It started with a one-liner: “Chris Rock meets ‘The Wonder Years.’ “
That morsel of an idea eventually led to UPN’s critically acclaimed “Everybody Hates Chris,” which could well become the net’s first true Emmy contender (an irony, given UPN’s upcoming demise).
But viewers almost didn’t get a chance to love “Chris.”
The idea of Rock recounting his youth, which first came out of 20th Century Fox TV and its prexy, Dana Walden, seemed to be a nonstarter.
First off, Rock wasn’t interested in doing TV. And besides, he and writing pal Ali LeRoi were too busy working on the feature “Head of State.”
But Walden persisted and finally sat down with LeRoi to pitch the idea. LeRoi returned to Rock, and the two kicked around what that TV show might look like.
LeRoi and Rock wrote a script — which incorporated both single- and multicamera elements — but it ultimately wasn’t what the studio was looking for.
The project was dead — until UPN Entertainment prexy Dawn Ostroff got ahold of the original script.
“Her feeling was, let’s shoot this,” LeRoi says. “We made some adjustments, specifically in terms of making the parents more pronounced.”
Rather than just focusing on the pre-teen Chris, LeRoi and Rock gave the father and mother more involvement in the story, making it a more well-rounded family. LeRoi admits he took some cues from what worked on “Malcolm in the Middle,” another unconventional single-camera family laffer.
With UPN sibling CBS Paramount Network TV onboard, LeRoi and Rock marched forward, casting the pilot with veteran talent like Tichina Arnold. For the title character, they found newcomer Tyler James Williams, whose resume included a stint on “Sesame Street.”
“Tyler’s got really sharp instincts, and he understands how it all works,” LeRoi says. “He’s really developed over the course of a year.”
Terry Crews, meanwhile, who’d worked on “The Longest Yard” with Rock, was chosen for his comedic chops — as well as his big physical presence — to play what is perhaps the series’ most compelling role, Chris’ dad, Julius.
“Even in a film like ‘Soul Plane,’ Terry was funny,” LeRoi says. “He works hard, and he’s assertive, authoritative. But he’s gentle and vulnerable around the edges. If you’re a guy, you can relate and don’t mind empathizing.”
“Chris” is not only one of the few shows revolving around an African-American family on TV, it’s one of the only sitcoms about a family still on the air, period.
“We’re on a new network next season (the CW), so now it’s about trying to build on our audience,” LeRoi says.
Best episode: “Everybody Hates the Gout.” By episode 16, the show had definitely found its pace — and the humor in its characters. “Gout” explored the vulnerability of both Chris — who takes to faking his report card after receiving an ‘F’ — and Julius, who is forced to stay home (and becomes a soap opera addict) after coming down with gout.
Funniest character: Julius, as played by Terry Crews. The character is unlike any other TV dad on the air: He’s a hard worker, has a solid code of ethics and is a strict disciplinarian to his children, yet has a tender side that frequently emerges while interacting with his wife and children.
What should happen next season: LeRoi promises to expand the “Chris” universe, which is welcome — as long as the show doesn’t stray too far from its core. .