Chris Rock (2003)

One of the funniest men in America is singing an a cappella version of “Cry Me a River” in a TV studio in Queens, New York. Chris Rock, currently discovering the limits of his falsetto, is filming a series of promo ads for MTV’s Video Music Awards, spoofing the iPod commercials. He’s not wearing a watch–he doesn’t want to know how much time he has left before he gets to go home to New Jersey. “I learned that when I was working at Red Lobster,” he says.

Rock is the best host the VMAs have ever had, unafraid to skewer the guests or offer twisted introductions, such as identifying Johnny Depp as “the rich man’s Skeet Ulrich.” This year will mark his third time hosting; since the last time in 1999, he’s finished his Emmy-winning HBO show and made a mixed bag of movies, including Head of State. The music world has changed too, he notes: “The only people at the same level from the first time I did the show are Justin Timberlake, Puffy, and myself. I’m not here to rag on anybody, but I’ve seen featured performers who couldn’t even get a ticket a year later.”

Wasn’t P. Diddy supposed to be done by now?

You would have thought so, but he’s a really hardworking guy. Last year, he had the best performance at the VMAs. I was watching the show at my house and I loved it and I was thinking, “Aw, man, I should have hosted it.” They got Guns N’ Roses and P. Diddy with the jumping-up-and-down thing. Puffy ain’t going nowhere. He makes all his money off cuffs anyway. He’s just playing in the music business. Puffy makes more money off his fucking socks than most artists make off of their albums. Just give me Puffy’s collar money. I love that he’s a designer who can’t sew. Puffy, could you hem me something?

What advice do you have for 50 Cent?

Stop all this feud stuff; it’s such a waste of time. You’re in! You fight when you’re out, now you’re in. Just relax, shut up, don’t scare the girls away.

So why’d you agree to host the VMAs again?

I like this show because it’s so young. Even though you get older–I get older, I guess–you’re hip by association. They’ve asked me to do the Oscars a couple of times. You do that when you’re old. As far as staying relevant to people, it does me more good to stand with 50 Cent than to be onstage with Sophia Loren. There’s nowhere to go from there. You should just retire and play afternoon shows at Tahoe.

How do you prepare for hosting the VMAs? Do you watch a lot of Hillary Duff videos?

You keep MTV on a lot. You buy your Billboard, you buy your Source, you buy your Rolling Stone. I go berserk trying to get that last joke ready. Hosting the show is about coming out, being funny for three and a half minutes, and the rest of the night, you’re just introducing acts. If you can slip a joke in, fine. I’ve been on the road because I haven’t done stand-up in almost four years.

Weren’t you planning to do a big tour?

Not originally, but this is a great time to be a comedian. It’s a weird political time. You see the last presidential election, or what’s going on in California, it’s very African. No one accepts elections in Africa: “You lost!” “No, I didn’t.” Nothing means anything. So let’s explore that.

Are you bringing in the writing crew from your TV show for the VMAs?

As many as I can get. Wanda [Sykes] is a big star. The last MTV awards I did, she was a writer, this time I’m going to try and get her to present. David Spade’s presenting. I paged him this morning, “Yo, money, don’t come to New York without some jokes. Don’t think you’re walking in and just sitting down.”

Is Michael Jackson going to show up and give himself an award again this year?

I’m sure he’ll be in the building if it suits his purpose. He’s smart enough to know that you can say anything when you’re up there. You know? “Thank you for this Oscar.” Oh, I guess he just won an Oscar. “Thank you for this Nobel Peace Prize.”

Does MTV ever tell you that you can’t say something?

Well, I never tell them what I’m going to say. But one year–what’s the name of Dylan’s kid?

Jakob Dylan–the Wallflowers.

Yeah. I think what I wrote down was “Ladies and gentlemen, trying their best not to be this year’s Spin Doctors, it’s the Wallflowers.” And somebody from their record company read it, and flipped out. I don’t need that drama. What did I say with David Bowie? “Our next presenter has got a black wife. David Bowie!” (cracks up) He comes out like, what the hell was that?

So no one’s ever told you that you had to wear a bulletproof vest?

No, no, it’s all in fun. Plus, I don’t roll like that. If I rolled like Eddie Murphy ’85, with a leather suit and some bodyguards, I probably would get punched in the face. I’m pretty posse-low. I’m with my wife, chillin’. I like a nice, calm backstage.

Last year Eminem went after a dog puppet.

Yeah, he’s so tough.

Does that make you more or less likely to say something that will wind him up a bit?

I live for that, but you don’t want to dis Eminem. He doesn’t even like his mother, so who knows what he’ll say about you on a record. I don’t want to be the Moby on his next record: “Nobody listens to techno.” That’s my favorite line on that record–lots of people listen to techno. But he said it so funny, and the timing was so perfect, I believed it.

Who are the funniest rappers?

Eminem is kind of funny. Ludacris is hysterical. That’s what’s missing in rap: wit. LL had a wit about him. Rap needs a young guy like Will Smith or the Fat Boys. I want Slick Rick to get out of jail, because I want him to open up my tour. (checks email on his pager) This is Spade’s message: “Hey, hey. Just do whatever you do and add ‘fuck.’ It’ll kill.”

