Tony Rock on Bringing Black Comedy Back to HBO with ‘All Def Comedy’
“Black comedy is back on HBO,” proclaims Tony Rock as he kicks off All Def Comedy, a new one-hour special from Russell Simmons debuting tomorrow night at 10:00pm. All Def picks up where Def Comedy Jam left off in the 90s, giving up-and-coming performers a chance to showcase at a national level with the backing support of a respected entertainment brand. I talked to the host of All Def Comedy, Tony Rock (All of Us, The Tony Rock Project, Apollo Live), about the new special, his early influences, and being one of three successful comedian siblings.
How did you get involved with the All Def Comedy special?
Russell and I do the show every Wednesday in Los Angeles. Russell wanted agents and managers — the suits — to come out and see some of the urban acts that aren’t on the radar, people that are just as talented as the guys everybody is going crazy over. HBO came out to the show and loved it. This is the perfect time to relaunch what Def Comedy Jam was in the beginning because there are so many urban acts that aren’t getting a look. Russell once again stepped up and created a vehicle for urban comics to get some eyes on them.
I saw an interview with Russell where he said that there are a lot of people from the black comedy community that are working hard and known within the community, but haven’t gone mainstream yet. Having a weekly show with industry is a great opportunity. That’s why people do annual comedy festivals.
Absolutely. That’s why the Montreal comedy festival was created. Montreal is like the NBA Draft for comics. All of the agents, production companies, and networks are there. As a comic you can go there for a weekend and it can change your life.
Where do you do the weekly All Def live show in LA?
Hollywood and Highland inside Jokes Comedy Club. There’s a movie theater that was turned into a comedy club. It’s got the stage in the front and screen behind you with your name, Instagram, and Twitter information. It’s very interactive. It’s a great show every week.
It isn’t just an industry show, right? Anyone can come check it out.
Yeah we prefer regular people. Regular people laugh harder. Industry people are stuffy, very judgmental. You can tell who the industry are in the room because they’re the ones sitting there critiquing and not laughing.
You’ve been doing more TV and movie work lately. Did you just wrap up shooting something in DC?
Yeah, I just wrapped Sunday in DC. I shot a romantic comedy called Couples Night. It’s an independent film. We shot in about 20 days. It was a fun shoot.
You’ve had an interesting come up. You’ve established a career independent of your older brother Chris. Were you guys competitive when you were younger?
Not necessarily competitive in like trying to beat each other, but we inspire each other. I have seven brothers and two sisters, so there was always a little friendly competition in the house. I don’t think that’s anything unusual with that many siblings. When my brother started doing standup I was younger. I couldn’t go out. I couldn’t stay out as long as he could. I couldn’t get into comedy clubs like he could. I had to wait for my time. Big brother does everything first.
You have another younger brother who is also doing comedy now.
Oh my God, you should see the smile on my face right now. I’m so proud of this kid. Jordan Rock! He’s on the Netflix sitcom Love, he’s got a new show on Comedy Central, which they’re shooting a pilot for very soon, called Drunk Girl High Guy. He’s the lead on that and he’s super super funny. Jordan Rock is my favorite comedian right now.
In your opening host set on All Def you say that black comedy is back on HBO. What do you remember about black comedy on HBO when you were younger?
It planted the seed in my head that I could actually do this. I was a young guy wearing the same clothes, using hip hop slang, hanging out on the corner with my boys. I saw guys on HBO that looked like me and talked like me, doing the thing I wanted to do, that I dreamed of doing. It taught me that I could be myself and still do this incredible thing that I wanted to do.
Who did you look up to when you were younger? Was there anyone you modeled yourself after?
If I modeled myself after anybody it probably would have been Richard Pryor. I would sneak and listen to Richard Pryor albums when my parents went grocery shopping or out on a date. I would run into their room and grab Richard Pryor albums and listen to them. I think every black comic is modeled after Richard Pryor. He was the king and there will never be another king. The thing is, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, and Eddie Murphy were guys that I knew of, but I had no connection to them. I didn’t know them personally. But when my brother started doing standup it made it real. That’s when I really woke up. These other guys were just guys I had heard of and listened to. Now the guy in the next room is doing it. That’s when I was like, “Holy shit, I can actually do this.”
Were your parents supportive when you told them you wanted to be a comedian?
My father drove a truck and my mother was a school teacher. They wanted their children to go the traditional route: get good grades, go to college, get a job. There was some friction when my brother dropped out of high school, got a GED, and started doing standup. There was some friction when I told my mom I was going to be a comic. But as my mother got older she kind of loosened her grip, so when Jordan graduated high school it was like, “Your other two brothers are doing it and I see how much you follow their example.” So she kind of gave the thumbs-up to Jordan.
Right now All Def Comedy is being billed as a special, but you used the word relaunch. Is this going to be part of a recurring series?
I hope so. I’m speaking it into fruition. HBO was interested in the pickup, but they want to see how the first episode does. I say relaunch because it’s no different than what the original Def Comedy Jam was. It’s the same blueprint. The only difference is Def Jam was a half hour and this is one hour to see if we can get to do more episodes. Everybody feels strongly that it’s going to happen, but you never know. I’ve seen stranger things happen in Hollywood.