The last time Frank Rich had a conversation with Chris Rock was in early 1996, when they and the 1950s teen heartthrob Pat Boone were thrown together in a New York television studio as panelists on Bill Maher’s old show Politically Incorrect. This time they had two conversations in a New York hotel lounge as Rock prepared for the release of Top Five, a bittersweet film comedy in which he does triple duty as director, screenwriter, and star.
We’ve just come through an election that was a triumph for Fox News and a fiasco for Obama. What do you make of it?
Jon Stewart has said the reason Fox News works better than CNN is because the people at Fox News figured out how to make themselves into victims.
So will it now be harder for Republicans to play victims?
They have no problem playing victims.
Even in victory?
Even in victory. America — not black America, but America as a whole — started in England and was ruled by kings and queens and had a class system. I’m almost of the mind that that’s what America wants at the end of the day. Maybe America wants monopolies.
They always seem to want a Bush or a Clinton.
Maybe they just want a Bush. Maybe they want no regulations. It’s hard for me to figure out people voting against their own self-interests. At some point you go, Okay: Is that what they want?
Is it possible that they’re just angry, whether it’s anger at Obama or Washington in general, and they just want to lash out? If you’re angry, you don’t rationally consider what’s in your self-interest.
Maybe. But we had Bush for eight years. They saw what that was. Apparently a lot of people want to go back to that. A lot of people think rich people are smart.
For all the current conversation about income inequality, class is still sort of the elephant in the room.
Oh, people don’t even know. If poor people knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets. If the average person could see the Virgin Airlines first-class lounge, they’d go, “What? What? This is food, and it’s free, and they … what? Massage? Are you kidding me?”
You recently hosted Saturday Night Live, and in the monologue, where you were talking about the opening of One World Trade, my wife and I both felt just like you: No way are we going into that building. But you look online the next morning, and some people were offended and accused you of disparaging the 9/11 victims. The political correctness that was thought to be dead is now—
Oh, it’s back stronger than ever. I don’t pay that much attention to it. I mean, you don’t want to piss off the people that are paying you, obviously, but otherwise I’ve just been really good at ignoring it. Honestly, it’s not that people were offended by what I said. They get offended by how much fun I appear to be having while saying it. You could literally take everything I said on Saturday night and say it on Meet the Press, and it would be a general debate, and it would go away. But half of it’s because they think they can hurt comedians.
That they can hurt your career?
Yeah. They think you’re more accessible than Tom Brokaw saying the exact same thing.
What do you make of the attempt to bar Bill Maher from speaking at Berkeley for his riff on Muslims?
Well, I love Bill, but I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.
In their political views?
Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.
When did you start to notice this?
About eight years ago. Probably a couple of tours ago. It was just like, This is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember talking to George Carlin before he died and him saying the exact same thing.
A few days ago I was talking with Patton Oswalt, and he was exercised about the new reality that any comedian who is trying out material that’s a little out there can be fucked by someone who blasts it on Twitter or a social network.
I know Dave Chappelle bans everybody’s phone when he plays a club. I haven’t gone that far, but I may have to, to get an act together for a tour.
Does it force you into some sort of self-censorship?
It does. I swear I just had a conversation with the people at the Comedy Cellar about how we can make cell phones into cigarettes. If you would have told me years ago that they were going to get rid of smoking in comedy clubs, I would have thought you were crazy.
It is scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like fucking Sammy the Bull, you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, “Oh, I went too far,” and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.
I assume you worked on the SNL material in the confines of the studio and that it never went before an audience?
Comedy Cellar all week. If I messed up a word here and there, which I did, it could really be get-him-out-of-here offensive. But you just watch to make sure nobody tapes it. You watch and you watch hard. And you make sure the doorman’s watching. What Patton’s trying to say is, like, comedians need a place where we can work on that stuff. And by the way: An audience that’s not laughing is the biggest indictment that something’s too far. No comedian’s ever done a joke that bombs all the time and kept doing it. Nobody in the history of stand-up. Not one guy.
