Rock takes the director’s
chair for ‘Head of
State’ – and
explains why his campaign
comedy is more ‘Duck
Soup’ than ‘Bob
Roberts.’ by Mike Russell
Chris Rock’s said it before and he’ll
say it again: Comedy is harder than drama.
“Oh, it’s way harder,” he says. “Not even
close. It’s the difference between driving a go-cart
and flying a plane … .”
The actor and comedian – who has, for the record,
done some pretty solid dramatic work in “New Jack
City” and “Nurse Betty” – gladly
provides examples. “I saw ‘About Schmidt.’ It
was great. It was incredible.” He pauses. “A
lot of older actors might not have brought the same cachet
or charisma to ‘About Schmidt,’ but they could
do the job. The job would get done. Now you take a Jim
Carrey movie – something like ‘Liar Liar’ – nobody
else can do the job. The job is not even done.”
Rock – famous for his politically charged stand-up,
his HBO talk show, and supporting roles in such films as “Lethal
Weapon 4” and “Dogma” – puts his
theories to a rather public test this month: He’s
directing himself and Bernie Mac as surprise presidential
and vice presidential candidates in “Head of State.” It’s
Rock’s directorial debut – and he says he worked
to make his set a safe place for comedians.
“Normally, if you’re on a movie, you suggest jokes
all the time, unless you’re one of these guys who
stays in his trailer,” he says. “And if you’re
lucky, the director will try out 20 percent of the stuff
you suggest. Well, now, guess what? We’ve gotta try ‘em
all. As long as it doesn’t hold up production or
mess up our money or our time, we can try every joke I
could think of.”
Rock took a break from “Head of State”’s
final mix to talk with In Focus about, among other things,
the jokes that worked.
o o o
CAN WE GET IT?’
Do you enjoy having extra comedic tools at your disposal
as a director?
Yeah – I get to add as many jokes as I want. I get
to try as many jokes as I want.
Are you finding that power liberating or terrifying?
No, it’s very liberating. I just tried every scene
a million different ways: “How funny can we get it?”
with a lot of directors. Which ones were big influences
on you? Richard Donner,
I would think,
gave you a lot of improvisational room.
Yeah. Donner’s a field general – the Bill Parcells
of directing. Yeah, Donner, Neil LaBute … Spielberg,
actually. [Laughs] I only worked with Spielberg one day – I
did a voice on “A.I.” – but I’ve
got to say: It was so relaxed on the set, you would have
thought you were at an apartment or something. And I realized, “Oo – if
you do enough pre-[production], you can actually relax.”
And I learned a lot from Kevin Smith. I
remember the rehearsals we had for “Dogma” – brutal, boot-camp
rehearsals. It was like two weeks of rehearsal, about six
hours a day.
Did you do a lot of
rehearsal on “Head of State”?
Yeah – just to keep hearing it. Once you get it down,
you can play with it.
Have you ever been
surprised by the passion of the cult audience for Kevin
Smith’s films – for his
whole “View Askew-niverse”?
Kevin feeds the audience, you know? He’s on his Website
every night to talk to these kids. So I’m not surprised
at all. He’s very, very involved with his fans.
He’s talked about casting you as “Evil Uncle
Remus” in some framing segments for a collection
of the “Clerks” animated series. Is that going
It could happen. I mean, I’m down. We’ll see.
He didn’t bring it up the last time I spoke to him;
we were both talking about our movies. [Smith was polishing
up “Jersey Girl” at the same time Rock was
putting the finishing touches on “Head of State.”]
COMEDY vs. POLITICS
In your stand-up comedy
and your HBO TV show, you earned a reputation for being
sharp. Now you’re
directing a movie about politics. Will “Head of State” incorporate
some of the political awareness of your stand-up?
Yeah, some of it. The movie’s more in the vein of “Duck
Soup” or “Trading Places” than “Bob
Roberts.” It’s not “Wag the Dog” at
I would imagine it’s an opportunity to draw on experiences
you’ve had in recent years – like those fantastic
dispatches you did from the campaign trail for “Politically
It definitely helped. Because I’ve been on the campaign
trail, I kind of had a sense of how much politics a mass
audience could take … . But we live in a country
where 40-percent voter turnout is incredible.
