Ok, so I am a little late on this one.
And maybe I take my comedy too seriously (ironic, huh).
You see, I avoid Saturday Night Live. I don’t find it funny and personally think it has become an exercise in unfunny. I think people only watch it in the hope that it will be funny and then when something is modestly funny, they think it is hysterical. I might argue SNL is actually lowering the bar for comedy…but I won’t make that argument today.
Quite the contrary.
I JUST watched the November 1 Chris Rock monologue from SNL (only the monologue). I’ll be damned if every once in a while the show proves it can still have some bite. Apparently, Rock’s monologue got people a little cranky and there was some hubbub about it.
To call the almost eight minute piece brilliant, sharp, incisive, hysterical, accurate or anything else would be to do it a disservice. It was hands down perfection. It is an artist presenting some of the smartest and most intelligent social satire I have heard in a very long time.
Well, since Bill Hicks (full disclosure, my favorite comedian).
Stick with me now.
Years ago, back when I was in art school and had the desire to be some sort of film…person, I had a production class with a guy named Lenny Wong. Wong had just completed directing a movie called Comedy’s Dirtiest Dozen and among the dozen were Tim Allen, Jackie Martling, Ottos Peterson…and Chris Rock and Bill Hicks.
The first day of class Lenny showed us his film. Nothing spectacular cinematically, it was just a live performance film. Most of the comedy was standard run of the mill stuff (kinda far from dirty as I recall). To this day I remember ONLY two performers, Chris Rock and Bill Hicks. Frankly, I remember more of Rock’s set than Hicks (Rock did a bit on McDonald’s that was funnier and smarter than any 18-year-old I knew).
Their sets were real, honest AND brilliant.
Now, I am not gonna make an argument for what makes good comedy or what delineates comedy from satire. You like what you like and we all like to laugh. I just happen to prefer a different type of comedy that is a little more satirical, especially if it makes me uncomfortable. The more uncomfortable the better I say. And both Hicks and Rock built their careers more on social satire than just straight comedy. And both built their careers at making people uncomfortable.
Where Hicks was a little more off-putting and angry, Rock comes across as affable and sweet. But make not mistake, they both have the same bite.
While Hicks never got the chance to grow as a comedian and hone his skills even more, Rock shows absolutely no sign of stopping.
Rock’s monologue is flawless. THIS is an artist at the peak of his game:
To crack a joke about the potential commercialization of 9/11…in NYC? That is ballsy and in this case, brilliant. Martin Luther King, Jr. car sale jokes? Come on!
Frankly, how that monologue made it through the NBC Standards & Practices is amazing. But thank God it did.
Conversely, Bill Hicks was not so fortunate. On The Late Show with David Letterman in 1993 Hicks gave a FAR less incendiary set (after it was approved by both CBS Standards & Practices and producers) that ended up being cut from the show AFTER it had been taped. At the time, Bill Hicks and Elvis Presley were the only two people to have been censored from the Ed Sullivan Theater (where the Letterman show lives). You can read about that in a fantastic article by John Lahr in the New Yorker.
Here is the Hicks set that got cut:
Only a very small group of friends and family knew that Bill Hicks was dying of pancreatic cancer at the time this was taped and this was to be his last television appearance. Bill Hicks died in February of 2014, three months after this was taped (Letterman had Hicks’ mother on a couple of years ago, formally apologized and presented the set in its entirety).
Fortunately for us, Chris Rock is still very much alive.
The reason I compare the two is that, for my money, they are two of the best comedians of my generation. And with Bill Hicks dead, it’s Chris Rock, along with Louie C.K., who are pushing that satirical envelope.
Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Mort Sahl and George Carlin, et al. aren’t really my generation.
Admittedly, I have never examined Chris Rock too much. I can’t explain it. I’ve always had tons of respect for him, but for some inexplicable reason, he’s never been a go to comedian for me. I’ve seen a bunch of his movies, including CB4 and who among you can make that claim? In the theaters no less!
I’ve enjoyed the Chris Rock work that I have seen but for some reason I have never actively sought him out.
Egg on my face.
I have unconsciously been avoiding one of the few comedians who can actually call themselves a satirist. But then again, a good comedian wouldn’t refer to themselves like that. A good comedian shares their perspective on the world and hopes to grab a laugh here and there.
A great comedian takes a more Twainian approach and holds a mirror up to us all, without losing sight of their own image. Just like Bill Hicks did and Chris Rock does.
If this 8:00 SNL monologue is any indication, and I think that it is, Chris Rock is firing on all creative cylinders and is entering into a whole new creative realm. And that is good for all of us.
This time, I’ll be paying closer attention.