rock’s fierce sense of personal accountability. Julius was a longtime New York Daily News truck driver, and he did not suffer those who did not shoulder their burden. His father’s teachings could be seen at the root of one of his son’s most famous bits, “black people versus niggas,” from his 1996 Bring the Pain tour. It’s a routine, Rock says, that he couldn’t do now. “The joke wouldn’t work because there would be so much freaking backlash,” he says. “Too much politically correct backlash.”

This is a different Rock than the one I saw at the Comedy Cellar. He waits until about two-thirds through the show before hitting his divorce. He is more introspective. “I was a piece of shit,” says Rock as the crowd goes quiet. He segues into his infidelities and gets disarmingly specific, describing three women: one famous, one semifamous, and one a member of the retail class. Nelson George warns me that “the ‘I’ onstage is not the ‘I’ of Chris. He’s trying to create that persona of the new Chris and keep some separation for the real Chris.” Still, this doesn’t seem like persona, particularly when he urges his audience that if they love someone to hold on tightly. (And travel a lot, and fuck when you’re angry.)

Later, Rock will describe the current set as less rap-influenced than his earlier material and more of a Mary J. Blige record. “This is all ‘hold tight, fight through it,'” he says. “This is all R&B shit.”

He ends the set with the story from the New Jersey courthouse where he is footing the bill for everyone. But this time he slyly turns it around. Now Rock sees it as a sign of success. He exits the stage to rapturous applause and beelines it back to the dressing room, where George and Wong tell him it was the best show of the tour so far.

“Tomorrow will be better,” says Rock. “Tonight’s show went on sale first. Tomorrow there will be more black people.” He smiles. “Black people don’t like to tie their money up for six weeks.” Rock hasn’t chosen a spot, but he will record his special before a predominantly black crowd. Someone asked him what he thought of a special from SNL‘s Michael Che. “I liked it,” he says, “but it’s too many white people in the audience. You do cutting-edge humor about race and you cut to white people – it does not have the same effect.”

Rock’s stand-up hero is Richard Pryor. He mentions Pryor’s famous routine about Africa: “Pryor does the Africa bit, about ‘there’s no niggas here,’ but it’s a bullshit bit if it’s done in front of a bunch of white people. When black people laugh, there’s a rumble.” Rock pauses for a second before going back to his favorite metal band. “You watch Metallica – I want to see them in front of fucking metalheads. I don’t want to see them in front of guys in suits.”

A little later, Rock sits in the corner of the lounge at Denver’s Four Seasons with George, Wong and Matthew Claybrooks, a comedian and former Everybody Hates Chris writer who is helping Rock decide what is working and not working in the set. Rock nurses a mojito.

His three decades of material suggest that his ambivalence about marriage has always been there. He made a movie called I Think I Love My Wife, and he did a bit about Nelson Mandela splitting from Winnie Mandela: “Marriage is so tough, Nelson Mandela got divorced. … He got out of jail after 27 years of torture, spent six months with his wife and said, ‘I can’t take this shit no more.'”

Reminded of that, Rock half-grimaces, half-laughs.

“Some of it was a prophecy,” he says. “I wasn’t a good husband a lot of the times.”

Perhaps trying to deflect, he asks me if I am married. I tell him I am, for a second time. I joke that my first relationship lasted nine years and I was seeing if I could break the nine-year barrier. He asks if we have kids, and I tell him we have a toddler. Rock insists it will work out.

“You got a kid now,” he says. “You’ll be fine. You need each other. Need is big. A woman breaks up with you, the first thing she says is ‘I don’t need this shit.’ She doesn’t say, ‘I don’t love you,’ she says she doesn’t need you.” He doesn’t mention whether this wisdom comes from hard-won personal experience. A few minutes later, Rock looks at his phone. He shakes his head and laughs. “My own daughter has blocked me on Instagram.” He stands up and heads to his hotel room. “They grow up so quick.”