I was reading about
one scene in the movie where you’re
kind of ripping on voter apathy – where people only
get out to vote when they find out that you and Bernie
Mac are ahead in the polls.
Yeah. [Laughs] When the country realizes that we might
be ahead, the whole country decides to vote … . Yeah,
we’re definitely bringing [those issues] up. If you
don’t vote, you have no voice.
But the movie isn’t one of those NBC “The
More You Know” segments.
No. This is so not that. It’s really pretty broad.
Hey, man – in this movie, people are getting smacked
with sticks. There’s a lot of Farrelly Brothers in
When you were sitting down to write the film with Ali
LeRoi, did you make a list of themes and political points
you wanted to hit?
No, never – because those themes change every day.
It was always just figuring out the scenario of how an
alderman could run for president. The scenario is that
the president and vice president in our party get killed
90 days before Election Day.
Are they Democratic candidates?
We never say. And no one wants to run against the incumbent – who’s
a war hero, the incumbent, and Sharon Stone’s cousin.
So being that the party realizes it’s gonna lose,
it says, “Let’s pick a minority candidate – that
way, we’ll shore up the minority vote four years
from now.” And they pick me … . It’s
a campaign movie. It’s like Putney Swope meets “The
Candidate.” It could happen [for real] next year.
Yeah. Well, it also gets into what I would imagine are
issues for you personally. I mean, you must find it
frustrating when interviewers saddle you personally with
being the Spokesman for All Black Filmmaking, or the Spokesman
for All Black Stand-Up Comedy.
I never get on the saddle, though.
That’s a problem I’d
imagine Richard Pryor also had.
I don’t remember Richard getting on the saddle. Spike’s
the only guy I know who gets on the saddle. [Laughs]
Barry Sonnenfeld said
that the secret to comedy was making sure the actors
aren’t acting like they’re
in a comedy.
It depends on the actor. I mean, somebody had better be
funny in the scene; everybody else has to act natural.
It’s no different from football – somebody’s
gotta run the ball, somebody’s gotta block – everybody’s
role has got to be defined. But there’s usually only
one funny person in a scene.
So when you’re doing a scene with Bernie Mac [who’s
playing Rock’s brother-in-law and vice-presidential
running mate in the movie], who carries the ball?
It depends on what we need at that point. Sometimes I’m
Bud Abbott and sometimes he’s Bud Abbott, you know?
You’ve mentioned Abbott and Costello and “Duck
Soup.” Are you drawing on classic Hollywood comedies
You know, that’s like Beethoven – that’s
the classics. Eventually, if you’re doing things
right, it’s going to boil down to that stuff anyway.
If what you’re doing has nothing to do with “Duck
Soup,” then you’re probably not doing it quite
You had to go a bit
of a campaign trail to shoot the movie, I’d imagine.
We shot it in Baltimore – which actually looks a
lot like a bunch of places. With the mall-ization – is
that a word? – of America, you don’t really
have to travel the country to get the country. Because
there’s a Starbucks everywhere and a Gap everywhere.
o o o
DRAMA is a GO-CART, COMEDY is a PLANE
Now, what did you
learn working on Mario Van Peebles’ first
directorial effort, “New Jack City”? I mean,
you watched a guy going through what you’re going
Well, I learned you’d better have some money. [Laughs]
I learned there that you’ve got to keep it moving.
Because “New Jack City” had like a $4 million
budget … . Remember the bike chase at the beginning?
It was a car chase until five minutes before. [Laughs]
I mean, stuff like that was happening all the time. No
money really made Mario and the producers think on their
“New Jack City” features some nice dramatic
moments from you, as does “Nurse Betty.” But
you once said in an interview that comedy is a harder art
than drama. What do you think drives comedic actors to
want to stretch out into drama?
I don’t know. We’re all whores, and we think
these dramatic actor-people are better than us. And it’s
nice to take a little break from the comedy. And come on – I
get to work with Morgan Freeman. But, you know, I was fine
in “Nurse Betty” – but Don Cheadle would
have been just as good. He’d have been fine. He can’t
do “Head of State.”
Yeah, they fucked up. They should’ve gotten Don Cheadle.