What is the worst audience you’ve ever played to?
I had a really bad show in Biloxi, Mississippi. That sounds so cliché. Last tour, Obama was running, and I was doing all my stuff, and it was hostile.
Was the audience black, white, mixed?
Probably more white than black. A few thousand seats. Playing a casino.
Always a problem, I suppose.
Especially on a Friday night. Friday-night second show’s the worst because they’ve been drinking since they got off work. We definitely were like, “Wow. Let’s drive to another town. We should not sleep here.”
Do you use social media at all?
You know, I got my Hulu account. Is it the Hulu account? Wait, what is this thing? Not Hulu.
Hulu’s to watch TV.
Dude, I’m getting old. It’s WhoSay, which allows you to tweet, Facebook, and Instagram simultaneously. It’s perfect for someone that’s not 25.
Do you sit around and read other people’s Tumblr accounts, or their tweets, or follow them on Facebook?
A little. I follow a couple people on Instagram. You’ve got to follow all that stuff. You have to understand it, because if you don’t, then you’re going to sound like an old guy. You got to have the ability to use it as a reference. A lot of the time, the difference between hip and unhip is just reference. We did some sketch the other night on SNL, and in it I tell my wife — actually, we messed it up, but it was better in the dress — anyway, I tell my wife, “Hey, honey, the cab’s here.” Then I look at it again. I go, “You know what? We got to rewrite this.” “Hey, honey, the Uber’s here.” That little difference, it’s a big, big deal. I remember seeing Robin Williams at Town Hall. He did some Elmer Fudd bit, and I was like, dude, if you change that to SpongeBob—
You’ll get the laugh.
You’ll seem a lot hipper. I do not wish to become Alan King quite yet.
I haven’t thought about him in a long time. He had an incredible longevity.
He was amazing. But there’s a certain type of These kids today and the rock and roll, you know?
Whereas Joan Rivers …
Great person, underrated comedian. Who the hell’s funnier than Joan Rivers? That whole reference thing: Joan updated constantly.
Well, she was voracious.
Okay, these Liz Taylor jokes are gone, and they are now Lindsay Lohan jokes. The compliment you give of a comedian is: Who wants to follow them onstage? Nobody wanted to follow Joan Rivers, ever. Even in her 80s, nobody wanted to follow her.
You’ve always been incredibly respectful and a fan of great comedians ahead of you. Have any ever been disdainful of you?
I mean, maybe Cosby early on, but he turned pretty quick. Other than that, nobody.
What do you make of what’s happening to Cosby now?
I don’t know what to say. What do you say? I hope it’s not true. That’s all you can say. I really do. I grew up on Cosby. I love Cosby, and I just hope it’s not true. It’s a weird year for comedy. We lost Robin, we lost Joan, and we kind of lost Cosby.
What about conservative comedians? You and Dennis Miller were on SNL together. Is it just because I don’t share his politics that I find him less funny, or is there something about conservative stand-up that just doesn’t work?
Yeah, he was there my first year. He used to bust my balls. He’d come into my office and say, “Hey, Rock, how’s that ‘next Eddie’ thing working out?” Oh, he’s definitely less funny. You know where he’s going. Smart as hell, but you know where he’s going. The middle’s where it’s at, comically. I mean, what do you got? Miller, Stewart, Maher.
Miller on the right, Stewart in the middle, Maher on the left?
And the most successful guy’s …
Stewart’s middle-to-left, but he’s still more in the middle.
In Miller’s case, do you think that identifying with those in power is an impediment to laughter?
I’ll say this. Poor people laugh harder than rich people. Especially black people, they laugh with their feet, too.
I know that it’s Miller who first introduced you to Robin Williams. What did you make of his tragic end?
