Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 37 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
On top of being a multiple Emmy-winning actor, writer, stand-up, producer, and most recently Broadway performer, Chris Rock still draws from his experience as the bullied minority he was throughout his childhood and teenage years in Brooklyn. With an overcrowded family, years of taunting by his classmates, and struggles as the only black kid in an all-white school, Rock's success as a comedian soon after was all but predestined, and his three seasons of ushering SNL into the nineties fast forwarded his already steady ascension into fame.
Rock's parents moved to Brooklyn, New York from South Carolina when he was a baby. He spent his childhood growing up in Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy with seven siblings and several foster children taken in by his mother Rose, who worked as a social worker and special needs teacher. Between attending predominately white schools, having several special needs foster siblings, and being a scrawny, short teen, Rock was subjected to years of bullying by his class mates, which culminated when he dropped out of James Madison High at 17 years old.
With high school behind him, Rock worked minimum wage jobs as a teenager (including a stint at McDonald's) while trying out stand-up on the side, and he booked his first professional gig at Catch A Rising Star in 1985 at 20 years old. Soon after he met and was mentored by fellow New York comic Eddie Murphy, who gave Rock his first film role as a Playboy Mansion valet in 1987's Beverly Hills Cop II as well as an appearance on the HBO special Uptown Comedy Express. Small roles on Miami Vice and Keenen Ivory Wayans' 1988 film I'm Gonna Git You Sucka followed, as well as near-constant stand-up. By the time he auditioned for SNL he had already been a regular performer on Showtime at the Apollo for two years.
Alongside newcomer Chris Farley (and later that season, Adam Sandler), Rock was hired as a featured player for SNL's 16th season. He created several recurring characters including the anti-The Man late night 15-minute BET show host Nat X of "The Dark Side" ("Why only fifteen? Cause The Man would never give me an hour!") and "I'm Chillin'" host/serial rhymer Onski. He also appeared as Young Pop in "Tales from the Barbeque," game show contestant Kevin Stubbs, and elderly grump Buster Jenkins, who he also played as a Weekend Update correspondent. His impersonations included Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy, 70s game show poet Nipsey Russell, M.C. Hammer, Michael Jackson, Flavor Flav, Jaleel White (AKA Steve Urkel), Todd Bridges (AKA Willis Jackson), porn star Long Dong Silver, record label owner Luther Campbell, Ugandan president Idi Amin, and Whoopi Goldberg.
Though his cast mates would rise to the success of veteran stars Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman, Rock had trouble fitting into the role of a recurring character/sketch actor and soon became frustrated with playing token black parts. Like many players with more roots in stand-up than improv, Rock appeared in Update editorial segments often, where he angrily joked about everything from racism and poverty to assassinating President Bush if Colin Powell was his running mate, because that's the only way a black man could ever be president — occasionally vitrolic but always with good reason, and his onscreen delivery was as fearlessly harsh as his material.
Rock's frustrations culminated after his third season, when he quit to join the cast of the hit Fox sketch show In Living Color. “The culture’s changing,” Rock told Marc Maron in 2011, “and I’m not a part of it. This shit is getting hip. This shit is getting blacker. This shit is getting fucking rappier. SNL is still a pretty white show. When I got hired I was the first black guy in like eight years— and In Living Color was just hip. The shit was hot. I wanted to be in an environment where I didn’t have to translate the comedy I wanted to do.”
In Living Color was canceled nine episodes after Rock joined the cast, but from then on he'd appear steadily in films and comedy specials, starting with his starring role as a gangsta rapper in 1993's CB4 and following with SNL alum films like Beverly Hills Ninja, Doctor Dolittle, and Grown Ups; Kevin Smith films Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back; Louis CK's Pootie Tang, the animated Farrelly brothers film Osmosis Jones; and a starring role as the first black president in 2003's Head of State. Rock has also released five comedy specials (Big Ass Jokes, Bring the Pain, Bigger & Blacker, Never Scared, Kill the Messenger), written a book (Rock This!), and hosted the Billboard Music Awards, three MTV Video Music Awards, and the 2005 Oscars, not to mention hosting his own The Chris Rock Show on HBO from 1997-2000. Since then he's worked as executive producer on ABC's The Hughleys, his autobiographical CW sitcom Everybody Hates Chris (which he also narrates), and most recently on the new FX series Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. He's currently finishing production on two documentaries — one on the "birth of the comedy club" (Eat Drink Laugh) and another on debt (Credit Is the Devil).
While Chris Rock's credits as a multiple Emmy-winning actor, stand-up, and guaranteed hilarious awards show host have been steady and critically praised since his challenging days at SNL, he's always given the show its due credit for skyrocketing him into fame. "Was being on the show the greatest creative experience for me? No," he says in Live from New York. "But it's still the biggest thing that ever happened to me in show business. The jump from broke to famous is the biggest jump. There's no bigger jump than that. I could win five Oscars tomorrow, it wouldn't be a bigger jump than nothing to something." It's not just getting there — it's staying there, and in that Rock's been one of his alum cast's biggest stealth success stories.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.