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February 16, 2011, 6:00 AM

Chris Rock: The ESQ+A

A conversation about LeBron, Obama, the Tea Party, the Oscars, Eddie Murphy, his new play, and fear

By Scott Raab

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Chris Rock and friends honor Oprah at the Kennedy Center last year.

SR: Like many nice Caucasians, I cried the night Barack Obama was elected. It was one of the high points in American history. And all that's happened since the election is just a shitstorm of hatred. You want to weigh in on that?

CR: I actually like it, in the sense that — you got kids? Kids always act up the most before they go to sleep. And when I see the Tea Party and all this stuff, it actually feels like racism's almost over. Because this is the last — this is the act up before the sleep. They're going crazy. They're insane. You want to get rid of them — and the next thing you know, they're fucking knocked out. And that's what's going on in the country right now.

SR: I hope so. Because it seems like a lot of people feel they just can't live with this man being president.

CR: It's a lot, man. I remember when I had my show [The Chris Rock Show on HBO], I used to run my show. It was so hard to get people to bring sketches to me. No one had ever worked for a black person before. Even the black people hadn't worked for a black person. In show business, my God, there's no black people in show business. I've never been to a black person's office in show business, for a movie or anything. It literally took a month or two for everybody to know: I'm really running the show.

SR: Strange.

CR: It's strange, but it's not. Women that were running things went through the exact same thing. I could've went crazy about it, but I actually felt sorry for them.

SR: Jude Law — you killed his career when you hosted the Oscars.

CR: I did not kill his career. Dude, I didn't say Jude Law can't act. I didn't say Jude Law was in bad movies. I just said he's in every movie. I hope one year in my life someone's onstage talking about all the movies I've made. I hope I get to work with all the great directors he got to work with, too... I did bump into him one day. I was just walking by him and said, "What's up?" and he kept walking.

SR: He knew it was you?

CR: I think ten minutes later he started realizing who I was. Anyway, I was sitting with Courtney Love, and she might've saved me from a fight. I'm not going to say ass-whipping, because I don't think there'd be an ass-whipping. But you never know — he's hanging out with Guy Ritchie. Those guys go at it. Those motherfuckers are in shape. So Jude Law might whip my ass, I don't know. Those guys bring out mats and shit.

SR: What happened?

CR: Nothing. Courtney kind of barked, or was growling, and that was it.

SR: And you pissed Sean Penn off. Which, by the way, could lead to an ass-whupping.

CR: It could.

SR: Theoretically.

CR: Theoretically. It's the Oscars, it's sensitive. If I host the Oscars again, I wouldn't do that.

SR: Chris, I wouldn't worry about that.

CR: I've been inquired about. What they do with the Oscars is, they check the availabilities. They're not into asking and being turned down. "What're you doing on February whatever? Will you be in L. A.?" So it's been inquired about since then. It's a weird skill. It's not like you can get just anybody to do it...

When I got the job, the first thing I asked was, "Are we doing a TV show or is this a banquet? Because if it's a banquet, let's not change anything. But if it's a TV show, this motherfucker's got to move." My goal in life was to host the MTV Awards, because it's the awards show that Prince sang on, and that was the awards show that Eddie Murphy hosted and Arsenio hosted. It's hard to remember that the MTV Awards used to be huge. So the Oscars just wasn't that thing to me.

SR: Is Eddie Murphy a cautionary tale?

CR: When he wants it, nobody's funnier than him. No one's even close to him. I just went through a little exercise where I watched a bunch of old movies, like from the '80s. The only ones that held up were the Murphy movies. A Murphy movie is like a Sidney Poitier comedy — he's that intensely good... He revolutionized acting. He's literally black Brando. Before Eddie Murphy, there were two schools of acting for a black actor: Either you played it LIKE THIS or youplayeditlahkdis. He was the first black guy in a movie to talk like I am talking to you right now. Just like we're talking right now. That did not exist for black actors before him. Good Times is a good show for that: It was either John Amos or Jimmie Walker; that's what black acting was.

SR: You ever doubt yourself up there trying to get laughs?

CR: There's doubt the whole time. One of the best compliments I ever got was Conan saying to me, "You know what I like about you? You're smart enough to be scared. So many guys come on cocky, they don't want to go over their stuff, they don't want to do a pre-interview. You're always smart enough to be worried till the last minute." That will not stop. You get some guys who get all cocky and they fall right on their fucking face.

SR: You learn to trust your stuff.

CR: I trust it, but you still have to — you can have your stuff, but your footwork's still got to be right, you got to follow through, all these things. Even when you have your stuff, you cannot have your stuff because you're not doing one thing.

SR: But nobody else is going to go out there and be you.

CR: Somebody'll be me, tomorrow or whenever. I've been doing this awhile. My time's limited. I've been doing this awhile.

SR: You haven't lost anything off your fastball.

CR: I don't think I've lost anything off my fastball, but soon you'll see somebody else's fastball. There's nothing like a new fastball.

SR: Who's the next guy?

CR: I like this Hannibal Buress kid. Black guy. The illegitimate son of Mitch Hedberg. Get his record — you'll like it. If you like stand-up — see, a lot of people inherently don't like stand-up, so when they judge a stand-up, they actually look at what he's wearing. There's been a lot of hair bands the last few years in the stand-up world. I will name no names, but I haven't heard the words good-looking so much in my life. Who the fuck gives a fuck what a stand-up looks like?

SR: To me, it's a miracle that guys can just get up there.

CR: And produce laughter. It's kind of a magic trick. I still don't understand it.

THE APPENDIX: A (Very) Related Q&A with Comedian Hannibal Buress >>

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