Everybody loves Chris...

Comic Stephen Grant gives his take on the Chris Rock tour

I constantly tell my friends I'm as much a fan of stand-up comedy as a performer of it, but as I walked towards Hammersmith Apollo tonight it dawned on me that in the last 11 years, I've only paid twice to go and watch stand-up; once to see Lee Evans at the Dome in Brighton (as a treat for a friend), and tonight, when I went to see Chris Rock.

That's not to say I don't watch a lot of stand-up; I own more stand-up DVDs than all my TV box-sets, movies, and 'special interest' discs added together, and as a jobbing compere, I'll find myself watching every act on every show I ever host. But when you're 'in the industry' it irks you to pay to see something you are normally paid to do, so it has to be something special. Especially when it's on one of your rare nights off and involves a round trip to London from Brighton.

Certainly I wasn't alone in this opinion. I bumped into fellow comic Lloyd Langford in the lobby and within minutes we were chatting expectantly about the show to come, like any budding punter with my plastic pint glass. It's good to remember what life feels like this side of the stage.

Not that Lloyd or myself are likely to be playing an eight-day sellout run in a 3,632-seater anytime soon. And certainly not at £35 a ticket (face value; double that for eBay). And you'd be wrong thinking this level of investment buys you much in the way of premier seating, either - when booking the tickets online, I'd opted for row AA, not knowing the Apollo and thinking this would be pretty near the front. Those of you already chuckling know that the seating goes, row A, row B, etc ... all the way down to row Z... and then row AA, row BB, and that's it. And seeing as I was in seat 68, the last in the row, I was physically as far from the stage as you could be. Though I shouldn't complain; behind me were about 40 people standing in the corridor to watch the show, and they'd paid nearly as much as me. The lucky ones got to lean on a ledge.

Anyway - the show started a whopping 25 minutes late, with support act Mario Joyner, who was as laid back an act as you'll ever see. Cue some inevitable but thankfully not overplayed mentions of us being on 'black time' and we were off. I liked Mario. Imagine a sharply dressed Micky Flanagan with about as much urgency as Glenn Wool, asleep. Some clear US references in his set had been neatly anglicised and I felt it a good precursor for what Chris himself had done to update his show for a British crowd. As ever, my inability to disengage work-mode made it pretty hard to enjoy his set at first, as I second-guessed his material and spent far too much time embroiled in his stagecraft to switch off properly; but he was good - and in places, very good, especially in his routine about prostate examinations. Regrettably, laughing at this caused me to rock back in my chair, where it snapped clear off the bindings. I then spent the last five minutes of his set trying to stop my seat from toppling over, which I have to admit, was distracting.

The interval consisted almost entirely of the process involved in the venue rebuilding my chair so that Chris Rock didn't just become 'don't rock' for the rest of the show, which they managed. And then after a screen montage of black icons (fascinating, actually - I liked it a lot) and a glitzy intro sequence well in keeping of the mounting energy of the room, out Chris came. First impressions: he's quite small. But then from row AA seat 68, I'd probably think that of Dog the Bounty Hunter.

From the comic's perspective, it's good to see that the basic craft we hone and perfect on the open mic and then jobbing circuit teaches the skills that Chris clearly employs even at this dizzy level of success. He opened, as many a travelling comedian would do, with a short riff on the observations of being in Britain, to place him nicely - including references to how strong the pound was compared to the dollar. A nice way of ingratiating himself while doffing a cap to what could be a room of proud locals who maybe wouldn't take kindly to any Brit-bashing. Not an original topic, many seasoned comedy-goers may think; but then, that's not what I was expecting.

A rich man like Chris in his $3 million mansion (his proud on-stage admission) won't have too many points of reference with an audience he rarely plays live to, but it's in the craft you find yourself swept along with his comic musings. I played 'fantasy set-list' on the way up to the gig, guessing what topics he would cover. Alongside the rudimentary yet superb race observations and more than a healthy nod to the n-word, I guessed it would include Obama v Clinton (check), Britney's gone mental (check), Bush is retarded (check), and the difference between men and women (check). In fact, he even started one routine with the actual words, ‘the difference between men and women is...’ but by then, everyone was so immersed, I bet even the comedy purists weren't scoffing. Though I've written this without seeing any Chortle review yet, so we'll see.

Thankfully, it wasn't hard to relax, and once he had, so did I. With both of us doing our best to ignore the fact that he was only patchily lit by some of the most rubbish spotlight operation I have ever witnessed, we were off. Within five minutes of his 90 minute set, he was exceeding my expectations, and I found myself laughing out loud and applauding on numerous occasions. What Chris Rock does so well, is build a groundswell of opinion that he can dictate without preaching, allowing him to control not only the mood of the room, but the momentum and the direction too.

It is a little sweeping to say that this is the premise of his stylised take on Def Jam comedy, and would imply that the material and social statement are of second nature, but Chris gives depth as well as polish, and it's impressive stuff. There was many a nugget of subtle humour scattered around that I am certain the majority of the room regularly missed. No wonder his DVDs are so popular, even though he seemed considerably more mellowed and muted than in some of those earlier tour-de-force rants, something my friends all commented on independently.

When you think of some of the forces in US comedy who were grounded in stand-up, such as Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy, it's hard to think of them as jobbing comics. That's not the case with Chris Rock though, and it's a testament to how natural a live performer that I felt he really spoke to me, a white middle-class cynic who can't relax in a live venue and never pays to see comedy. Especially not in row AA.

Published: 10 Jan 2008

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