TV SEASON PREVIEWS:THURSDAYChris Rock Hates Everybody's Fussing
By JOE RHODES The New York Times
LOS ANGELESChris Rock is pleased that "Everybody Hates Chris," the UPN comedy series that's kind of, sort of, but not-quite based on his less-than-idyllic adolescent years in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, is making its debut Thursday at 8 p.m. But he would have preferred that it not be preceded by the kind of critical superlatives and anticipatory hype usually reserved for the crowning of emperors.
So far they have included a wave of "best new show of the year" reviews, a billboard-and-bus placard marketing blitz, and talk that the series could single-handedly do for UPN what "The Simpsons" did for Fox, or even, as some of the more breathless reviews have suggested, resurrect and revitalize the family sitcom genre, much as "The Cosby Show" did more than 20 years ago.
"I'd rather be a midseason replacement," Mr. Rock said by telephone, uncomfortable with the raised expectations, but resigned to all the fuss. "Some little show where people go, 'Hey, that Chris Rock show is kinda funny.' I don't like to hear all this other stuff."
Then he probably ought to cover his ears. The promotional drumbeat for "Everybody Hates Chris" has been growing since last spring, when potential ad buyers got their first look at the pilot episode and started raving about the show's potential appeal for a wide audience.
"Look, the pilot is O.K. - it's good," Mr. Rock said. "But I think we're going to do better shows than that, a lot better shows than that. I think part of the reaction to the pilot is based on what everybody has come to expect from black people on television."
"We hold ourselves to a higher standard than that," he said, referring to himself and Ali LeRoi, the show's co-creator and his longtime collaborator. "It's not enough for us just to be on TV."
Indeed, Mr. Rock won't be on TV at all, at least not visibly so. Wary of being tied down by a long-term commitment to star in a series, Mr. Rock, 39, will serve as executive producer and off-screen narrator. A couple of years ago, he and Mr. LeRoi, 43, were suggesting possible sitcoms at Fox, and they came up with the idea for an urban "Wonder Years"-type comedy. (Fox decided to pass.) The original premise was for the series to be set in 1992 and be built around a fictional teenage protagonist from an inner-city family.
"And then it dawned on us: We've got a show about a kid. Why isn't that kid Chris Rock?" explained Mr. LeRoi, a former stand-up comic from Chicago who has known Mr. Rock for 17 years and who was a writer on his 1997 HBO talk series, "The Chris Rock Show."
"Here's the thing that separates this from every other show of this type that you've seen: you know how the story ends," Mr. LeRoi said. "That kid on 'The Wonder Years' could have ended up being a drug addict, he could have gone to jail for burglary, we don't know. But we do know where this kid ends up.
"We know that he became Chris Rock, this acerbic, wry and caustic comedian. What turned him into this guy? Where did he get the point of view that informs those observations? What was it about his mother and father and this difficult landscape, these experiences, that shaped him? For one thing he had a strong nuclear family, which is something that set him apart from the rest of his crowd. Does that mean everything in the show is using his particular experiences? Does he really have a hundred stories that are interesting enough for a series? Well, there might be 30. So we'll be using some poetic license. We're gonna fill in the gaps."
Although some of the details may be fudged (Mr. Rock, for instance, has six siblings; his 13-year-old television alter ego, played by Tyler James Williams, has only a brother and a sister), the essential truths of the show are taken from Mr. Rock's life: his family's move out of the projects and into Bed-Stuy at the end of the 1970's, when he was 13; his stern-but-loving father, Julius (played by Terry Crews), working multiple jobs to keep the family afloat; his proud and strict mother (played by Tichina Arnold) struggling to make the most of the money they had; and Chris, the oldest son, being bussed across Brooklyn to Bensonhurst, where he was the only black student in a white school, a circumstance that led to regular beatings, constant name-calling and the necessary development of a quick and cutting wit.
"It's kind of like 'Oz' with jokes," Mr. Rock said, when asked to describe the show. "Think of school as jail, the principal as warden and bullies as cellmates.