Comedians kill themselves. Talk to 100 comedians this week, everybody knows somebody who killed themselves. I mean, we always say ignorance is bliss. Well, if so, what’s the opposite? Some form of misery. Being a comedian, 80 percent of the job is just you notice shit, which is a trait of schizophrenics too. You notice things people don’t notice.
And it either makes you crazy or it doesn’t. How do you defend against it yourself?
You try to give yourself other things to focus on. I always say, my children saved me from my miserable self.
Let’s talk about Obama a bit. You have been a fan. Have you ever met him?
Yeah, a couple times.
And what did you make of him?
Kind of cool. I always say, cooler than most politicians, not as cool as actual cool people. He’s not cool like Jay Z’s cool. He’s not Eddie Murphy. But in a world of politicians …
When he first came on the scene, we learned he listened to Jay Z. He watched The Wire. Do you think he has had any effect on pop culture?
I’m not sure. I mean, time will tell, and what I mean by “time will tell” is: We’ll see who gets into politics. That’s the real test. In a weird way, him saying he listens to Jay Z — it’s kind of revolutionary, because he’s of the age that he’s supposed to listen to that stuff. And so he’s a little more himself than most politicians. We’ll see if more politicians end up being just themselves.
What do you think of how he’s done? Here we are in the last two years of his presidency, and there’s a sense among his supporters of disappointment, that he’s disengaged.
I’m trying to figure out the right analogy. Everybody wanted Michael Jordan, right? We got Shaq. That’s not a disappointment. You know what I mean? We got Charles Barkley. It’s still a Hall of Fame career. The president should be graded on jobs and peace, and the other stuff is debatable. Do more people have jobs, and is there more peace? I guess there’s a little more peace. Not as much peace as we’d like, but I mean, that’s kind of the gig. I don’t recall anybody leaving on an up. It’s just that kind of job. I mean, the liberals that are against him feel let down because he’s not Bush. And the thing about George Bush is that the kid revolutionized the presidency. How? He was the first president who only served the people who voted for him. He literally operated like a cable network. You know what I mean?
He pandered to his target audience.
He’s the first cable-television president, and the thing liberals don’t like about Obama is that he’s a network guy. He’s kind of Les Moonves. He’s trying to get everybody. And I think he’s figured out, and maybe a little late, that there’s some people he’s never going to get.
When you mentioned Bush, I thought you were going to say something else, which is that he had this “good versus evil” manner of speaking — the Western sheriff who’s come to lay down the law. Obama’s been faulted for not showing anger in public, and for not speaking in simple, declarative Bushisms. Of course, the moment he does do that, he’s accused of being an angry black man.
There’s an advantage that Bush had that Obama doesn’t have. People thinking you’re dumb is an advantage. Obama started as a genius. It’s like, What? I’ve got to keep doing that? That’s hard to do! So it’s not that Obama’s disappointing. It’s just his best album might have been his first album.
What has Obama done wrong?
When Obama first got elected, he should have let it all just drop.
Let what drop?
Just let the country flatline. Let the auto industry die. Don’t bail anybody out. In sports, that’s what any new GM does. They make sure that the catastrophe is on the old management and then they clean up. They don’t try to save old management’s mistakes.
That’s clever. You let it all go to hell.
Let it all go to hell knowing good and well this is on them. That way you can implement. You hire your own coach. You get your own players. He could have got way more done. You know, we’ve all been on planes that had tremendous turbulence, but we forget all about it. Now, if you live through a plane crash, you’ll never forget that. Maybe Obama should have let the plane crash. You get credit for bringing somebody back from the dead. You don’t really get credit for helping a sick person by administering antibiotics.
One thing that was so exciting to many people, including you and me, when Obama got in was the hope, however delusional, that his election signaled some kind of racial progress in America. When, in fact, I don’t think there’s been much at all.
Grown people, people over 30, they’re not changing. But you’ve got kids growing up.
Your own kids are all girls, right?
