I was excited to watch Chris Rock's fifth HBO special, "Kill the Messenger," which aired last night. But by the end of the 90-minute show, I was disappointed, as I was at the end of "Never Scared," the comedian's last cable effort. When Rock is stalking the stage and talking about race, politics and social issues, he is at his best: insightful, creative, and most importantly: funny as hell. But when he jokes about women and relationships, he comes off as pathological and bitter. Worse (since Rock is a comedian), the women/dating/marriage schtick is hackneyed and unfunny.
First, let me say, I'm not humorless. I'm not so wrapped up in political correctness about race or gender, that I can't find humor in the taboo. My bias is toward nuanced, layered and dry comedy. I like comics who hide message and social critique and pokes at life's absurdities among the punchlines. I like the off-kilter and the edgy. I hate broad comedy and don't get slapstick. And while I find "clean" comedy boring, I lose patience with jokes that simply parrot stereotypes or offend simply for the sake of offending. And here's a confession: I saw "Tropic Thunder" and loved it, even though I noticed all the things about it that people have found so offensive. So see, I laugh at stuff.
Back in the day, Chris Rock was one of my favorite comedians. The Chris Rock I like is the one who last night pointed out that while the handful of black people living in his tony New Jersey neighborhood (Eddie Murphy, Mary J. Blige) have exceptional careers, his white neighbor is a...dentist. Rock jokes that for a black dentist to make his way into that neighborhood, he'd have to invent teeth. Another highlight of last night's special was Rock's thoughts on the 2008 presidential election. Barack Obama is so cool and calm, Rock says, you'd think he believes a black man getting the most votes is going to mean something. After all, society has been known to change the rules when black folks are playing the game. "Good you got the most votes. Too bad you lost. We don't do it that way anymore." Rock remains one of the few comedians who can kill with observations about race that move beyond the "white people do this; black people do that" tropes.
Talking about race is where Chris Rock excels, but I understand not wanting to be ghettoized as a "race comic." Maybe that's why his last two HBO specials have seemed to include more men vs. women material. It's a pity, because his performance is weaker for it.
Early in his act, Rock explains that a black man can't be president, because a black woman can't be first lady. That's right. A black woman can be president, just not first lady. "Because a black woman cannot play the background of a relationship," says Rock. "Because it's too much work for the Secret Service," says Rock. (A black first lady would try to kill the president.) If Obama really wants to be president, Rock suggests, he ought to "get a white girl...cause a white girl will play her position." Yeah...
The stereotype of the domineering, screeching black woman (and do-whatever-you-say compliant white girl) is old and tired, and every BET ComicView act has already rode it into the ground. If pushing the angry, black woman meme counts as comedy, then someone needs to tell Rush Limbaugh that Rock has stolen his act. He painted Michelle Obama as an angry Sapphire months ago. Shouldn't a comic as talented as Rock be able to come better than a bloated, racist, Oxycontin-fiending shock jock?
Sadly, no. Throughout "Kill the Messenger," Rock never misses a chance to paint women, particularly black women, as adversaries. Much is made about women viewing men as sources of money and stuff. Rock jokes that when a woman sees something she wants, she thinks: "Who can I get to get me that?" Rock isn't saying all women are golddiggers, but we ain't messing with no broke...broke...
The idea of a man working to support a slave-driving woman seems a little musty, since most women today, well, have jobs. The act seems particularly odd as it relates to black women. Listen to CNN and black women have done too well. Our degrees, jobs and mortgages have rendered us unloveable, because black men have been left behind. What man wants a self sufficient woman who doesn't need him? (sarcasm--for those that missed it.) et listen to Rock and black women spend our lives demanding goodies from our miserable partners. Where's the "it's funny, cause it's true?"
In Chris Rock's world, women are demanding, domineering and manipulative. Marriage and committed relationships are where men go to die. It's not that I object to men poking fun at the things women do (as long as we can poke back). It's just that Rock is so relentlessly disdainful toward women in his act, casually spitting "bitches" and betraying no real affection for the opposite sex. His routine comes off as so bitter and disconnected from reality, that I often begin to wonder what trauma has left the comedian so broken. It kills the funny.
They say comedy comes from pain. Surely, many master comedians have hidden dark and troubled sides (Richard Pryor, John Belushi, etc.) Chris Rock's material about women and relationships (like that of his buddy, Bill Maher) seems to betray some deep fucked-upedness. Do a fan a favor, Chris, stick to the political and social stuff, and save the rest for a therapist.