"The thing I try to get across to the writers - and I do a lot of the writing, too - is that when I do stand-up, nothing I talk about is funny. Everything is really sad and tragic and then I make it funny. So I'm trying to get people to follow that formula."
So TV Chris hears gunshots at the bus stop near his apartment, gets his bus pass stolen and is called racial names by the bullies at his new school. His parents ("At the end of the day, this show is a love letter to my parents, both of them," Mr. Rock said) constantly struggle with paying bills and keeping their children fed. The show, like Mr. Rock's provocative stand-up routines, is often brutally funny, but it's not cute.
"Had we known Bed-Stuy was gonna be the center of a crack epidemic, I guess we'd have moved somewhere else," he says in the pilot's narration. "Bed-Stuy even had a motto: Bed-Stuy, Do or Die. Those are some of the guys who are gonna die."
But, harsh as the context might seem, Mr. LeRoi stressed that the show really revolves around small, universal truths of family life: a kid's wanting a radio his father doesn't think he should have, trying to impress the cute girl next door, getting blamed for something your adorable little sister did.
"We're using different people's experiences," said Mr. LeRoi, who, like Mr. Rock, went to a mostly white junior high school. "If you were 13 and a nerd then you probably have a story that fits this show. When I was 12 my best friend was a little white guy, so that's in the show. I grew up in a family with a father who worked really hard and a mother who didn't have much money. So it's all in there."
While Mr. Rock, who now lives in New Jersey, has been on the Paramount back lot set frequently during the first few weeks of filming and has the final word on every script, it is Mr. LeRoi who runs the day-to-day production, sitting in a chair next to the director, his Powerbook at the ready, sometimes changing dialogue on the fly. Although Howard Gewirtz, a veteran sitcom writer whose credits range from "Taxi" and "Wings" to "Oliver Beene" is also listed as executive producer, it is clear that Mr. LeRoi serves as Chris Rock's eyes and ears.
"I have a lot of confidence in Ali," Mr. Rock said. "He's probably the only guy I know that can take my mumblings and make sense of it,'cause I'm all over the place. When we're writing a script, it's literally me walking around a room, pacing and talking, talking, talking with Ali writing down everything I say and adding his own jokes."
Mr. Leroi is also, he admitted, much better suited to the pressures and distractions of running a high-profile production, especially one where the network and studio have so much at stake and aren't shy about dropping by the set, sometimes just to check in, sometimes with notes and suggestions about the scripts. Mr. LeRoi, a tall, serene, athletic presence, seems to take the intrusions in stride. Mr. Rock would just as soon as avoid them.
"Comedy is like cocaine," Mr. Rock said, acknowledging that notes from executives are an unavoidable part of doing a network series. "Every time you cut it, it gets worse."
Mr. Rock stresses that "Everybody Hates Chris" is not a literal version of his childhood. "When you watched 'Fat Albert,' you weren't really thinking about Bill Cosby," he said. "This is just based on my life, which is a very broad term. I think it just requires we have a black kid. It doesn't even have to be a boy."
But he and Mr. LeRoi understand that, for the show to succeed, audiences have to buy into the notion that TV Chris , however fictionalized he might be, will some day become the real Chris Rock.
It's not, however, a transition that audiences will see. The real Chris Rock dropped out of high school and became a stand-up comedian by the time he was 19. However successful "Everybody Hates Chris" turns out to be, Mr. LeRoi and Mr. Rock are adamant that the show will end before the fictional Chris makes that leap.
"The show only works as long as he's a regular guy having regular problems," Mr. LeRoi said. "Nerdy guys can put themselves in the position of the guy not getting the girl. Mothers can put themselves in the position of trying to raise kids under difficult circumstances. But once he starts becoming a comedian, all that changes. Then it becomes the 'Roseanne' year when they hit the lottery. And people will go, 'That's got nothing to do with me.' "
"Nobody wants to see this kid with a microphone pretending he's Chris Rock," Mr. LeRoi continued. "I don't want to see that. And Chris doesn't want to see that. So, if I've got anything to say about it, the minute he walks into a comedy club, the show is over. Thank you. Good night. We're all going home.http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/18/ar...gewanted=print