All girls. I mean, I almost cry every day. I drop my kids off and watch them in the school with all these mostly white kids, and I got to tell you, I drill them every day: Did anything happen today? Did anybody say anything?They look at me like I am crazy.
And you think this change is generational? That maybe it has nothing to do with Obama?
It’s partly generational, but it’s also my kids grew up not only with a black president but with a black secretary of State, a black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general. My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people.
I hope you’re right.
But these things take a while. The Triborough Bridge has been called the Robert F. Kennedy for years now, and we’re still calling it the Triborough Bridge.
We still have some white people taking the Sarah Palin line about blacks and immigrants alike. They want to “take back the country” — and we know from whom. I find it depressing. The increments of change seem to be so much tinier than we wanted to believe when the Civil Rights Act passed 50 years ago, or when Obama was elected in 2008.
Yeah. The stuff you’re talking about is pockets though. There’s always going to be people that don’t know that the war’s over. I’m more optimistic than you, but maybe it’s because I live the way I do. I just have a great life, so it’s easier for me to say things are great. But not even me. My brothers drive trucks and stock shelves. They live in a much better world than my father did. My mother tells stories of growing up in Andrews, South Carolina, and the black people had to go to the vet to get their teeth pulled out. And you still had to go to the back door, because if the white people knew the vet had used his instruments on black people, they wouldn’t take their pets to the vet. This is not some person I read about. This is my mother.
What about the speed of change in gay rights? If, 20 years ago, someone told me that same-sex marriage would become more or less the law of the land, I would have thought it was preposterous.
Yeah. I mean, you got to remember, the women’s movement and the civil-rights movement, even getting rid of Prohibition — it all loosened up the country for the gay-rights movement. Anybody that’s old enough realizes none of these movements has ever been stopped.
Do you think gay-rights progress has more to do with the shaming of people or the education of people?
Both. I always call Ellen DeGeneres the gay Rosa Parks. If Rosa Parks had one of the most popular daytime TV shows, I’m sure the civil-rights movement would’ve moved a little bit faster too.
Which I think is actually bigger than the football player. Because the average person in that locker room is in his 20s. And it’s just not a big deal to be around a gay guy — if you’re in your 20s. Whereas Tim Cook is around these corporate guys. That is the epitome of a boys’ club. That is sexist, racist — the least inclusive group of people you’re ever going to find. Men who have no problem being called owners. Who actually wants to be called an owner, even if you owned a football team? Just the title owner is just so nasty and disgusting.
It does have a kind of antebellum ring.
So Tim Cook came out to those guys. He’s in that club. My God.
I remember when I was a kid and Jack Kennedy had little kids in the White House. Are your daughters taken by the fact that there are young girls in the White House?
Yeah, but you’ve got to remember, they’re so young. Zahra was 4 when Obama was nominated. So as far as they’re concerned, there have always been little black girls in the White House.
What do your kids think of the First Kids?
They think they’re cute. The Obama girls are older than them, which makes them want to play with them more. They look at their hair, the way they dress. They wanted that dog. You know, “Oh, can we get a dog like Bo?”
No. There’s a stuffed Bo in the house. It’s a fake Bo.
Do your kids find you funny?
Sometimes. My daughter Lola was like, “Kevin Hart’s funnier than you.”
Has she seen your new movie?
No, it’s too risqué for her. I’ve got to watch a PG before I’ll let them see it.
Top Five is almost like an homage to Woody Allen — it’s like you are playing Alvy Singer.
I’ve checked into hotels under Alvy Singer.
A star comedian is having a kind of midlife crisis, wanting to do more serious material, but everyone is always saying, “I liked your funnier stuff better.” It’s Stardust Memories, too.
I’m not going to do September. I promise you …
I don’t think people understand how hard it is to write comedy. The gestation period, the trying out of jokes, the whittling them down — a lot of people may not understand that, in some ways, drama may be easier.
It’s not may. It is easier.
