I was once convinced that Eddie Murphy was the new Richard Pryor. I didn't have much basis for my reasoning; I was an eighth-grader whose principal exposure to the art of stand-up comedy was a handful of well-worn, frequently swapped George Carlin and Robin Williams cassettes. Here were two black comedians who cursed up a creative storm, stringing together a fountain of "shits," "goddamns," and "motherfuckers" that couldn't help but put my 13-year-old suburban self into convulsive fits of laughter. It was hard not to become Murphy's and Pryor's disciple.
There's no question that Murphy swiped his expletive-laden style at least in part from Pryor (as well as from black-comedy godfather Redd Foxx), but the Saturday Night Live mainstay turned Hollywood superstar never achieved the same depth and substance with his material. In fact, it wasn't until the '90s that another African-American comic realized broad mainstream success while offering the world undiluted views on race, society, and politics.
Chris Rock may have been flying under his idol's wing (Murphy discovered Rock and gave him his first film role in 1987's Beverly Hills Cop II), but it didn't take long for the distinctions in the two men's comedy styles to become apparent. Though woefully underutilized during his own stint on SNL, Rock still managed to make his mark with such button-pushing characters as radical black nationalist talk-show host Nat X. His early satirical salvos didn't always hit their target, but he got a chance to hone his technique when HBO picked up The Chris Rock Show in 1997. There, intelligent interviews with such figures as Jesse Jackson, Ed Bradley, and Al Sharpton stood in sharp contrast to Rock's often inflammatory opening monologues and scathing, over-the-top skits. What other program would stage a public campaign to name a street after Tupac Shakur in notoriously white-bread Howard Beach, Queens? A fearless disregard for political correctness helped make the Emmy-winning show one of the smartest and funniest on television during its five-year run.
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Rock's winning streak continued in 2003 when his directorial debut, the political parody Head of State, took the top box-office spot during its opening weekend. Despite his continued success in film and TV, the comedian refuses to turn his back on the bread-and-butter of stand-up. Rock's first extensive jaunt in four years, the "Black Ambition Tour"returns his edgy topical humor to stages across the nation. Expect his high-energy shows in the Bay Area to feature his trademark manic pacing and no shortage of jabs at Gov. Ahh-nold and the current state of chaos in California politics.