Johnny Cash is seventy and he’s up for six VMAs.

Yeah, that video is incredible. Rick Rubin’s one of my best friends. He was taking suggestions for the album: “You know any songs about death?”

How did you and Rick hook up?

I wanted him to do my album, and he said no, but we started hanging out. I want to be Dr. Dre, he wants to be George Harrison–because George Harrison produced Monty Python. I love Rick, and he always lets me hear stuff first. I bumped into Chris Cornell and I said, “How’s your album?” He said, “I’m sure you heard it before me.” And I had. I probably fucked up mentioning it; now Rick won’t play me anything.

What’s Rick working on now?

Weezer and Jay-Z. I heard some of the Jay-Z stuff–it’s fucking incredible. They recorded something I suggested, I might get a little A&R on that. I don’t know if it made the cut yet, and I don’t want to jinx it.

So when do you think Beyonce and Jay-Z will actually admit they’re a couple?

Who cares? Just have a baby. It’s such a waste of time with no baby. Make the great one! I want to see this great black show-business baby. The jury’s still out on Bobbi Christina [daughter of Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston]–we hope she does well, but we don’t know.

How’d you like Beyonce’s video?

It’s good. But Beyonce by herself is another girl singer. You got Monica, Ashanti, Mary J. Blige, Britney, whatever, a bunch of girls who sing. There’s only one Destiny’s Child. They’re special.

Do you have an iPod?

I got a music iPod and a comedy iPod. One is all comedy and spoken word, every speech, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, whatever.

When are you in the mood to listen to Winston Churchill?

When I’m on tour, when I’m getting ready. There’s a lot of preachers in there, a lot of gospel stuff. A lot of standup. What I do, what a preacher does, what the president’s doing, it’s all the same–you’re picking your topic and you’re arguing your point. The president’s trying to get an applause break; I’m trying to get a laugh. The preacher’s trying to get an amen.

Do you think Bush is good at that?

He’s okay. Clinton was the best. They all just read the prompter. But you can go back and watch it: Clinton could have a speech on a podium, look down, look up and look you in the eye for ten seconds before he goes back. Bush has a speech on the podium, looks down, can’t do more than three-four seconds without looking back down. The average guy can only do a few seconds. When Ashcroft was doing it, he had to look down for the simple stuff. “And God bless [pause] America!”

What do you think of Bush in general?

Uh, you know, I don’t want to get Dixie Chicked. We’re at war–comedy sucks. People are dying every day and they’re talking about we need to get our lawyers to see if we can get an amendment so that gays can’t get married.

Where are the weapons of mass destruction?

I don’t think they have any. The whole country’s blown the fuck up, people are hungry, they have no water. If they had weapons, I think they’d point them out. If you have some Kool-Aid and a biscuit, an Iraqi will tell you anything you want to know. Hungry people are really honest.

What does Kobe Bryant need to do now?

Buy some condoms and call Johnnie Cochran.

Any chance of you getting Punk’d?

Probably not. I’m not going to get all flustered just because an accountant called. “You have no money!” Yeah, right. To show me getting punk’d, show me talking shit, “I wish somebody would step in my face,” and then have a guy step in my face and beat me up and watch me cry like a bitch.

Is it a good idea to have a youngster like Avril Lavigne nominated for an award at the same show as R. Kelly?

Innocent until proven guilty, I guess.

Yeah, but do you actually think he’s innocent?

The guy I saw on the tape looked a lot like R. Kelly. But you know me, maybe I was drinking. Maybe I have cataracts.

Any up-and-coming comics you like?

My brother, Tony Rock. But comedy’s a dying art. Old days, it took a guy ten years to get a shot on television. Now you get a shot a year in, so nobody develops. TV kills comedy, and movies kill rap. Ice Cube is the greatest artist of our time. Late Eighties, early Nineties, when Ice Cube hated white people and did his thing, he was the greatest. Now he just does his movies and they’re all right. Comedians, coschmedians– me personally, I stole more from Ice Cube than from any artist.

Give me one lift.

“Niggas Vs. Black People” [on Rock’s Roll With the New album] is “Us” from Ice Cube’s Death Certificate: “We will always sing the blues / Because all we talk about is hairstyles and tennis shoes.” I took his song and made a joke out of it. My biggest joke is an Ice Cube album track. DMX–he had three great records, and he started doing the movies, man. God bless him, he’s probably making more money than he’s ever made in his life. LL Cool J, arguably the greatest rapper who ever lived, is doing movies. No one can do two things great.

You could say the same about you. You kill in standup, but–

Guess what? I’m doing a standup show. It’s good to go on tour and just be funny and be pure. Right now, with what’s going on in the country, we need a mean Ice Cube album. I would love a great LL album, I would love a great DMX album. Because I feed off that stuff! I listen to them, and then I write jokes. So now, you know, I’m listening to Coldplay.

Interview by Gavin Edwards. Originally published (in a slightly shorter version) in Rolling Stone 930 (September 4, 2003).