It just is. Hey, man, I loved Gone Girl. Loved it. But you could probably get other directors — I’m not saying they’d make it as good as Fincher, but you could get it from beginning to end and get a reaction out of it, where you can’t really do that with comedy.
Every moment has to pay off.
In this sense, comedy’s really fair. It’s not like music, where you can hire Timbaland and he gives you a beat and a song, and even though you can’t sing it’s a hit. Comedy, especially stand-up comedy, it’s like: Who’s funny?
It’s a ruthless marketplace.
It’s the only thing that smacks Hollywood out of its inherent racism, sexism, anti-Semitism. It makes people hire people that they would never hire otherwise. Do they really want to do a show with Roseanne Barr? No, they want a thin blonde girl.
But she’s funny.
She’s just funnier than everybody. I’m not even sure they wanted to do a Seinfeld show, but he’s just funnier than everybody.
He’s not a matinee idol. He’s Jewish, nerdy. And recently he said publicly he was somewhere on the autism spectrum as a comedian.
He bores easily. I bore easily. Not because I’m on some spectrum, but because I hear so many conversations again and again. So many people come up to you, and not enough people try to take into account what you’ve heard already.
Let’s put it this way. Take Anchorman. Now switch the directors of Anchorman and Gone Girl and give them their movies to do. Adam McKay’s going to get closer to Gone Girl than Fincher is going to get to Anchorman.
It’s not even close.
Okay, but Woody Allen—
I don’t even think Woody does comedy. I think he does dramas with jokes. They’re all sad at their core.
But what is drama without jokes? Even Death of a Salesman has jokes. Are there other stories you think you might want to tell that are dramatic but would have jokes?
Oh, yeah. The script I’m working on now is the same tone. I can’t go too much into it, but it’s based on a civil-rights icon. A radio guy with a talk show. Kind of an Al Sharpton guy who’s against Obama in the year Obama runs. It’s the life of a black guy going against the grain while this thing is happening around him.
That’d be a great role for you. Do you know people like that?
Oh, yeah. Tavis Smiley, Cornel West. They’re both intelligent, sincere guys. I think it’s an interesting thing to play.
Before Obama arrived, you were saying that there’d been Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and then black leaders in America became like substitute teachers.
I mean, you got to realize, there’s not a need for it the way there was. Back then, we needed that guy for our day-to-day existence. Now you only feel the need in special cases. So, okay, Ferguson goes down. You’re like, Oh, it’d be great if we had a guy.
When Al Sharpton goes down to Ferguson, it feels like a media ritual rather than an actual civil-rights action.
It’s a revival, where King was doing an original play. It’s a good part. The lead is open.
When you made the movie Good Hair, it was almost a 60 Minutes kind of investigative piece.
I would love to be a 60 Minutes correspondent.
What would you want to cover?
I would cover anything. I mean, I’d be in Ferguson right now, and it would be in-depth, and it would be funny.
It’s hard to do funny in journalism.
No, it’s not. It’s all in the cut.
What would you do in Ferguson that a standard reporter wouldn’t?
I’d do a special on race, but I’d have no black people.
Well, that would be much more revealing.
Yes, that would be an event. Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.
Right. It’s ridiculous.
So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.
It’s about white people adjusting to a new reality?
Owning their actions. Not even their actions. The actions of your dad. Yeah, it’s unfair that you can get judged by something you didn’t do, but it’s also unfair that you can inherit money that you didn’t work for.
Would you seek out someone to interview who might not normally be sought out?
I would get you to interview somebody, and I would put something in your ear, and I’d ask the questions through you.
You’d have a white guy.
And I would ask them questions that you would never come up with, and we’d have the most amazing interviews ever.
And we’d be asking white people and black people?
Just white people. We know how black people feel about Ferguson — outraged, upset, cheated by the system, all these things.
So you think people can be lulled into saying the outrageous shit they really feel?
Michael Moore has no problem getting it. Because he looks like them. But the problem is the press accepts racism. It has never dug into it.
