Chris Rock’s Evolution From Brutally Bullied Little Boy To Comedic Genius

Chris Rock is one of funniest and most successful actors and comedians from the past 20 years. He shot to fame in the ’90s and has continued to impress fans with his diverse talents, from hilarious stand-up and film roles to producing television shows, directing films, and hosting the Academy Awards. And he did it all following intense bullying as a little boy. Rock, one of four brothers, was born in South Carolina on Feb. 7, 1965. His family moved to Brooklyn, New York, shortly after his birth. His mom was a teacher and social worker, and his father was a truck driver and newspaper deliveryman. Rocks’ paternal grandfather reportedly greatly influenced his performing style.

He Was Bullied As a Child

GettyImages-856770444
MICHAEL CAMPANELLA/Redferns
MICHAEL CAMPANELLA/Redferns

Rock has been very open about being bullied as a child when he was spit on and kicked. He was one of the only African Americans in a white school, and the harassment got so bad, he eventually dropped out and earned a GED. He told BET in 2014 that the bullying started when he was in second grade.

“We lived in Bed-Stuy, one of the most famous ghettos in the world,” he explained. “My mother and father wanted me to go to a better school, so I was bused to this poor, white neighborhood…I was the only black boy in my grade for most of the time. I was a little guy, too, a skinny runt.”

His Roots

Rock researched his family history for the PBS series African American Lives 2 in 2008. After taking a DNA test, Rock discovered that he was descended from the Udeme people of northern Cameroon. Cameroon, on the Gulf of Guinea, is a central African country. The show revealed that Rock’s great-great-grandfather, Julius Caesar Tingman, was a slave for 21 years. He later served in the United States Colored Troops until 1866, fighting in the American Civil War.

Rock also learned that his paternal grandfather moved from South Carolina to New York City in the 1940s where he became a taxicab driver and preacher.

A Start in Stand-Up

Rock embarked on his stand-up career in 1984 at the age of 19. He performed at New York City’s chain of comedy clubs, Catch A Rising Star. The venue has launched the careers of many comedic celebrities, including Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Whoopie Goldberg, David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy, and much more.

Over time, Rock earned his chops on the comedy circuit and began landing small acting roles in the film I’m Gonna Get You Sucka and the popular television series Miami Vice. He also made a big impression on Eddie Murphy, who became his mentor and gave him his first role in Beverly Hills Cop II.

Saturday Night Live

In 1990, Rock landed a role that most comedians dream about; he was cast in Saturday Night Live. Rock was joined on the show by some of the funniest people of the time: Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, and David Spade. Collectively, they were known as the “Bad Boys of SNL.”

After leaving the series in 1993, he returned 18 years later in 2014 and spent a lengthy monologue talking about the Freedom Tower, the Boston marathon bombing, and needing a gun to protect himself from gun nuts. Some people were a little put out by what he had to say.

SNL Backlash

He later told Rolling Stone,: “I work my jokes out the same way they do polls for the president. I go into clubs randomly – nothing to advertise that I’m going to be there – and try out the jokes. If they work, they stay in the act, and if they don’t, they don’t stay. And those jokes seemed fine.”

He compared his monologue to Sam Kinison, who joked about Jesus’ last words saying, ” I saw him do Jesus’ last words – like, he was doing the hammer thing, banging on the stage. I watched him snort coke right before he went on! I was Pat Boone compared to that night.”

New Jack City

Rock had a small, but a critically acclaimed role in the 1991 film New Jack City. The film starred Wesley Snipes, Ice-T, Allen Payne, Mario Van Peebles and Judd Nelson. It centered on a drug dealer and crime dealer in New York City during a crack epidemic. Rock played “Pookie” Benny Robinson. After he is shot in the ankle, Pookie becomes homeless, a crack addict and eventually a police informant. He is killed after infiltrating the Cash Money’s Brother and stealing drugs.

Rock later revealed on Inside the Actor’s Studio that it was an easy role to play because he knew people who used and sold cocaine. Years after making the film, drug dealers would see him and greet him on the street, sometimes slipping him drugs.

