Chris Rock has uttered many widely quoted routines from the stand-up stage over the past two decades. But what could become his most memorable and repeated words arrived Wednesday in a 20-character tweet: "This one was on film."
It was less a punchline than a national punch to the gut. Rock, in five words, summed up the mix of disbelief and outrage experienced by many after a Staten Island, N.Y. grand jury decided not to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner, 43, whose struggle for life was captured on video. He also invoked the lingering rage felt by many over a Missouri grand jury's decision last week not to indict a cop in the shooting death of another African-American man, 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Rock transcended comedy with the tweet in the same week he addressed the turmoil in Ferguson, MO. in a widely cited New York magazine interview, and penned a potentially controversial essay for The Hollywood Reporter in which he called part of the supposedly liberal movie industry "kind of racist" and refers to Los Angeles as a Mexican "slave state."
All of this adds up to Rock taking his act to a bold new level, earning himself a place beside Richard Pryor and George Carlin as among the greatest standup comic/social critics of our time, embodying the spirit of Mark Twain.
It’s tricky business, though, when comedians get serious. Viewers watched Jon Stewart’s struggle to process the Garner news during Wednesday’s “Daily Show,” which was taped around the time Rock tweeted. Stewart, by turns exasperated and angry, declared, “If comedy is tragedy plus time, I need more f-----g time,” he said.
As powerful and honest as Stewart’s reaction came across, Rock's words resonated more – not just because he's an African American son of New York City, but because his terse tweet struck notes beyond raw emotion.
Rock's publicity tour for his new movie "Top Five” has coincided with the grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in the deaths of Garner and Brown, adding to his considerable visibility. Ferguson-related comments from his expansive interview with New York magazine's Frank Rich flew across social media, including this segment: "White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before."
Rock, whose new flick stands as perhaps his best shot at gaining elusive movie stardom, didn't hesitate to tell the truth about the film business, as he sees it, in his Hollywood Reporter piece: "It's a white industry. Just as the NBA is a black industry. I'm not even saying it's a bad thing. It just is."
Rock is taking a risk. As evidenced by Pryor, Carlin, Twain and others who use humor as a vehicle for social criticism as much as entertainment, unflinchingly discussing race and the worst impulses of human nature can be a daring and sometime dangerous undertaking.
Whether or not you agree with Rock’s takes, there’s little doubt we’re watching a great comedian use the powerful combination of intelligence, honesty, life experience and an ability to cut through the noise amid divisive recent events to elevate his game, delivering words that make you think as much as feel – and make you cry as easily as laugh.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.