It's a funny thing about humor and race.
Bill Cosby is a comedian who happens to be African-American. You could read one of Cosby's books on childhood, marriage or fatherhood and have no inkling what color he is. When he started out, comics (like singers and musicians) probably were advised on how to hit the big time and attract a "mainstream" (read "white") audience. Cosby's humor is universal, crossing all color lines. But for a white person, watching a classic Richard Pryor routine is like watching a sunset with only one contact lens in -- it's a marvelous experience but you know you're missing something.
Thankfully, today's comedians can find humor in their race or ethnicity (as well as their looks, sexuality and marital status) and still attract a large, diverse following. And in his best-selling book, "Rock This!," Chris Rock skillfully plays the race card as a joker.
Blacks can distinguish between white guys. For instance: Pauly Shore and JFK Jr. White people don't know how to tell the difference between one black man and another. To white people, even Ed Bradley and Bryant Gumbel hanging out, waiting to cross the street, is scary. Clarence Thomas in an Adidas warm-up suit will not get a cab in Washington, D.C.
Rock skewers blacks and whites with equal finesse. Just as Roseanne can get away with fat jokes and Ellen DeGeneres can spoof lesbian life, Rock explains that it's permissible for blacks to use the "n" word, which he invokes often to describe a small subset of African-Americans. He even addresses complaints in advance:
I know what all you black readers think: "It ain't us, it's the media. The media has distorted our image to make us look bad."
Please . . . when I go to the money machine at night, I'm not looking over my shoulder for the media. Ted Koppel never took anything from me. Do you think I've got three guns in my house because the media's outside my door trying to bust in? . . . "It's Mike Wallace. Run!"
Rock also laments the shortage of black leaders:
A lot of people ask me why I don't include Colin Powell when I mention black leaders. To be a true black leader, you have to be self-made. The fact that he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff makes him the equivalent of a sitcom in a good time slot. Is "Suddenly Susan" any good? We don't know. It's on after "Seinfeld."
Five years ago, Chris Rock was a virtual unknown. He appeared in Buffalo several times doing stand-up. Several of his bits from that period are included in "Rock This!":
Black crime tends to be stupid, not crazy. When you hear on the news that somebody chopped off his girlfriend's head, drank her blood and then used her toes to play pool, chances are it was a white guy. Find an old lady kicked down the stairs for her welfare check? A black guy did it. Someone cut the old lady's eyes out and used them as knickknacks? Definitely a white guy.
After the obligatory stint on "Saturday Night Live," Rock has hit the big time and some in Hollywood are already comparing his star potential to his "SNL" predecessor Eddie Murphy. Rock is seen (long-distance phone service) and heard (as the voice of Little Penny Hardaway) on commercials; he just won two Emmys for his HBO special "Bring the Pain." And Rock had a great line when he took the stage following Bryant Gumbel and Ellen DeGeneres at the Emmys and said: "Wow -- so far we've had two black guys and a lesbian. Welcome home, CBS!" And who can forget his difficulty in covering the presidential primary for Comedy Central's "Politically Incorrect" -- telling host Bill Maher that he was "having trouble finding hair care products in Maine"?
Rock's indifference to political correctness can be refreshing or offensive depending on how you feel about the issue. He admits to a blind spot concerning sexual harassment, saying Bill Clinton should have sued Paula Jones because "he was the one who was turned down" and "if my daddy hadn't harassed my mama, I wouldn't be here."
It gets worse. Though Rock believes O.J. Simpson is guilty, and condemns the murder, he also spends a chapter explaining that he understands how it could have happened. Yet he's totally mystified by Marion Barry's return to grace. ("If you get caught smoking crack at McDonald's, you're not going to get your job back. They can't trust you around the Happy Meals.")
Rock explains how being the only black student at an all-white high school affected him and also attributes some of his perspective on life to having a slight build:
Martin Luther King was a little guy. Malcolm X was a big guy. Gandhi was a little guy. Farrakhan is a big guy. Big guys always think they can win. Little guys know what can happen. . . . Little guys only fight when there's no other choice.
There is a terrific section on "the other husband": Rock's solution for those marital commitments men hate. He thinks wives should have alternate husbands -- "who like to do what women do" and can take the place of the real husband at the Ice Capades, shopping, weddings and "The English Patient."
And he also offers female readers this bit of insight into the male psyche:
Men are practical. If we can't get the fine ones, we move on to Plan B. Can't be with a woman who's a 10? You go for two fives. Or five twos. It all adds up to the same thing. Personally I draw the line at 10 ones. We're talking self-respect here.
The book has quite a bit of rough language and subject matter -- if "Rock This!" were a TV show it would definitely merit a parental advisory. (It was a challenge to find excerpts clean enough to reprint.) In spite of the adult nature of the book, Rock emphasizes (in bold print, no less) condom use, as well as the importance of education and the futility of drug use, with an eye toward young fans who may read the book.
Chris Rock has no illusions about his popularity or the state of race relations in this country. After all is said and done, what the reader probably will come away with aren't the bits on drugs, crime or poverty, but the underlying sentiment of the book, which isn't at all funny:
There's not a white person reading this book who would change places with me. And I'm rich!
By Chris Rock
202 pages, $19.95