In Living Color & HBO Comedy Specials

In 1993, Rock starred in six episodes of the African-American sketch series In Living Color, which was canceled shortly after he appeared in the series. He then starred in the low-budget film CB4, which he also wrote. While it only made $18 million, it cost just a third of that to make.

The following year, Rock starred in the comedy special Big A–Jokes for HBO. He followed it up two years later with Bring the Pain, which made him one of the most famous and profitable comedians in history. The latter special earned him two Emmy Awards, and fans and critics loved it.

The Chris Rock Show

During the 1996 election between President Bill Clinton and Senator Bob Dole, Rock was a commentator for Comedy Central’s Politically Correct, and he earned another Emmy nomination. He hosted the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards and returned to HBO for the comedy special Bigger and Blacker two years later. In 1997 he also launched The Chris Rock Show.

In 1999, the series won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Variety or Music Program. It aired until 2000. The talk show centered on stand-up monologues, comedy sketches, and parody commercials. It also included musical performances and interviews with celebrities and political figures.

His Book & Comedy Albums

By the end of the ’90s, Rock had won three Emmy Awards and received 15 nominations. He was considered one of the most successful stand-up comedians in the world. He wrote the comedy book Rock This! in 1998. The book centered on topics such as finding a black leader, marriage, Bill Clinton, sexual harassment, and why white people can’t say the a certain word (it starts with the letter n and is a slur).

Rock also produced the album Roll with the New, which combined live material from his comedy special Bring the Pain and comedy sketches. The album won a Grammy in 1998 for Best Spoken Comedy Album. Other albums included Bigger & Blacker and Never Scared.

Supporting Roles & Down To Earth

Rock’s stand-up success eventually led to more acting opportunities. He started out in supporting roles in films such as Dogma (with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), Beverly HIlls Ninja (alongside SNL colleague Chris Farley), Lethal Weapon 4 (with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover), and Nurse Betty (starring Renee Zellweger and Morgan Freeman).

In 2001, he played the lead star in Down To Earth. Rock played Lance Burton, a comedian who is killed before his time is up and is given a second chance at life. The twist? He must live in the body of a rich, middle-aged white man. The film was poorly received by critics but was somewhat profitable at the box office.

Bad Company’s Bad Timing

Rock starred alongside Anthony Hopkins in the 2002 film Bad Company. The film was the last major movie to film inside the former World Trade Center. The script was written years before the 9/11 attacks and centered on Islamic extremists planning a large attack on New York City. The film’s release was delayed from 2001 to summer 2002 due to its controversial storyline.

Bad Company did poorly at the box office and was lambasted by critics, one of which stated on Rotten Tomatoes, “Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins fail to generate the sparks necessary to save the movie from a generic and utterly predictable script.”

Panned By Critics: Head Of State

In 2003, Rock wrote, directed and starred in Head of State alongside Bernie Mac. The film was the comedic actor’s directorial debut. The title referred to one of the President’s key functions: head of state of the United States. In the film, Rock’s character is a likable but unwinnable candidate that is chosen in order to improve a political party’s chances in the following presidential election.

Rock got the idea for the film from 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale who chose a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, as his running mate. Democrats at the time were aware they couldn’t beat Ronald Reagan but hoped that choosing a woman would garner support from female voters. Most critics didn’t like the film.

Finally, Box Office Success!

The Longest Yard (2005) was one of Rock’s more successful films. The remake starred Adam Sandler as a former NFL quarterback, Paule Crewe, who is forced to build a team from prison inmates to play against their guards. Rock played Crewe’s friend, Caretaker.

The movie was filmed at the New Mexico State Penitentiary. It did well at the box office, earning $47.6 million during its opening weekend (Rock’s biggest debut up until that time). It grossed a total of $190 million worldwide. It’s the highest grossing comedy remake in the modern box office era. The film earned mixed reviews from critics.

