Right now, the name Chris Rock is synonymous with one thing: The Slap at the March 27 Oscars. However, Rock’s career is a lot more varied than that one incident, though there are several clues in his work leading up to that moment.
May 20 marks the 35th anniversary of his movie debut as a parking valet in the 1987 “Beverly Hills Cop 2.”
Variety’s review described it as “noisy, numbing, unimaginative” and didn’t mention Rock. A year later, however, he got a shout-out in the Dec. 9, 1988, review of “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” with Variety enthusing, “Chris Rock turns a walk-on into a standout” as a customer in a rib joint.
Rock’s first big break came in 1984, when he booked a splashy standup gig in 1984 at Catch a Rising Star in New York. Eddie Murphy saw and mentored him, Rock continued to work, and soon he made his television breakthrough on “Saturday Night Live” in the 1990-92 seasons.
That led to several standup specials. In 1996, he appeared in the second of his five HBO comedy shows, “Bring the Pain,” which Variety’s Phil Gallo described as “a whopping success” on every level, saying Rock, like Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, supplies “a clear mirror” of society and attitudes through raw language and images. Rock won two Emmys, as a producer and writer of best variety/music/comedy special.
He increased his movie presence, including films that played at Sundance and Cannes, and moved into leading roles, such as a 2002 action-comedy “Bad Company,” with Anthony Hopkins. Rock also became a writer-director-star with the political comedy “Head of State” (2003), with those same three duties in “I Love My Wife” and “Top Five.”
He was also exec producer and narrator of the TV series “Everybody Hates Chris,” which debuted in 2005 and was loosely based on his own childhood.
When he made his Broadway debut with “The Motherfucker With the Hat” (2011) by Stephen Adley Guirgis, Variety’s Marilyn Stasio began her review with “Chris Rock, the comic dynamo who comes to Broadway having conquered every other field of entertainment, is the obvious draw…” However, she was underwhelmed by the production.
There were several moments foreshadowing the Oscar slap. Rock hosted the Academy Awards ceremonies in 2005 and 2016. In the latter case, it was the year of #OscarsSoWhite protests, and Variety said Rock’s monolog was “scathing and well-crafted”; the review added that he addressed the industry and was “unafraid of going to awkward places,” including a jab at Jada Pinkett Smith over her self-publicized plan to boycott the ceremony.
Rock was also a writer and producer of the 2009 docu “Good Hair,” about Black women and their self-image as related to hair. Variety’s review said Rock was “in typically sharp but unusually sensitive form in this fresh, funny and fascinating HBO project.”
For anyone in an isolation chamber since the March 27 Oscar show: Rock was presenting the award for documentary and included a wisecrack about Pinkett Smith’s hair. It wasn’t particularly funny and certainly not the most insulting joke in Oscar history, not even in the top 100. With The Slap, best-actor nominee (and eventual winner) Will Smith negated his 20-year efforts at presenting a Mr. Nice Guy image; Rock maintained his cool, shock-laughing “Wow! Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me!” After Smith returned to his seat and shouted at Rock, the comic deadpanned, “Greatest night in the history of television.”
It wasn’t, but it was certainly unforgettable.
First film: “Beverly Hills Cop II” (1987)
First mention in Variety: 1988 review of “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka”
Breakthrough: “Saturday Night Live” cast member starting in 1990
First TV appearance: “Miami Vice” (1987)
Accomplishments: 4 Emmy wins (19 nominations), 3 Grammys, 12 Image Award noms, 3 WGA noms, plus work as actor, comic, director, producer, writer