Chris Rock doesn’t want the fate of TV comedy placed on his narrow shoulders. He doesn’t want to be the next Cosby. He may not have a choice.
It’s probably unfair to hype Rock’s “Everybody Hates Chris,” which will be televised at 8 p.m. Thursdays, as the salvation of sitcoms, to put such a burden of expectation on a simple family comedy on low-rated UPN – a comedy whose famous co-creator remains off-camera throughout – but times are tough, laughs are hard to find, and the “Chris” pilot is really, really good.
The “Cosby Show” parallels, much as Rock wants to dismiss them, are hard to ignore. In the fall of 1984, the sitcom had been given its last rites. The classics of the ‘70s like “All in the Family” and “MASH” were gone, and the only comedy to crack the Nielsen top 10 the previous year was “Kate & Allie.” Soaps and action dramas were the future, we were told – until Cosby’s little comedy about an African American family in Brooklyn became the biggest hit of the decade.
Twenty-one years later, the sitcom’s headed for another autopsy. The classics of the ‘90s like “Seinfeld” and “Frasier” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” are gone. Now here comes Rock with another comedy about an African American family in Brooklyn, and expectations are through the roof, even though most TV viewers may think UPN is a shipping company.
As written by Rock and Ali Le Roi, “Everybody Hates Chris” is “The Wonder Years” filtered through Rock’s biography and comic point of view. It’s funny without being dumb, family-friendly without being safe, sweet without being syrupy.
The year is 1982, and 13-year-old Chris Rock (Tyler James Williams, evoking Rock without mimicking him) is growing up in a very different Brooklyn than the one where the Huxtables lived. His parents, Julius and Rochelle (Terry Crews and Tichina Arnold), have just moved Chris and his two siblings out of a housing project and into an apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, soon to be known by its many street gangs as “Bed-Stuy, Do or Die.”
“Had we known that Bed-Stuy would be the center of a crack epidemic, I guess we would have picked someplace else,” the adult Rock says in narration.
“Chris” is blunt about the family’s socio-economic situation, but the show always finds the humor in it. Money is tight, so Rochelle only sends partial payments on the monthly bills, explaining, “I run this house like they run the country: on a deficit.” She sends Chris to a junior high three bus routes away to make sure he gets a decent education – “Not a Harvard-type education,” the adult Rock says, “just a not-sticking-up-a-liquor-store education.”
Rock gets a lot of the good lines, but he and LeRoi are generous in passing the jokes around. Arnold gets to deliver a series of threats designed to keep the kids in line – including “I will slap your name out the phone book and call Ma Bell and tell her I did it!” – and Crews has the show’s best running gag, in which Julius is constantly quoting invented prices for food the kids are wasting: “That’s 49 cents of spilt milk dripping all over my table! Someone gonna drink this milk!”
The show also makes great use of period music; when Chris gets into a fight with a white bully at school, the slo-mo brawl is scored with “Ebony & Ivory.”
Rock is the most popular comedian of his day, but he’s never shared the universal popularity Cosby had. Even among other African Americans, he remains controversial because of his famous routine about the differences between black people and, um, other kinds of black people.
“Everybody Hates Chris” doesn’t sand off Rock’s edges, but it puts them in corners where they’re not liable to put anyone’s eye out. It features Rock’s usually acidic takes on race and class in America, but in a slightly milder fashion. After Chris overhears a gunshot at the bad school across the street, Rock narrates, “Much like rock and roll, school shootings were also invented by blacks and stolen by the white man.”
Fox originally developed the series, but passed because executives there were afraid Rock wouldn’t be very involved past the pilot. UPN hasn’t sent out any additional episodes, but all reports are that Rock is still working hard on the show. If he sticks around, and if he and LeRoi can maintain the comedy and warmth of the pilot, then Fox’s decision to let it go will rank up there with ABC deciding that “CSI” wouldn’t be popular enough to air.
So here’s to you, Mr. Chris Rock. A nation turns its funny bones to you.
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