The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
When you think of Chris Rock, you probably think one of the following: 1. That really funny standup. 2. The guy from SNL who made the really funny Top Five. 3. That funny guy who’s hosting The Oscars this year. (You might think a fourth thing that doesn’t fit into my list, but hang on, I’m going somewhere with this.) The part of his resume that may not remember as it’s in the recent past now, is the role of “talk show host.” From 1997 to 2000, The Chris Rock Show aired on HBO, perfectly blending his voice as a comedian with the basically all-white world of late night comedy, and was shaped by a stellar writing staff that included Louis CK, Wanda Sykes, and Nick DiPaolo, among many others. Tonight we look back at the first episode of his show from February 7, 1997.
There is a tradition now with late night shows, which to my knowledge goes back to Letterman’s first show, that usually your first episode begins with some kind of cold open. The Chris Rock Show is no different. In a short bit entitled “Chris Rock Remembers,” Chris gives us a tour of the backstage of his show at some indeterminate point in the future, reflecting on the many memories he’s had doing it. There’s the photo of the show’s first writing staff (Chris surrounded by a bunch of white people). A headshot of the show’s original “Chris Rock” that he replaced. He shows us a photo (I’m not sure if it’s doctored or from the early 80s) of Chris with a Prince-style haircut and denim jacket. He informs us that the original Chris “drowned in a vat of activator.” He comes across a VHS tape that sparks a memory from the show’s history: “I’ll never forget the time OJ came buy to sell his new tape.” He holds it up to show the camera, revealing a title that would turn out to be rather prescient: “I Didn’t Kill My Wife, But If I Did, This is How I Would Have Done It.” Sitting next to this tape is one of the first episode of The Chris Rock Show. Chris pops it in for us.
After a theme song performed live by Grandmaster Flash, Chris takes the stage and performs his monologue. Immediately one can feel Rock’s standup chops come through as he delivers his jokes, using his tried and true method of punching certain ideas for an extra laugh, to make the idea stick with the audience. “New York, home of the crack priest!” His jokes don’t center on African American issues, but the one that gets the biggest reaction from the crowd is one that Leno or Letterman could never have told. While discussing the topic of Ebonics he states, “there’s two ways of speaking. One way if you want a job…” and as he pauses, before he can say “and the other way,” the crowd is nearly drowning him out with laughter.
We then go into a pre-taped bit in which Chris goes into a predominately white neighborhood in Queens to try to get them to rename one of their streets after a slain black icon, in the same vein as the Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Boulevards in various black neighborhoods. His petition to rename Crossbay Boulevard “Tupac Shakur Boulevard” is met with a wide variety of reactions. These range from “He should have died before he was born,” to “I think you’ve got a pair of balls to come in a neighborhood like this…” to people proudly displaying yard signs reading “I support Tupac Shakur Boulevard.”
Chris’s first guest is none other than Johnnie Cochran. If you’re younger than, let’s say 25, and you’ve haven’t been watching FX lately, Cochran was one of the biggest names in the OJ Simpson defense, with an ostentatious speaking style and the man who coined the phrase “if it does not fit, you must acquit.” Rock is not afraid to ask Cochran anything, and sums up his interviewing style quite well in an interview to promote his second season in 1998 when he said his show is like “a comic version of Face the Nation, with hard-hitting questions that may… make guests uncomfortable.” One of his first questions for Cochran was “Does OJ owe you any money?” and then following that up shortly after with “When’s the last time you represented a poor man?”
If Rock seems nervous to interview guests, it only lasts a few moments before he gets comfortable enough to start riffing. When talking about defending football players, Cochran mentions that he also defended NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown, and Chris immediately jumps in: “When he threw that white girl out a window?!” “That was just an allegation,” quickly clarifies. This is exactly the window Rock was looking for and he begins to imagine Cochran arguing this case. “Oh. Right. She thought she could fly, your honor! My client happened to be behind her. Why should he have to do any time, your honor? If she can’t fly, don’t ask me why!” All Johnnie can do is laugh.
As a transitional piece, a pre-taped commercial airs for action figures commemorating The Million Man March, featuring such figures as Leon from Atlanta. Andre from Compton. Cedric from Memphis. Mario, Keith, Lil’ Bit, Snoop and many more. Each month you’ll be sent 50,000 figures, and if you want them, do nothing and you’ll be billed later. Otherwise, just send them back, and you’ll be billed later. Then, Chris is joined by the show’s legal correspondent Coleman Brooks (played by Mario Joyner) who discusses a recent robbery in Brooklyn, but the more details he gives, the more clearly it becomes that Coleman is the one who did it. After showing the security footage, Chris exclaims, “Coleman! That was you!” “Chris, allegedly.” He then explains his defense: he was a victim of entrapment. There was a store with money in it, he was broke, so the store forced him to come in and rob it. Chris points out that if they slow down the footage and enlarge it, it’ll be impossible to deny that it’s him, and Coleman counters that if they speed up the footage and shrink it, there’ll be no way to tell. “Why the fuck would they do that? I thought you were a legal correspondent!” “Allegedly, Chris.”
(According to the Paley Center’s notes on this episode, apparently Prince performed a song at the end of this show, but this was missing from their tape. There probably wouldn’t have been much comedy in it for me to report on, though.)
As the credits roll we see Chris go back to his dressing room where Conan O’Brien is waiting to congratulate him. “That was great! You really earned your wings out there.” He then produces a military badge, and thrusts it into Rock’s chest, who begins bleeding and screaming. (This is parodying the then-topical “blood wings” military hazing scandal that was a big deal for a little while in the mid-90s when secret video footage was shown on the national news and apparently really traumatized me as a kid because I can still clearly picture seeing it as I ate dinner with my family. Thanks for the therapy bills, Dan Rather.)
The Chris Rock Show survived for five seasons but has all but disappeared, except for a DVD release of the first 17 episodes ten years ago. In the aforementioned interview Rock states that he doesn’t much care about his audience size: “I’m not in the mass business. I’d rather play 5,000 seats than 105,000 seats.” But after five years of the show, Rock decided he’d rather explore other opportunities and began branching into films and standup specials. You can see elements of The Chris Rock Show in other programs like Last Week Tonight and The Daily Show, but the fact of the matter is, though some have close, there hasn’t been another show quite like Chris’s since.