A fine actor.
o o o
Now, you and Adam
Sandler and Mike Myers are really the most successful “SNL” alumni …
Well, from that class. Eddie Murphy would be the most successful.
But as far as your
generation goes …
Yeah. We were all on the show together … . And if
Phil Hartman didn’t get shot in the head, if Farley
wasn’t dead. And Rob Schneider’s had a couple
of hit movies.
But you, Sandler, and Myers stand out among your peers
for having taken a more active role in writing your films.
You have to, man. You have to. You’ve got to be involved.
But a lot of other comedians hand other people the reins.
Well, because again, we’re all whores, and we’re
all affected by the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and
you think, “Oh, these guys are better than me – I’m
gonna let so-and-so write for me.” And he’s
not funny. Just because they’re bigger doesn’t
mean they’re funny.
I don’t think you should do comedy with strangers.
Not that you should only work with your crew, but before
you do comedy, I think you should really get to know people – because
only the people that know you know what’s funny about
you. The public just knows what they laughed at. I’d
hang out with somebody I didn’t know for six months
before I’d work with them.
How long did it take you to come to that conclusion? You
were kind of a day player in films for a while before you
I don’t know. My last movie, I didn’t like
how it turned out. I mean, the movies I’ve starred
in so far have been OK – but I need to take it back
to the basics.
I mean, when I did “The Chris Rock Show,” it’s
not like I knew how to run a TV show. I knew what I knew
about running a TV show from “Saturday Night Live” and “In
Living Color.” I’d done about 15 movies, so
I knew as much about directing as I did about running a
TV show, and the TV show worked out, so … [Laughs]
let’s do that again.
Some filmmakers say
they have a confidence when they’re
starting out that comes from inexperience.
I think it’s knowing that I could fuck up. I think
the confidence kills you. Knowing that this could be the
biggest bomb of the year done wrong is what fuels me. Because
the biggest bomb of the year is always a comedy. Always.
The critics kill a comedy.
o o o
Are you happy with
how “Head of State’s” turning
out so far?
Yeah. I’m very proud of it.
You’ve got a great supporting cast in this movie – you’ve
got character actors like Dylan Baker, James Rebhorn.
You need really good actors in a comedy. Comedians alone
are not going to carry a comedy – you need good people
to set ‘em up and feed ‘em and be good villains
And Robin Givens is back.
Robin Givens is hysterical in this movie.
“Hysterical” is never a word I’ve
heard applied to her.
I’m telling you – people are going to be shocked
at Robin Givens. In the second or third scene in the movie,
my fiancé [played by Givens] breaks up with me – “I
hate you, you’re a loser, yadda yadda yadda.” And
then, later on in the movie, I’m running for president – and
she spends the whole movie trying to get me back.
What does she do? Does she just debase herself utterly?
Yeah. You’ll have to see it. It’s really slapstick-y.
o o o
‘LETHAL WEAPON,’ WOODY
Now, I have heard
rumblings on the very distant horizon of a “Lethal Weapon 5.” Have
you heard anything about this?
I don’t think it’s ever gonna happen. I would
love it to happen. Please. Please. I would love another
That series is strange in the way it keeps gathering characters.
Who would they add to the cast for the next one?
I don’t know. It’s a shame they killed Jet
Li. Seems like you could fight that guy forever.
“Lethal Weapon 4” has scenes where it seems
like you were given completely free rein. Like that scene
in the dentist’s office, where you guys seem to be
It’s weird: You think it’s improvising – but
then you realize when it’s over that Donner pushed
you in this direction. He knew what he was doing the whole
Is Donner someone you studied for your directorial debut?
I’m more of a Woody-phile.
Does “Head of State” have
the vibe of a Woody Allen comedy?
A little bit. “Bananas.” That early stuff. “Take
the Money and Run.”
that sort of comedy well any more.
Nobody does it, anyway, without feces jokes. I’m
not a gross-out guy. It’s not my move. Hey, I love
the Farrellys – but I’m not one for the 5-minute
vomit scene, and then a bunch of cars hit the vomit and
crash into walls or whatever.
o o o
MEET YOUR TEACHERS: EDDIE MURPHY and
THE STAND-UP STAGE
Now, you were discovered
by Eddie Murphy. Is his career one that you’re
trying to emulate?
