But there's a misconception in modern America about what this edgy quality actually is. If you ask the average person about fearlessness in the arena of, say, comedy, they'll probably cite the gross-out humor of Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler and Howard Stern, or such TV shows as South Park and MTV's The Tom Green Show, or movies like There's Something About Mary. But most of the gags made popular by these performers and programs are just vacuous spurts of outrageousness (Cameron Diaz spreading Ben Stiller's man-milk in her hair -- how bold!). Much is shown, little is said, nothing is fearless.
And then there's Chris Rock, the first comedian since Richard Pryor to win fame and fortune for what he says. What other comic would fill his Comic Relief set with jokes about abortion and a riff on the legitimacy of the President's affairs? "Because of him," Rock says, "this country has finally gotten some dough.... The least you could do is suck his dick." What other comic would appear on the Academy Awards ceremony and do a sink-or-swim joke about McCarthyist honorary Oscar recipient Elia Kazan and "rats"? (In case you're wondering, the joke sank.)
The 33-year-old Brooklyn-born standup comic and Saturday Night Live vet (who, luckily, left the show in 1993 before it all went straight to hell) has spent the last half of this decade reaping the rewards from telling the truth -- in a funny way, of course. It all started with his classic Emmy-winning HBO special, 1996's Bring the Pain, where he let loose on everybody and everything, from relationships to O.J. to American culture to prisons to Marion Barry. At the center of it all was his masterpiece, "Niggas vs. Black People," a 13-minute tirade on ignorance in African-American culture that is still the most subversively hilarious sociocultural commentary since George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" routine.
After that, there was just no stopping the man. In 1997 he appeared in 1-800-Collect and Nike ads, wrote a book, released a CD and launched his own critically acclaimed HBO talk show. But just when you think he's about one Hollywood sex scandal away from overexposure, he takes his celebrity in another fearless direction.
Rock was one of the two reasons to watch last year's god-awful Lethal Weapon 4 (the other was martial-arts dynamo Jet Li, who kicked the geriatric asses of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover). But these days he's choosing to appear in more thought-provoking films instead of going the familiar comic's route of starring in a string of suck-ass comedies. In the upcoming Dogma, the controversial religious satire from Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy), he plays Rufus, the 13th and forgotten apostle. In the soon-to-be-released Nurse Betty, the dark, racial comedy from button-pushing indie director Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men), he plays a hot-shot hit man who gets information out of white women by... (let's just say his performance won't win over any sistas in the audience).
But Rock still considers himself a comedian before an actor. He's on a concert tour to coincide with his latest HBO special, Bigger and Blacker, premiering July 10 and taped at none other than the temple of fearless entertainment, Harlem's Apollo Theater. And until Adam Sandler gets the balls to play that damn "Hanukkah Song" in front of this most treacherous and brutally honest audience in the business, Chris Rock holds the fear-free title.
-- Craig D. Lindsey
Chris Rock performs on Sunday, June 27, at the Aerial Theater, 520 Texas Avenue. Show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $27.50 and $35. For information, call (713)629-3700 or (713)230-1600.