When Obama was running for president, a certain kind of white person would routinely tell reporters, “He’s just not one of us.” Few reporters want to push that person to the wall and say, “What do you mean he’s not like you, unless you’re talking about the fact that he’s African-American?” Where else besides Ferguson would you hypothetically want to interview white people?
I’d love to do some liberal places, because you can be in the most liberal places and there’s no black people.
I assume one such place is Hollywood.
I don’t think I’ve had any meetings with black film execs. Maybe one. It is what it is. As I told Bill Murray, Lost in Translation is a black movie: That’s what it feels like to be black and rich. Not in the sense that people are being mean to you. Bill Murray’s in Tokyo, and it’s just weird. He seems kind of isolated. He’s always around Japanese people. Look at me right now.
We’re sitting on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel overlooking Central Park.
And there’s only really one black person here who’s not working. Bill Murray in Lost in Translation is what Bryant Gumbel experiences every day. Or Al Roker. Rich black guys. It’s a little off.
But the thing is, we treat racism in this country like it’s a style that America went through. Like flared legs and lava lamps. Oh, that crazy thing we did. We were hanging black people. We treat it like a fad instead of a disease that eradicates millions of people. You’ve got to get it at a lab, and study it, and see its origins, and see what it’s immune to and what breaks it down.
Recently there’s been a spate of movies that have tried to look at the origins of the disease: 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, Lincoln.
But do they make any difference, or do people just say, “Oh, that’s history, and slavery was bad,” and they don’t cause people
I think it causes some people to reflect. I mean, again, it’s the kids. It’ll help a little bit. Of the ones you just mentioned, the only one I really liked is 12 Years a Slave, because it just didn’t feel the need to make people feel comfortable.
Sarah Paulson was one of the most evil white people ever onscreen. She was brilliant.
I don’t know who won the Oscar, but it should’ve been hers. When they had slave revolts in the past, they would always kill Massa’s wife first.
Talk to me a little about the trajectory of Top Five. I gather there was wild enthusiasm at the premiere in Toronto and a bidding war — and now this very personal, independent movie is on a fast track. Has this been exciting?
There’s a humongous screening in Toronto. All the buyers are there. All the critics are there. I believe the bids were coming in before the movie was over.
That’s the ADD of the industry writ large.
They had a little after-party at the Soho House in Toronto. And you know, you’re just shaking hands. It’s the Lionsgate people, and it’s the Fox 2000 people and Paramount and Screen Gems. “I hope we’re doing it with you. I hope we’re doing it with you.” It’s like running for office.
They’re jockeying for distribution rights.
Yeah. Everybody’s on the phone all night, essentially. It’s like election returns. It’s at 6. It’s at 10. You know what I mean? A lot of money for a film at a festival is like $3 million, so for a movie to sell for $12.5 million is unheard of.
How are they opening the movie? In major cities first?
You know what? They’re getting greedy, which is scaring me a little bit. It was supposed to be New York and L.A. the 5th, and then the rest of the country on the 12th. Now they’re just going for the whole country on the 12th. It feels like they’re going to go for 2,000 screens. Every screening’s gone amazingly well, but something inside me keeps saying, This is a little movie.
So if the movie opens, and it’s disappointing, how do you think you’ll react? I mean you care, obviously, but …
I mean, you care, but suppose, what, the movie makes a billion dollars? It’s not going to affect my day with my kids. If it makes two cents, it’s not going to affect my day with my kids. Fine, the movie comes out Friday, Saturday I will take Zahra to gymnastics. I hope Annie’s out. We’ll go see Annie.
I’m always scared, though. I remember Sacha Cohen a week or two before Borat came out. I remember him being scared. He was like, “I don’t know if the tracking was right,” or whatever. It was supposed to open in about 2,000 screens, and they opened it in 800. It actually played better in 800, because it played to a packed house. I like the concept of every house packed. But who knows? The marketing costs are more than the movie. Some of that is them charging themselves. Paramount’s paying Viacom. Viacom owns MTV, BET, Comedy Central. So if you’re paying for a commercial on Comedy Central — it could be $20 million, it could be $5 million, it could be $50 million. Who the hell knows what the hell they’re really spending?