Everybody Likes Everybody Hates Chris

In 2005, Rock produced the comedy series Everybody Hates Chris on UPN. The show was loosely based on his turbulent teenage life during the 1980s. Rock said his best friend, Kenny Montero, was an inspiration for many of the episodes and one of the reasons why he got into comedy.

The show was well received by critics and fans. It was nominated for a 2006 Golden Globe Award for Best TV Series (Musical or Comedy), a 2006 People’s Choice Award for Favorite New Television Comedy, and a 2006 Emmy Award for costuming and cinematography. The show ran for four seasons.

Madagascar Franchise

In 2005, Rock joined the cast of the animated film Madagascar. The movie centers on four Central Park Zoo animals who are unexpectedly shipwrecked on Madagascar after a life of captivity. Rock plays Marty the Zebra alongside Ben Stiller (Alex the Lion), David Schwimmer (Melman the Giraffe), and Jada Pinkett-Smith (Gloria the Hippo). The movie was a box office success, earning over $532 million worldwide.

Rock also starred in Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa ($603 million worldwide gross in 2008), and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted ($746 million worldwide gross in 2012). It’s unclear whether there will be a fourth film in the franchise, but due to the success of the previous three films, it’s likely, according to DreamWorks Animation CEO Jefferey Katzenberg.

Academy Awards Hosting Gig

You know you’ve made it when you’re asked to host the Oscars. In 2005, Rock hosted the 77th Academy Awards ceremony. Many thought the pick would be an “edgy” choice for the ceremony and that it would draw a younger audience. Rock was aware that he was a controversial pick and joked in his opening monologue, “Welcome to the 77th and LAST Academy Awards.” He proceeded to poke fun at several celebrities, at one point comparing Jude Law to an inferior Tom Cruise.

Rock later returned to the stage to host the 88th Academy Awards. He was chosen after nominations were revealed and no racial minorities were included in the running. Rock spoke about diversity during the telecast and ended the show by saying, “Black lives matter.”

Praise for the Documentary Good Hair

Rock’s production company Chris Rock Productions and HBO films produced the documentary Good Hair in 2009. Rock also narrated and starred in the film. It centered on how African-American women historically styled their hair and what is currently acceptable in society. Rock said he was inspired to make the film after his daughter Lola, who was three at the time, asked him, “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?”

She had curly, wiry hair that is common among African-Americans, and Rock was bothered because she felt that black curly hair was not “good.” The majority of critics liked the film, and it received the Special Jury Prize Documentary at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

Fans & Critics Disagree About Grown Ups

In 2010, Rock reunited with SNL colleagues Adam Sandler, David Spade, and Rob Schneider in Grown Ups. Kevin James also starred. The film centered on five childhood friends who reconnect with one another after their junior high basketball coach dies.

The comedy, written by Sandler, did well at the box office, earning $271 million worldwide. Once again, critics disagreed with fans and didn’t like it. Schneider was even nominated for a Razzie Award for worst supporting actor. Grown Ups 2 was released in 2013 and was also a box office hit despite poor reviews. It earned $247 million on an $80 million budget.

Music Videos & Broadway

In addition to stand-up, acting, producing, and directing, Rock also starred in several music videos, such as “Your Mother’s Got a Big Head,” from his album Born Suspect and “Champagne” from Roll with the New. He also appeared in videos by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Big Daddy Kane, and Madonna.

In 2011, Rock was nominated for a Drama League Award for the Broadway show The [Expletive] with the Hat, which starred Bobby Cannavale and Annabella Sciorra. Rock later told Vibe magazine that he decided to do theater because he wanted to prove to more people that he could “really act.”

Personal Life

Rock officially divorced his wife of 20 years, Malaak Compton-Rock, in 2016. The couple wed in 1996 and have two children, aged 12 and 14. They also had a third child under mysterious circumstances. Ntombi, 8, was only six months old when Rock and his wife started caring for her. She is from South Africa and was the daughter of poor street peddlers. Rock and his wife never adopted Ntombi, and the comedian stated that she was not his daughter.

The couple reportedly separated several years ago and only filed for divorce in December 2014. Rock is currently dating CSI: MIami star Megalyn Echikunwoke.