Oscars to 'Rock' the Red States
At a time when Hollywood crybabies and their Big Media daddies are crumbling under pressure from conservatives, Chris Rock is, well, like a rock. That's why, at the Academy Awards this Sunday, you can count on the guy who may well be the funniest comedian working right now to break out of the mold of mediocrity that usually defines the broadcast's opening monologue and blow up the status quo.
L.A. Weekly has learned that Rock has earmarked a segment of his standup to joke about George W. Bush. Ali LeRoi, a longtime Rock collaborator and part of the team of writers helping to craft the comic's opening remarks as Oscar host, tells me: "The guy who says inflammatory stuff is going to say something inflammatory. He's made a career of being outrageous so, yes, there'll be presidential humor."
It isn't just worries about Bush bashing that have Oscar watchers on alert. No previous host has done as much lip flapping before the show as Rock. The result has been a manufactured brouhaha about his anti-Oscar banter. ("What straight black man sits there and watches the Oscars?" Rock asked Entertainment Weekly. To which Artie Lang on The Howard Stern Show replied: "Denzel Washington's father.") But lost in the headlines was the comedian's history of razzing the White House and its policies.
Anyone who knows Rock's act has heard his razor-sharp "Bush lied to me" riff. "Bush lied to me, man. He said we got to move on Iraq because they're the most dangerous regime on Earth. If they're so dangerous, how come it only took two weeks to take over the whole fucking country? You couldn't take over the Bronx in two weeks. You'd need a month to get the Grand Concourse."
L.A. Weekly has learned Rock will be tamer come Oscar night, but he will still crank up the political satire. According to LeRoi as well as people who've heard Rock trying out material recently, one Dubya joke is about the president's intelligence, or lack thereof, and goes something like this (SPOILER ALERT): "Bush is not stupid. All you people who say that are wrong. You can't be an idiot and get to be president. You gotta give the guy a little credit. Anyone that's smart enough to get that far has got to be just acting dumb."
No wonder the Red Staters are having heart attacks. These are the same rabid dogs, after all, who wouldn't even let the Democratic presidential candidate speak ill of W. Now a comedian's got a gig to do it in front of an audience of hundreds of millions. Rock is "the wrong host," claimed Concerned Women for America (a.k.a. Conservative Operatives), "unless Hollywood wants to demonstrate how far out of touch it is with the rest of America."
We know their drill come Oscar time: attack, attack, attack, and beat Hollywood into obedient silence.
"As long as you salute the right wing, you are endowed with great intelligence and patriotic spirit. But anyone else who speaks up with independence is some sort of traitorous bastard. It's such a tired act," says Hollywood activist Mike Farrell (M.A.S.H., Providence) defending Rock's right to be funny. "I just turned down a Geraldo interview about why Hollywood is out of step with the rest of the country. This is such bullshit."
Rock's Oscar standup is being kept so secret that the comic wouldn't allow 60 Minutes to air even an excerpt from his practice runs at the Sunset Strip comedy clubs during the newsmagazine's profile on him that aired last Sunday, according to a show exec. (Who says filmdom, fame and fortune don't come with perks? Tell that to the next poor bastard who asks the producers not to show him being led away in handcuffs.)
LeRoi hints at subjects that will be skewered. Michael Moore. The Passion of the Christ. "We can take potshots at the studios all night. What can we say that will damage their bottom line?!"
And agents. And stars. "These people actually do exist on a higher plane when they're experiencing pop culture. They are the pop culture. We're talking about Brad and Jen and George. Tom Cruise in a villa in Spain thinking what he's going to do in M:I-4. They're creating the culture, not partaking in it. And Chris is very conscious of this and will play to those people."
And Rock himself. A joke about his own "rich kids" got laughs. And the Oscars, of course. This joke was in his practice run at the Comedy Store (SPOILER ALERT): "No one does the thing they're supposed to do on the Oscars. Like you watch the Grammys, they singin'. You watch the Tonys, they dancin'. And you watch the Oscars, no actin'. Ain't no one even thinking about acting. The only actin' you see at the Oscars is when people act like they're not mad they lost. It's unbelievable. When Halle Berry won the Oscar, I saw Nicole Kidman smile so big; she should have got an Emmy at the Oscars for her performance. Halle's mother wasn't that happy for her."
L.A. Weekly has learned that Rock insisted on creative control over his Oscar standup, agreeing only to excise swear words. "He wanted autonomy and they gave it to him," one of Rock's reps told me. "When he took the job, he said, 'I don't want to do it unless I can be funny.' "
But one comedian who caught Chris' pre-Oscar warm-up at the Comedy Store back in January told me, "He's going to need to work a lot harder. The act was not funny." That may be because Rock is not a traditional set-up-the-punch-line style of comic but more of a sharp-tongued commentator. "He's all about pointing to salient things about circumstances other people are afraid to talk about," notes LeRoi. "Clarity and honesty on subject matter is what gets him laughs."
Rock for weeks now has been hunkered down with his writers, who, like LeRoi, are mostly veterans of his HBO hit, The Chris Rock Show, including Jeff Stillson, Lance Crowther, Chuck Sklar, Frank Sebastiano and Mario Joyner, besides LeRoi. "We told him, 'You don't need a yes man. You need a no man,'" recalls the writer. "He also has this loose circle of comedian friends he might turn to for a joke here and there." (Which may explain why David Spade is going around telling the press he's writing Oscar material for Rock, which comes as news to LeRoi. The only explanation is that Spade was merely in the audience for one of Rock's practice runs at a comedy club.)
Rock and his writers boned up by watching years and years of Oscar shows. "Billy, Whoopi, Steve and Dave, even Johnny and Bob Hope," recalls LeRoi. "How do the hosts act when they don't get laughs? What was the big social issue no one could talk about? The suggestion is that there's this template one has to fit in. But that's why the people who put on the Oscars are shaking it up."
Fortunately, the Oscar broadcast's professional prude, ABC censor Susan Futterman, has a history of being cool with controversial material like Rock's. Veteran Oscar writer Bruce Vilanch tells me about the time he'd written a joke the year that Hugh Grant was found in flagrante delicto with hooker Divine Brown. "So we referred to her as a 'Fellatio Alger' story. And Susan came to us and said, 'Look, if you use fellatio, I have to give this show a TV-14 rating because that's one of the words. But it's your call.'
"And Whoopi said, 'Let's cut the joke. I watched this show when I was a kid in the projects. I don't think we should be telling parents not to have their kids see it.'"
It's no exaggeration to say that the stakes are huge for Rock on Sunday night. He'll be blamed if the telecast stutters in the ratings, even though this is a star-challenged year where none of the five Best Pictures have even come close to $100 million in grosses, a sign they haven't been seen in fly-over country. It could also damage Rock's film career, which is on life support already. He's bombed so consistently at the box office that, I'm told, he pulled up to a stoplight on Sunset in his Mercedes convertible one day and saw that the driver exactly parallel was trying to talk to him.
"I just rented Head of State, and I want my four bucks back," the driver told Rock. With that, the signal turned green and the two cars inched forward to the next light.
All of a sudden, a wadded-up $5 bill came sailing through the driver's window.
"Keep the change!" yelled Rock, all smiles as he drove off.