'Cultureshock': Why Chris Rock's 'Bring the Pain' should be every comic's bible
This week's 'Cultureshock' explores how Chris Rock changed the face of comedy with his seminal 1996 special 'Bring the Pain.'
"I like my audience to be slightly appalled." - Chris Rock
Contains spoilers for 'Cultureshock: Chris Rock's Bring the Pain'.
Pioneers never have it easy. This week's 'Culture shock' explores how Chris Rock changed the face of comedy with his seminal 1996 special 'Bring the Pain.' In his own words, Rock recounts how after being fired from SNL and upstaged by Martin Lawrence at his own show, he looked to challenge himself in a way he never had before. Rock pushed himself creatively, leading to the development of more personal and provocative material. He performed tirelessly in small clubs, perfecting his new technique. The result was his HBO special, widely considered a revolutionary work with a bold style that changed the conversation about race in popular culture, as well as the face of comedy forever. The film is directed by comedian and Emmy Award winner W. Kamau Bell.
The film starts with Rock talking about the time he started working on the special. He confesses that back then he didn't really know how big of a deal 'Bring the Pain' was going to be. Like many artists, Rock was still finding his voice. At the time, he was in Atlanta doing some gigs when he bumped into Andrew Dice Clay at the underwear department at Macy's. This meeting says Rock was what changed the face of his special. Clay asked him to watch 'Rocky' and out of Rocky Balboa came Rock's inspiration for the set, the one that defined one thing for generations to come - anything is possible if you can find your voice.
When he did do the special, there were two thoughts in Rock's head - it was either going to be huge or it would be the last time he ever got on the telly. Thankfully, it was the former and the special went on to be regarded as one of the finest works in comedy out there as Rock navigated through subjects like the then-D.C. mayor Marion Barry, the O.J. Simpson murder case, dating, marriage, and race relations in America. He managed to impress Oprah Winfrey herself, who says in the documentary that she watched the show alone at home and remembers "laughing her head off". The special really was something that the world had never seen from comedy at the time - Rock not only asked some very hard questions but he also probed in sensitive places, all with a generous dose of humor. "His comic timing and his cultural timing coincided with the time of cultural reckoning in our society at the time," says cultural critic Farai Chideya, which really sums up the argument. He took a risk that no one had and he got it to bang on point.
The film tries to decode what made 'Bring the Pain' so phenomenal, apart from Rock's incredible comic timing. Rock's choice of content was not just shocking, it was also absolutely relevant. The O.J Simpson trials had just happened a year before the stand up aired and Rock took full advantage of just how raw the story was at the time. It was dangerous, it struck a chord amongst all Americans and it was something everyone was thinking about but was afraid to speak out. He was not subtle about what he thought and the crowd echoed his emotions and went along for the ride.
Rock recounts his journey as an adventurous one and he doesn't shy away from revealing the painful bits. Rock talks about how he had to step out of the accidental shadow that Eddie Murphy had created. Everyone else was allowed to be their "own person" but to be black and to be on SNL, Rock really had to carve out his spot under the limelight. Things don't go according to plan and three years into SNL, he was kicked out. It also goes in-depth into what exactly went on in his mind when he ended up being upstaged by Martin Lawrence in Chicago. An honest Rock says that he heard "crickets" after he took the stage. This incident shook him and made him realize that he wasn't as "established" and this failure eventually led him to put his best foot forward in 'Bring the Pain'.
'Bring the Pain' however did not come with just compliments. The film talks about an incident in Oakland where Tupac came to have a chat with Rock after he felt that his set was targeting the hip-hop scene. Chris says he remembers having a 'staredown with Tupac' that thankfully did not result in violence. Rock's family also suffered because of this wrath along with him. He had managed to give a voice to a sect of Americans whose lives had been shrouded with a lot of bravado and this real talk, although it got him hate, also made him really great.
The film does a great job of going into the mind of the comedian and brings out the nitty-gritty of what it takes to make a great stand up special. It treats Rock's success as an example to the art and is a must-watch for budding comedians out there, for sure. There's a lot to learn from Rock - chiseling a joke, bowling out deliveries, creating tension and getting the pulse of a joke, all of which he is the master of.