It’s bookkeeping. What’s your relationship with the Hollywood power structure? How do you deal with the failures you’ve had there?
I’m still on the table, which is good. No one’s yanked me off. You can be behind and on the table. I never take any of it personally. It’s all money, especially when you’re talking about playing a lead of anything. I guess if you’re a supporting character, friendships may come into play here and there — strings can be pulled in the lower echelons. But as far as being a leading man, there’s a printout, and there’s how much the movie made here, here, and here. How do you do in Budapest? How do you do in Calgary? Germany? And they make the decision.
Does all that make you want to release on your own?
I was talking to Steve McQueen a couple weeks ago about this. People come up to us and are like, “Get the funding yourself, and put it out yourself.” Dude, I can’t run a candy store.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, Top Five is a hit. What would be the top career goal on your wish list?
I’ve been around a long time, and the thing not to chase is stardom. It’s like chasing hits. I would just do another little movie. But don’t get me wrong: If Marvel wants to throw me something—
Put you in a costume—
If they want to say, “Hey, that little movie you made? Well here’s a big movie” — like they did with Singer? Yeah, I’m open to that. If somebody wants to do something that crazy.
Do you like directing?
I do. I like the control. I like creating a world. It’s your world. If you want gravity in it, there’s gravity. If there’s not, things will float. And I like to create a tone. If there’s anything I’m proud of with this movie, it’s that we got a really good comedic tone that can be funny and real at the same time. I think parts of this movie feel like a Richard Linklater movie.
And at times, like at the end, it’s almost a romantic comedy.
There’s a sprinkle of Ephron in there. Just a sprinkle. I can’t pour on too much Ephron. She and I used to talk about making a movie all the time. She always used to say to me, “Are you ready to walk? That’s the only way we’re going to make a movie. We’re going to have to do a lot of walking and talking.”
Who would’ve directed it?
She would’ve directed it. I wanted her to direct me really bad. I’d love to do a Nancy Meyers movie.
As an actor?
Just an actor.
Who’s a leading lady you’d like to be up against?
I don’t know. Kerry Washington? It can be anybody though. Whoever she likes. I love her. It’s nice taking your mother to a Nancy Meyers movie. It’s tradition. They should have one every Thanksgiving or Christmas.
You live in New Jersey.
I’m in Alpine. That’s not Jersey. That’s like Beverly Hills with freaking snow.
And with Chris Christie. Were you caught on the G.W. Bridge?
I was caught on the bridge! He didn’t do it to mess up the bridge. He did it because it just messes up the whole town around the bridge. Just imagine: a whole town paralyzed.
How did you react when you found out it might be politically motivated?
You just want to choke somebody. If you live near the bridge, you know you’re going to have like seven bad days a year. But you hate to think one of them is on purpose.
Christie’s running for president. It could also be Jeb Bush versus Hillary.
It’s still not a done deal with Hillary. Remember, she was ahead last time. She had all the black people. And she lost to somebody she really shouldn’t have lost to.
Obama came out of nowhere, basically. At which point Bill Clinton started making public statements that often seemed one step away from knifing Obama.
He’s a dick, but you’re talking about a guy who’s embarrassed his wife. So he had a choice, and I couldn’t judge him. I had to choose between pissing off all the black people in the world or having my wife mad at me? Then the hell with the black people, because he doesn’t live with all the black people. He lives with his wife.
Even though he was the first black president.
Allegedly. Until a black guy showed up.
Who in the Democratic Party could go after Hillary, though? There doesn’t seem to be anyone like Barack Obama.