There are two kinds of talent in the world: the guy who shows up hungover 10 minutes before the game/gig (think Keith Richards or Yankees legend Mickey Mantle) and coasts by on natural charisma; and the grinders (think Seinfeld or Tom Brady), who hijack their talent to another level solely on their obsessive work ethic. Rock is firmly in the second camp, and owns it. Rock and Louis C.K. have been friends for 20 years, and C.K. told Rock a story about his early days in Boston when he would pester older comedians for advice and beg clubs to put him onstage when he wasn’t on the schedule.

“All those comedians kind of hated me,” remembers C.K. “They would write mean graffiti about me on comedy-club walls. I told Chris about that and how I was ashamed I was such a pain in everybody’s asses. Chris just yelled at me, ‘No, you’re wrong. They’re wrong. That’s what it takes.'” Rock even threatened to break off their friendship if C.K. didn’t stop writing for other people and write for himself.

Rock never lacked confidence, but, sometimes, it didn’t stick around. He has always toggled between Muhammad Ali’s “I am the greatest” and Rodney Dangerfield’s “I get no respect.” His stand-up career rose and fell meteorically. According to Rock, he was around 19 years old when he stepped out of a line buying tickets for an Eddie Murphy show at Radio City Music Hall, wandered over to a Manhattan club and killed in his debut performance. The next half-dozen times out, he killed some more. Then he bombed, and, the way Rock describes it, bombed for the next three years.

Murphy’s first comedy album came out when Rock was 16. He wasn’t overly impressed: “I thought it was OK; I was that much of an asshole. I was like, ‘I can do that.'” But then Delirious was released, and Rock was properly cowed. During the Nineties, Rock was playing a theater in Chicago with Martin Lawrence opening for him. He heard what he thought was a fight in the audience and looked out from the wings: It was just people losing their minds over Lawrence’s set. Rock wasn’t even 30, but he feared the game had already passed him by. So he worked harder. A few years later, Rock and his brother went to a Lawrence show in New York. As they were leaving, his brother told him, “You’re better than that.”

“It never occurred to me,” recalls Rock. “But it was a key moment in my life. A year later, I did Bring the Pain and realized I didn’t have to wait in line.” Besides work ethic and talent, Rock has his shit together. There was nothing like Pryor setting himself on fire, Lawrence disoriented and wandering in traffic, or Chappelle disappearing into Ohio. Sure, Rock once owned a gun, and it once went off, putting a hole in his mattress, but those things happen. He has joked onstage about the benefits of a breakdown: the ability to start again. But it hasn’t happened.

“I never had one,” says Rock. “Getting divorced, you have to fucking start over. You get to reset. It’s not a breakdown, but something in your life broke down.”

Rock spends the day after his first Denver show holed up at the Four Seasons with George working on a script that he will only say is centered on pundits. He’s worked with George for 25 years, since they collaborated on the Spinal Tap-ish rap-spoof movie CB4, which was pilloried upon its release but has aged well. (That night, a fan outside the hotel asked Rock to sign some CB4 material. “Damn, there’s, like, a cult of CB4,” Rock says with amazement.)

Every artist wants to be good at something else; musicians want to be actors and actors want to be musicians. Rock is no different, but much of his film career has lurched from forgettable to forgettable. (Rock defends the Sandler stuff as “good hangs.”) It wasn’t until the Julie Delpy-directed 2 Days in New York and Rock’s own Top Five that he began receiving respect from critics. Not coincidentally, both were released after Rock spent six days a week on Broadway working on his acting in The Motherfucker With the Hat. And yet, the much-sought roles haven’t been rolling in.

“Maybe I’m like an alcoholic – I have to show I’m sober, make a series of good movies,” jokes Rock. “I’m never gonna get the Chiwetel Ejiofor part, so I have to write my own stuff.”

Offstage, Rock is quiet, almost reticent. He’s not a comedian with an insatiable need for endless yuks. He is a fan of authenticity and even gives Donald Trump a little credit on that front (at least the Trump of ancient times). Rock did a stint at Saturday Night Live in the early Nineties and would sometimes run into Trump at the China Club, a New York hot spot.

“Trump would walk in and women would be all over him,” says Rock. “And you’d say, ‘That’s Donald motherfucking Trump.’ I give him this, too: He just never really gave a fuck. You’d see him out all the time, but he’d have his suit on, his red tie. He was never trying to be someone else.”

