“Chris Rock is headlining next week, do you want to feature for him?”
I really didn’t.
But, of course, I said “sure” because… money.
This was around 1994 and Chris Rock’s reputation among comics was not good.
Not that he was a bad guy or anything; he just wasn’t funny.
For some reason though, Eddie Murphy thought he was and would get him on stages.
I had seen this borrowed clout in action myself one night when a skinny, leather-clad Chris Rock sauntered into Stand Up NY in the middle of the show.
The owner put him up next, and, sure enough: not funny.
Everyone also assumed it was a “call from Eddie” that landed him on the cast of SNL. Which even Rock later admitted, was “not a good fit.”
So, when the booking manager of the Chicago Improv (my home club at the time) threw me the gig opening for Chris Rock, I imagined doing my 20 minutes for a handful of tourists there to see a fading “D list” celebrity and being halfway home before he finished his first joke.
That is NOT how it went down.
I don’t know what kind of mind-expanding ayahuasca trip… tent revival, spiritual rebirth… or crossroads deals with the devil… Chris had experienced leading up to Chicago…
But, from the second he hit the stage on that first show, I knew I was watching:
A MAN POSSESSED.
I saw it in his eyes as he charged to the stage after I introduced him.
He took the mic and began stalking the stage, back and forth, like a caged tiger.
His tone was a roaring growl to match his prowl.
“Crack is everywhere,” Chris preached from the stage.
“Crack is everywhere,” he repeated like a preacher, refraining his message.
“People say crack is ruining the black community… People say crack is ruining the ghetto. Yeah, like the ghetto was so nice before crack!”
The crowd erupted.
“They say that shit like everyone in the ghetto had a mansion, a yacht, and a swimming pool… and crack came along and dried it all up.”
Howls of laughter and applause.
Instead of heading to my car, I made my way to the balcony and took a seat.
Any cynical judgment or jealous rumors I had about who Chris Rock was, or how he’d earned his name, were evaporating fast.
This was an entirely different cat, and he was K-I-L-L-I-N-G the room.
Backstage he was quiet, shy, and focused.
He had his co-writer with him and they reviewed every set meticulously. Tweaking everything, from the order of jokes to single word choices, on every show.
The act became more polished, the crowd more raucous, and my mind more blown, as the week went on.
I was witnessing the birth of greatness.
The Chris Rock who shook the world with his first special, Bring The Pain, in 1996, and has remained a relevant, disruptive voice in comedy ever since.
Even Michael Jordan, at the peak of his fame, came to see Chris’s show that week. (I’ll never forget the way he glided across the room to shake my hand, flashing that billion-dollar smile.)
I get asked a lot about the parallels between comedy and copywriting.
(I discussed this at length recently in a podcast interview with Chris Haddad, and again just yesterday on Ray Edwards’ show that comes out next week.)
There are many important similarities between stand-up comedy and copywriting, like…
- getting and keeping attention,
- establishing authority,
- refining voice and cadence,
- increasing and releasing tension,
- transitioning between topics,
- and throwing a left when they’re expecting a right.
Chris Rock does all of these masterfully.
But, what he does better than other comics, is…
Committing to his premise.
In both live comedy and sales copy there is zero room for doubt or confusion.
If the audience senses a half-hearted commitment to the ideas you’re presenting or has to think to understand your point… you’re dead.
YouTube Chris’s performances and watch how relentlessly he hammers home his ideas.
Listen to the cadence of his words.
Notice how often he repeats the premise throughout the bit.
There’s a great saying about copywriting…
“Our job is not to make sure the reader understands what we’re trying to say… our job is to make sure there’s no possible way they couldn’t understand it.”
Get commitment and clarity nailed down, and you’re halfway home with anything you write.