There was no Barack Obama until Barack Obama either. I mean, I would love to see Hillary, but there’s a part of Hillary that’s like the Democratic McCain at this point. As he showed, “It’s my time” is not really enough. But you know, I’m absolutely ready for a woman president. I’m ready for a woman nighttime-talk-show host, to tell you the truth. I wonder which will be first.
What about your future? We talked about the risks of being a comedian in an age when politically correct vigilantes can pillory you on social media. What’s the worst thing that can happen to you?
If you really got barred off of TV shows, that would hurt you a little bit. But comedians are like preachers, and they have congregations. As long as you’re good to your congregation, you’ll be fine.
The congregation sort of protects you unless you really spite them.
Unless you turn your back on them artistically. I’m going to say this about sitcoms. There might be one exception to this, but from what I can see right now, never in the history of television has television created a comedy star. The person was always rich and had a level of fame before they got there. Jerry Seinfeld. Bill Cosby was rich. Jay Leno was rich. Roseanne Barr was rich. Lucille Ball was big in vaudeville. Abbott & Costello were big in vaudeville.
That’s right, and a lot of them were big in radio: Jack Benny—
Redd Foxx. They all come with a congregation.
Right, and that’s distinguishing comics from, say, Carroll O’Connor, who was an actor.
That’s the advantage comedians have.
So in some sense you have protection. But how do you push the envelope in stand-up now?
You just do it. You do a movie for a lot of people. Hey, I’m doing a movie with Paramount, and so on some level that’s for the masses. When you do stand-up, you do it for your fans. I’d like to get new fans, don’t get me wrong, but I’m doing stand-up for the people that have come to see me throughout the years. They expect a little something. I’ve got to give them that thing. If I don’t, they’re going to be pissed.
When you’re looking for subjects, do you go with your gut?
You keep notes. You look for the recurring. What’s not going away? Boy, this police-brutality thing — it seems to be lingering. What’s going to happen here? You don’t even have the joke, you just say, “Okay, what’s the new angle that makes me not sound like a preacher?” Forget being a comedian, just act like a reporter. What’s the question that hasn’t been asked? How come white kids don’t get shot? Have you ever watched television and seen some white kid get shot by accident?
And out of that comes comedy.
Comes humor. You laughed right away. I just asked a question that no one had ever asked.
Where do you think this comes from?
When I started doing comedy at Catch a Rising Star, I used to get there at 7:45 and leave about two in the morning. That’s six hours a night watching comedians for a good six years straight. Just watching, watching, watching. What I learned more than what I wanted to be was what I didn’t want to be and what I didn’t want to say.
There were just too many cliché jokes. I never wanted to do that horrible gay voice that everybody does. I didn’t want to be swishing and all that crap. I didn’t want to do impressions of each ethnic group. A lot of comedians are very, very similar. So I’ve always said, “Okay, what if the thing that everybody’s talking about is wrong?”
Is there a part of you that feels ready to go back on tour?
I don’t know. I think I’d rather be on tour right now.
The exhilaration of performing?
There’s the exhilaration of performing. There’s more money. It’s far more lucrative. And there’s a lot of compromise in movies. Whereas stand-up, you don’t even have a director. You literally make every decision. But kids, man. Kids, and schedules, and traveling.
There’s such a romance about the road.
Yeah, it’s a romance, but I’d still rather go to my daughter’s basketball game. Lola scored seven points on Sunday! Got a couple rebounds. Playing Radio City would not be as fun as watching my daughter hit a three. I’ll eventually get a James Taylor schedule.
Some people just don’t play during the school year. They get that down, buff it. There’s the Memorial Day–to–Labor Day tour with James.
You sound like a guy who’s turning 50 next year. Do you ever feel that you can never be as edgy as you once were?
I probably can’t, but it’s okay. I didn’t recall a lack of edge in George Carlin. Joan didn’t seem to have calmed down at all. I don’t think they were thinking about edge. I think they were just thinking about, How am I going to be funny? It’s funny first.
*This article appears in the December 1, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.