That minor key of admiration doesn’t prevent Rock from ripping Trump in his new show. His main point is that the President is a classic bully, and in sissified modern America we have no clue how to deal with a bully. Rock’s set is surprisingly pro-bully; his reasoning is that being bullied toughens you up and gets you ready for the real world, which is filled with assholes. There’s more than a little self-reference here: Rock’s drive to succeed began with those school days in Brooklyn, with the grandsons of Irish and Italian immigrants stealing his lunch money. Onstage, he wonders why cops don’t occasionally shoot a white kid just to make it look better when they mow down black kids. Speaking of black kids, Rock half-jokes during his set that any responsible African-American father should begin his son’s day with a punch to the face.

On the second night in Denver, the significantly blacker crowd stamps and howls. Rock was right. The theater rumbles all night long.

Rock and his small crew pile into a rented Gulfstream after the show for a red-eye flight across two time zones for tomorrow’s show in Richmond, Virginia. The jet isn’t exactly a party plane. Rock and I order PB&J sandwiches, and the flight attendant apologizes that there are no lemons on board for Rock’s tea. Everyone else dozes off. “I told you this was the alimony tour,” says Rock, munching his sandwich and explaining the overnight country-crisscross. “I can’t waste time.”

We settle in as the plane sails over the Midwest and talk for the duration of the three-and-a-half-hour flight. I tell him that I saw him at the Comedy Cellar and noticed that the current show has less pure anger than the October set.

“You might have caught me just coming out of court,” says Rock. He pauses for a minute and looks out the window into the night. “I asked myself, ‘Do I want to be angry for a year?’ It’s not a cool place to be. It’s not healthy. I’m not Sam Kinison – I loved Kinison, but that’s not where I want to hang out every night.”

Rock mentions in his act that he thought he could get away with bad behavior in his marriage because he was the famous breadwinner. He now knows the opposite is true. “That’s bullshit,” he says, rolling his eyes. “That actually goes the other way. My faults are magnified. Your significant other, if they really love you, has a high opinion of you. And you let them down.”

Rock admits that he has toned down the marriage part to keep the peace and not be a dick. “It’s not fair,” he says. “I have a mic, she doesn’t. God forbid people are bugging her in the supermarket. That’s not cool. I’m going to have to see her at weddings and graduations.”

Still, it hasn’t been an easy time. His mother came down with cancer during his divorce. She was treated at Sloan Kettering in New York, which happens to be on the same street as his divorce lawyer. “I thought that was the most evil street in the world,” says Rock with a wan smile.

Rock cared for his mother at the New Jersey home he bought in the same neighborhood as his ex-wife. “There was days where I just prayed she would die when the girls were at their mother’s,” he says. “I didn’t want them to see that.”

But happily she recovered. Rock began to see some slight benefits of having shared custody. He got out to see more comedy and could slip over to Brooklyn and check out an art gallery at his leisure during his noncustody nights. But Rock is the son of Julius Rock, the eldest of 14. I get the sense Rock felt his divorce set a bad example for a family that he proudly attests has had no out-of-wedlock births and no one in jail. He says being the oldest has its burdens, but it has gotten easier over the years.

“It’s not so much a job now,” says Rock. “Well, I gotta find my brother Brian a job. Like, that’s a literal thing I have to do. It only comes into play during emergencies. Then your rank matters.”

Rock orders a Coke, a dietary splurge rare for him. He nearly jumps out of his seat when I suggest he couldn’t be serious about his bit advocating that black fathers start the day by punching their sons in the face.

“You have to physically show them – the consequences of not listening to your parents are death,” he says. “It’s death. This is not a joke. I was in Bed-motherfuckingStuy.” Rock gives me a name to look up on my computer. “He is in jail for rape and murder. That guy used to take me to the fucking baseball games. What’s the only difference? We were on the same block. I got a father that did not play that shit.”

He sips some Coke and clenches a fist.

