Chris Rock: Never Scared

The law of averages says even a list-happy outfit like Entertainment Weekly has to get it right once in awhile, as it did recently by proclaiming Chris Rock the funniest person alive. Rock's first HBO comedy special in four years doesn't diminish that rep, and even if it can't quite match the towering heights of his 1996 classic "Bring the Pain" spec.

The law of averages says even a list-happy outfit like Entertainment Weekly has to get it right once in awhile, as the magazine did recently by proclaiming Chris Rock the funniest person alive — or at least the funniest who would pose for its cover. Rock’s first HBO comedy special in four years certainly doesn’t diminish that rep, and even if it can’t quite match the towering heights of his 1996 classic “Bring the Pain” spec, second-best Rock is preferable to just about any other stand-up still standing.

The producers actually don’t do their headliner any favors, preceding the actual show by interviewing concert attendees regarding what they’d like to hear Rock discuss, as well as reminiscing about past favorites. This both telegraphs the comic’s subject matter and inevitably compares the new material to his most memorable routines.

To his credit, though, Rock hasn’t let his burgeoning popularity dampen his observational skills or soften his biting delivery. Nor has that success — and the audience’s high expectations — made him self-consciously inward, as is sometimes the case.

Once again, Rock prowls the stage, pacing back and forth as he deftly zeroes in on targets — an eclectic lot ranging from Michael Jackson (“Another kid? That’s like another dead white girl showing up at O.J.’s house”) to President Bush, who he wryly accuses of orchestrating tawdry celebrity news “to get your mind off the war.”

Rock has distinguished himself by fearlessly challenging assumptions by both African-Americans and whites, and that’s still true, including his exploration of the distinction between being rich and truly wealthy.

The special hits sidesplitting heights, however, with Rock’s take on marriage and relationships, much more so than with its topical humor. Part of that comes near the outset, where he explains his modest ambitions as the father of a young daughter — namely, to keep her from becoming a stripper. But the real flurry occurs toward the end.

Fans will find themselves quoting freely from Rock’s perspective on relationships, which boils down the depressing menu of options to “Married and bored” or “Single and lonely.” Rock resides in the former category, wistfully talking about sex as if it were a historical oddity.

There are echoes of both Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor here, though Rock remains an original.

Producer-director Joel Gallen has the good sense to pretty much stay out of the way, though there are perhaps too many crowd reaction shots — a quibble, at best, to what is an otherwise splendid production. This might not be a Rock spec for the ages, but in its laugh-out-loud examination of timeless themes, it still seems destined to age quite well.

Chris Rock: Never Scared

HBO; Sat. April 17, 10 p.m.

Production: Taped in Washington, D.C. at DAR Constitution Hall by Chris Rock Enterprises and Tenth Planet Prods. Executive producers, Chris Rock, Michael Rotenberg, Joel Gallen; co-producer, Kali Londono; director, Gallen; writer, Rock.

Crew: Editors, Bill Deronde, Ryan Polito, Tal; production designer, John Calkins; lighting designer, Allen Branton. 78 MIN.

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