I would hope to have some success with movies. But I
know. I’m trying to make my own path here. You know,
I listen to what he’s got to say. Eddie told me to
direct years ago.
And he learned some tough lessons on that count.
Yeah, yeah, but … He’s such a damned big star.
I always thought he
was kind of robbed of his Oscar nomination for “Nutty
Yeah, he kind of was. I think that’s an Oscar performance,
I think “Bowfinger”’s an Oscar performance … .
Even “Coming to America,” I think.
With the Academy, I think there’s a problem with
funny movies that make people outside New York and L.A.
laugh. “How dare you make the rest of the country
laugh?” [With “Head of State,”] I’m
going for the whole country. I’m going for a broad,
mainstream film here … . You know, when I go on tour,
I do just as well in Arizona as I do in New York. Just
as well in Milwaukee.
And, of course, stand-up’s
a great teaching tool.
It gives you a sense of what an audience wants. You know,
you test your movies and you read your cards – but
I’ve been in front of so many audiences that I’m
like, “OK – I know what’s wrong here.”
I remember reading a fantastic piece in the New York Observer
about you going out right after Sept. 11 and trying out
your 9/11 material. That must have been a very intense
You know where the culture’s going – you’re
just trying to get a handle on the culture. Just trying
to be prepared.
Are you going on tour again any time soon?
Yeah. Let’s see – the movie comes out March
28 ... . It’s going to take me a while to get an
act together … . I’d guesstimate – if
that’s a word – September.
Do you see yourself evolving your material, like Bill
Cosby did from album to album?
It’s gonna happen. I just had a baby, and my audience
has babies. [Laughs] And as I get older, my audience will
get older. So we’ll share the same experiences.
You’ve had a baby and you’re
directing your first film. The demands on your energy
level must be incredible.
Yeah, it’s been really, really, really hectic. But
I’d have it no other way.
How are you shoring up energy for all that?
You know, you ride your bike. As I always say, cardiovascular
is all you need; everything else is to get laid.
o o o
CHRIS TUCKER CAN DO WHATEVER HE WANTS
Now, have any interviewers gotten your efforts mixed up
with those of Chris Tucker? [Tucker has been developing
his own movie in which he becomes the first black president.]
Not yet. I hear he was going to do a president movie or
Well, your movie may have gotten that project killed.
Well, he’s much bigger in the world of film than
me. That guy? Please. He can do whatever he wants.
He’s had an
Yeah. I want to emulate his career. [Laughs] Eddie Murphy?
No – Chris Tucker!
When you’re on the set and you’re directing
a comedy scene and you’re an actor in that scene,
how do you know when a moment works?
Well, I always play the crew. I think the crew is the most
important part of the movie, and you’ve got to make
sure they’re fed and relaxed – and if something
funny happens, they’ll laugh.
Because the crew are normal people. I mean,
they work in film, but they’re not “film people” per
se. The crew’s not running to see “Adaptation.” They’re
gonna see, like, the Seagal movie or whatever. The crew’s
like America. They’ve got normal jobs. They get paid
by the hour.
Which part of the
process have you enjoyed the most – editing
or directing or acting?
Well, I like acting. I mean, the directing’s fun – it’s
just a longer day. The editing’s where you can have
more of a normal life. You know, I wake up, my wife makes
me breakfast, I go to work, I come home, I play with the
baby, the baby goes to sleep … . Where directing
is, you leave at five in the morning, you direct all day,
you’re done directing at six at night, seven, from
there you go to dailies for two hours, try to get a meal
while you’re at dailies, come home … .
… And you have
to be funny.
And you have to be funny in all of this.
And you’ve said comedy is harder, so you’re
directing yourself trying to be funny…
Yeah. It’s, “Hey, that’s not funny!” Unlike
in the drama, where it’s, “Hey – you
acted very well there, sir!”…. Robert Duvall
could have done “About Schmidt.”
That said, there are roles that only Jack Nicholson could
Oh, Jack Nicholson’s the best actor in the world,
bar none. Jack’s incredible. Strike Jack from the
record! But comedy’s way harder.