“Maybe I don’t have to punch a kid in the face, ’cause I have fucking time up the ass. But if I’m working 12 hours a day, you tell me how I’m gonna do this, how I’m gonna keep this black boy alive.”

Rock dropped out of high school, but George describes him as an autodidact who is well-read and devoured the Bible and the Koran. George insists Rock could have been a great music critic if he’d chosen that path. It is the critic’s cold-eyed approach that made him certain that Trump would defeat Clinton. He shut up around his teenage girls as they celebrated Clinton’s impending victory, and he was there to comfort them after the loss. As Rock is telling me this, George wakes up.

“There’s white and gray,” says George sleepily. “He veers toward the gray.” Rock doesn’t disagree. “I have no trust in mankind,” he says.

Rock later tells me where that comes from. Partially, it’s the loss of his beloved father when Rock was 23. His dad died on Election Day in 1988, and Rock dreaded that day until President Obama’s victory in 2008. He cites a stat that a high percentage of U.S. presidents lost a parent early. “You have to succeed because you have no lifeguard,” he says. “With a lifeguard, you can do flips and shit. But without one, you’ve gotta go, ‘Shit, how long is it going to take me to reach shore?'”

The other grind on Rock is simply being black in America. Fame doesn’t get him a free pass. Rock doesn’t travel with an entourage and knows the stares he will get when he walks alone into a strange place, like another school where his daughter is playing a game, until everyone realizes it’s Chris Rock.

“I see the looks: ‘What are you doing here?’ Shit that white people, especially white men, don’t have to deal with. I literally get treated like a nigger a few times a day.” He pauses. “I can’t imagine what it is like for my brothers and what they go through every day.” So Rock looks for some serenity in a familiar place. He talks in his set about finding God before God finds him. That is not persona Rock. “I wanna find some peace, ’cause people usually find that peace in a horrible time,” says Rock. It’s now 4 a.m. somewhere, and Rock looks more vulnerable than before. He talks in a small voice. “Why does that have to be? Maybe I can find God without being in shambles. Maybe I can reach a higher plain spiritually without being in a near-death experience.”

The pilot announces that we’re approaching Richmond. We talk about the stereotype that the only way to create art, whether you’re a comic or Picasso, is by being irresponsible and an asshole.

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” says Rock, rubbing his red eyes. “You can be fucking nice.”

At the Altria Theater in Richmond, tonight’s Prince picture features the artist scowling.

“There’s so many shows that I got to stand right at the side and watch him get mad at motherfuckers,” says Rock. He impersonates his hero for a moment: “That was a B-flat, motherfucker.

Rock and Claybrooks, the Everybody Hates Chris writer, are in Rock’s dressing room to go over the Denver shows and see what worked and didn’t work. Rock brings up his bullying bit. He worries it’s too preachy. “I used to do ‘I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for bullying. I’d be, like, a Fed Ex guy – don’t get me wrong, I’d be the funny Fed Ex guy.'”

“You should do it,” says Claybrooks. “Especially in a town like this.”

“It brings it back to me,” says Rock. “Makes it less preachy.”

It’s a common concern for Rock. His grandfather was a Southern preacher, and you can hear the cadence and repeating of lines like in a sermon. Rock occasionally tunes in to preachers like T.D. Jakes or Joel Osteen. “I can watch them like I watch George Carlin,” he says. He fantasizes about collaborating with a preacher on a set. “You’d gotta get a preacher who is down,” says Rock. “Do a remix.”

Claybrooks and Rock move on. Claybrooks asks him if he wants to do his bit on the reality show Basketball Wives.

The gist of the material is that women on TV used to be known for their independence, like on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and now, according to Rock, “Women just want to be known for guys they used to fuck. Half of them aren’t even wives. They should just call it ‘Ho’s of the Pros.'”

Rock decides to table the bit for tonight, but it touches on the third rail of Chris Rock scholarship: Onstage, he is an essentialist; Rock sees women as one way – not always kindly – and men another way, two species with very little in common.

I ask him about it. For the only time, Rock gets a little defensive. “Most singers have, like, three songs, four songs that they keep writing over and over again,” he says. “If you’re Prince, you might have five or six. So I have four or five jokes.”

