Chris Rock

The William F-ing Buckley of stand-up.

Will Chris Rock upstage Oscar?
Will Chris Rock upstage Oscar?

On Sunday night, Chris Rock is slotted to host the Academy Awards, to the displeasure of two people: Matt Drudge and Chris Rock. Drudge thinks Rock is dangerous. Rock wants people to think that he is.

In two postings, Drudge warned that Rock’s selection promised to throw the broadcast “into complete chaos.” He hyperventilated about Rock’s foul mouth—”One audio recording captures Rock firing off more than 35 F-words per minute!”—and told Fox’s Hannity and Colmes that the comedian’s off-color repertoire would tarnish the last remaining Hollywood institution where you can “go for class, for a night of celebration where everybody cleans up.” (Presumably what he meant to say was “everybody but Peter Jackson.”)

What really bugs Drudge isn’t the F-words, which thanks to a several-second broadcast delay you’re no more likely to hear at the Oscars than a Mike Leigh acceptance speech. It’s Rock’s politics. In particular, Drudge objects to a stand-up bit in which Rock announces that “it’s beautiful that abortion is legal” and says that he likes to pick up women at abortion rallies. “‘Cause you know they’re”—well, here Rock uses one of those words Drudge doesn’t think very classy. Because he knows they’re sexually active.

That’s some tasteless “S,” no doubt about it. Drudge’s selective quoting, however, doesn’t do justice to the joke. Putting the bit in context doesn’t make it safe for the hallowed red carpet (whose purity is defended by the chaste, bare-breasted goddess Jennifer Lopez), but it does affect the meaning. Far from an encomium to fetus killing, Rock’s abortion bit is an attack on women for the frivolous manner in which they decide whether or not to keep a child. “When a woman gets pregnant, it’s a choice between the woman”—here Rock pauses, a mischievous grin barely restrained—”and her girlfriends.” From there: “One girlfriend goes, ‘Child, you should have that baby—that man got some good hair…’ And the other girlfriend says, ‘Child, why we even talking about this—ain’t we supposed to go to Cancun next week? Get rid of that baby!’ ” And that, Rock says, “is how life is decided in America.”

The assumption is that women who get abortions are frivolous and irresponsible rather than poor and desperate, as a liberal might have it. Not much there to offend a conservative’s sensibilities. Though Drudge claims the academy “went to the gutter” by picking Rock, where it actually went was to the right. Rock may speak the irreverent language of blue comedy, but more often than not, his ideas are red-state red.

Take, for instance, the opening numbers in Bigger & Blacker, the HBO special Rock did in 1999. He begins with a discussion of the Columbine shootings, then recent, dismissing attempts to examine the shooters’ psychology. “What ever happened to crazy?” he demands. He next turns to gun control, which he’s against, and single mothers, whom he also doesn’t like. “If a kid calls his grandma ‘mama’ and his mama ‘Pam,’ he’s going to jail,” Rock explains. To all the women who leave their kids at home so they can pop some bubbly at the club, Rock has this advice: “Go take care of those kids before they rob me in 10 years.”

Sub a few $10 words for some F bombs, and this material could almost have come out of the hallowed jowls of William F. Buckley Jr. Obviously not all of Rock’s material has this bent—no decent comedian would limit himself to ribbing one side of the aisle. Rock has joked that joining a political party is like joining a gang; of his own political beliefs, he says on crime he’s conservative, on prostitution he’s liberal. But at bottom, there’s no denying the right-leaning strain underlying his social commentary. Even his economic outlook is Republican: Black people, he says, would do well to take their money out of rims and put it into stocks.

Drudge can perhaps be forgiven for missing the message. Even as Rock’s comedy has spoken up for tax cuts, Rock himself has cultivated an image of recklessness. But he’s really no more a loose cannon than he is a flaming liberal. His behavior since accepting the Oscar’s gig is a case study. From the moment he was announced as emcee (the first in 15 years not to be Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg, or David Letterman, who took one crack at it and flopped), Rock has taken every opportunity to claim that he’s an unlikely and dangerous choice for so staid an institution. The awards, he told Entertainment Weekly, reduce to a fashion show that no self-respecting straight black man would deign to sit through. “They don’t recognize comedy, and you don’t see a lot of black people nominated, so why should I watch it?” he asked. Giving awards for art, he said, was F-ing “idiotic” (though if the academy is going to give them, he prefers the un-nominated Bourne Supremacy to Finding Neverland).

These remarks predictably caused a stir everywhere from Daily Variety to the Daily News, solidifying Rock’s status as a live wire. But Rock has protested too much, and the academy too little, for this to be a real controversy. The show’s producers have stood by their man from the beginning, even copping to the show being “stuffy.” That’s because they know they’ve got nothing to worry about. Rock’s pre-show antics will only boost the show’s ratings among the people he says don’t usually watch. And when the cameras go up, Rock will stalk the stage as hungrily as he always does—but also walk the line between racy and indecent with care.

In part that’s because he has more to gain from knocking ‘em dead than mortifying ‘em. With the exception of his dramatic turn as a crack addict in New Jack City, Rock has never enjoyed Hollywood success (sorry, Pootie Tang fans). He has two films slated for release in the spring, however, and he’s poised for a breakout that the right kind of show-stopping performance on Sunday would help along.

Rock also won’t burn down the academy’s house because he’s not that kind of comedian. In Raw, Eddie Murphy’s feature-length stand-up film, Murphy opens by describing a phone call from Bill Cosby, who has called, Drudge-like, to complain that he swears too much. Nonplussed, Murphy calls Richard Pryor for advice. Pryor says tell Cosby to have a Coke and a smile and shut the … well you get the idea. The point of the bit is to establish where Murphy aligns himself in the stand-up canon—with the irreverence of Pryor, not the tamer stuff of Cosby.

Rock’s breakout 1996 HBO special Bring the Pain, on the other hand, opens by flashing a series of album covers on the screen: the seminal works of Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Cosby and Murphy and Pryor. Rock has always striven for range. He can do a bit that’s as raunchy as Pryor but he is also as spot-on about family as Cosby. Indeed, his recent material has increasingly focused on the rigors of marriage and the challenges of raising a daughter (specifically, the challenge of not raising a daughter who becomes a stripper). “I can play the Apollo, and I could play the Senate,” Rock bragged to Charlie Rose last year. “In the same day. And have great shows at both.” He’s probably right.