Much like Sarah Silverman, who hosted a few weeks back, Chris Rock didn’t see the high peaks of SNL stardom that his contemporaries did. Even though they set out on differing paths following their departures, there are a lot of similarities between their respective SNL tenures. I think Rock stands apart though due to the company he kept at the time and the stature he achieved after the fact.
Rock joined Saturday Night Live in 1990 and was a member until 1993, long enough to enjoy part of that 90s boom period on the show and earn a spot amongst the “bad boys” of SNL like Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and David Spade. He had some success before SNL through stand-up and some sporadic appearances in movies. He even found a mentor in Eddie Murphy, a former SNL alum himself and certified superstar. It was the perfect fit and SNL should’ve been the big break that shot Rock into super stardom. Too bad it fell short.
[Rock]explains that were were certain things he was asked to do on SNL that he just flat-out refused to be a part of. Maron asks him for an example. “[Playing] a Ubangi tribesman or whatever… to where, not that I thought they were racist… [but I] was the only black face that was going to be seen for an hour and a half… it feels racist. It’s not racist. But it just feels like it when that’s all you see… If you’re on In Living Color and you’re a Ubangi tribesman there was a black thing before that and one right after it. There’s a context.”
The issue of race on Saturday Night Live is still a topic today, so it wasn’t just a complaint that sprouted up over night. It didn’t come for a negative place though and Rock had no ill feelings towards members of the cast. Personal frustration and desire seem to be more of a driving force in Rock’s career, and it played a major part in his departure from the show.
Seeing himself stifled creatively on SNL, Rock looked to branch out and appear on In Living Color. That’s the point of no return as they say:
Rock had plans to leave SNL, so he was “fired” because he was about to exit the sketch show to work on In Living Color. Maron asked Rock why he’d want to leave such a well-established show to work on Keenan Ivory Wayans’ creation, which was only a few years old at the time.
“The culture’s changing, Rock tells Maron about the state of sketch comedy in 1993, when he joined In Living Color. “And I’m not a part of it. This sh*t is getting hip. This sh*t is getting blacker. This sh*t is getting f*cking rappier. SNL is still a pretty white show. When I got hired I was the first black guy in like eight years— and In Living Color was just hip. The sh*t was hot. I wanted to be in an environment where I didn’t have to translate the comedy I wanted to do.”
It seemed like a pretty solid deal at the time. In Living Color was a fairly long lasting competitor to SNL and it featured a strong slate of talent that had included Jim Carrey — now off to make a big splash in one of the most successful movie years of all time. It made sense and Rock tried to bring the best of his SNL performance to the edgy, urban point of view of In Living Color.
The problem is that the show was canceled one month after he arrived. It would normally leave a struggling actor/comedian out in the cold, but Rock turned it around and created a career that probably rivals Eddie Murphy in terms of influence. Unlike Murphy, Chris Rock is returning to SNL now as an older, wiser conqueror. 1996 was a big year for Rock, with the success of Bring The Pain launching him into the stratosphere, but today he’s a guy who has rubbed shoulders with Jerry Seinfeld. He’s made millions with his old SNL cast buddies. He’s afforded the luxury of choosing his own projects and doing work that’s important to him.
It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out tonight. Will he actually showcase his character work or will he be more of a George Carlin and leave the meaty bits of the sketches to the cast?