In the end, Rock argues that the material works because people laugh, the surest sign that comedy has the ring of truth. But it doesn’t come without a cost. His daughters are now at an age where they occasionally voice their displeasure. Rock shrugs it off – “That’s how we eat,” he says. “I would love it to be different.” For the first time, Rock makes reference to Megalyn Echikunwoke, his girlfriend. Echikunwoke is an actress who has starred on CSI: Miami and Arrow. The two have been seen canoodling at Knicks games. “Actually I’m dating a girl now,” he says. “She’s got her own dough, it’s amazing.”

The set review continues. Rock decides to add a bit about how after a black funeral everyone serves soul food: “It’s the same food that killed the guy!” Rock cracks himself up, a rarity. The session ends when a familiar Afro pokes into Rock’s dressing room. It’s Questlove of the Roots. He was in D.C. and decided to pop down for the show. “It’s Ahmir Questlove, ladies and gentlemen,” announces Rock.

Rock is clearly happy to see his friend. Questlove has a nice surprise for Rock. He gives him his headphones and whispers he’s cueing up an unreleased Prince song few have heard. Rock is a Prince completist who owns nine versions of Computer Blue. He goes wide-eyed. The music plays, and Rock does a rubbery-leg dance around backstage. The song is the adrenaline shot that the jet-lagged/missing-his-kids Rock needs. Soon, it’s time for him to take the stage. He’s still grinning ear-to-ear. “Damn,” he says. “I think this is gonna be a good show.”

A few weeks after Denver and Richmond, Chris Rock did three shows in New Orleans. That Saturday night, the “CR” was illuminated, but Rock didn’t come out. Instead, it was Dave Chappelle. He did a half-hour before Rock appeared and the two icons traded riffs, to the crowd’s delight. Chappelle does not give a fuck about propriety and asked Rock what kind of shitty lawyer he had that made him lose his home to his ex-wife. Then Chappelle turned shrink and asked Rock if he cried during the divorce process. Rock said he cried once: “During the custody battle.”

Afterward, Rock says it was a revelatory moment. “No one’s ever asked me that,” he says. “I don’t even know if a shrink has asked me that. We live in a world where men are assumed to not have feelings.” He gives an example. “All my friends assume I moved into the city after my divorce, away from my girls. When I say I bought a house around the corner, it blows their minds.”

Three days after the Chappelle catharsis, Rock is at Madison Square Garden for Garden of Laughs, a children’s charity event affiliated with New York Knicks owner James Dolan.

It is, as they would say in the old days, a cavalcade of stars. John Oliver; Leslie Jones; Seinfeld makes a surprise appearance, doing a droll piece on why bathroom stall doors don’t go all the way to the floor. And then Rock closes the show. He looks exhausted, having flown in a few hours earlier. He does a compressed version of his set and ends on his divorce. Where he usually says, “It was my fault, I was a piece of shit,” Rock pauses and improvises. “Was it my fault?” He lets it hang in the air for a moment. Then he mumbles, “Who the fuck knows.”

I ask Rock a few days after the show if this marked a new step in the divorce spectrum, from denial to guilt to ambiguity. He is sitting at the counter of a diner in Tenafly, New Jersey, with SportsCenter on mute on the TV. Rock maintains that was just an exit line. He says the current set is even more angst-filled and self-reflective than when I saw it. He’s even eliminated some of the more Rock-ian bits, including “pussy costs money, dick is free.”

He grimaces. “You go back and you’re like, ‘Why the fuck did I ever say that?'”

Rock knows that most will focus on the breakup part of the set, but to him the crucial component is his quest for serenity.

“I’ve been thinking about that stuff for years, I just didn’t have the gravitas,” he says. He hesitates. “Is that the right word” He then makes a final analogy before finishing his meal.

“It’s like a kid singing the blues. Justin Bieber can’t sing the blues. You gotta go through some shit. That’s me talking about finding God, but then God finds me.”

He pauses for a moment. “That’s my fucking U2 song.”

Presented by E.Cowan

Written by rollingstone.com


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