Chris Rock is 50 years old this weekend, and he’s spent nearly half of his life as one of the most memorable, provocative comedians in the world. His punchlines generate laughter the hundredth time you hear them and he’s made some incredibly astute comments about race and culture in America.
Here are six bits that have defined Rock’s career, and are the first places to start if you’re somehow not familiar with his work:
The Dark Side With Nat X
In three seasons on Saturday Night Live, Rock’s most memorable character was Nat X, a black radical who was not afraid to tell his guests to “sit their white ass down!” This particular sketch comes from Rock’s 1996 hosting gig, and features some of the material from his Bring The Pain special which was released that year. One particularly amusing thing about this sketch is Darrell Hammond as Jesse Jackson. He’s not in blackface in the Al Jolson sense of that term, but he is in black makeup, and I really don’t think that would fly in 2015.
Blacks Vs. N***ers
When we say “defining” Chris Rock bits, we’re saying it in the “for better or worse: sense. This was arguably the routine that made Chris Rock a superstar, but also one of his most controversial. Some continue to see it as an excuse for white people to hold racist views against blacks, as just recently, Mychal Denzel Smith wrote a piece for Salon criticizing the routine, and saying it ultimately casts a shadow over Rock’s legacy as a comic. At times, it feels like Rock had the same problems that Dave Chappele had with Chappelle’s Show, when routines primarily aimed at black audiences are heard and misconstrued by white people. The best and most notable example of white people’s interpretation of this bit is probably Michael Scott’s awkward-yet-hilarious performance on The Office:
In his defense, Kevin really did have the timing wrong. Also, check out Larry Wilmore with hair 10 years ago!
On Colin Powell’s Presidential Hopes
12 years before Obama’s election in 2008, there were rumors that Colin Powell would run against Bill Clinton. This never came to fruition, and Rock was extremely skeptical of his chances. Particularly interesting here is Rock’s point about the compliments white people gave Powell at the time – “he speaks so well!” Obama would get similar “compliments” during his Presidential run, most notably, Joe Biden’s “clean and articulate” comment. Now, since Obama made Biden his VP, I’m guessing that is water under the bridge, but it was still a very astute point by Rock about how condescending and latently racist white people can be when they praise black people for being “well-spoken.”
Big Piece Of Chicken
Pretty much everyone has quoted the line about the big piece of chicken. In this routine, Rock focuses on parenting, making the point that while Mom has the harder job, Dad doesn’t get enough credit for what he does. It’s an interesting look at the the dynamic between husbands and wives, and the different ways men and women are appreciated. Let’s be honest, though; we’re mostly going to remember this bit for giving us “GET ME MY BIG PIECE OF CHICKEN!”
Rock has made several great points about racism in his act over the years, but this one might land the hardest. In this bit, he talks about the issue of affirmative action, and brings it down to one easily digestible point (“If you got a higher score than me, you should get in ahead of me… but if we got the same score, f*** you! You had a 400-year head start!”). The best stuff here, though, is his bit about how prevalent African-Americans are in sports (“we’re 10 percent of the population, but were 90 percent of the Final Four!”), and makes the case that LeBron James would be a better hockey player than Wayne Gretzky. I would love to Lebron suit up for a game and find out. Can the Blue Jackets sign him to a one-day contract?
Can White People Say The N-Word?
It’s been debated for years, and Rock’s answer here is “not really.” The best part is Rock explaining that when a rap song with dozens of n-words is playing, and there are no black people around, white people “lean into that s***.” As someone who went a suburban, predominantly white high school with many kids who loved hip-hop, I can tell you that this is absolutely, 100 percent true.