With his HBO special ''Bring the Pain'' and a stint on ''Politically Incorrect,'' the comedian is on a roll

Just last year, Chris Rock thought he might be washed-up. ”I left William Morris last April because all those times [my career] got hot — they amounted to nothing,” recalls the former Saturday Night Live standout. ”The only catch was after I left, no one wanted me. Literally every agent in town turned me down.”

That was then. Today, Rock is very much a wanted man. The 31-year-old comedian is currently riding a dazzling winning streak, eye-opening even by Hollywood’s jaded standards. Momentum began building last summer with Rock’s breakthrough HBO special, Bring the Pain, which garnered critical acclaim and two Emmy nominations. After that came a short but widely noticed stint last August as a Politically Incorrect commentator covering the presidential election, resulting in another Emmy nod. Then, this Sept. 4, Rock’s ferocious tell-it-like-it-is performance as the host of the MTV Video Music Awards (for highlights, see sidebar) stole the show — no small feat given the assortment of pouting divas, rock spectacles, and hopped-up egos that filled the telecast. With Rock leading the way, viewership for the awards shot up 39 percent from last year, giving the broadcast its third-highest rating ever. ”If you’re looking for the next guy to break out of stand-up,” says Doug Herzog, CEO of Comedy Central, ”he’s already here.”

Clearly, this Rock is no longer in a hard place. Although the entertainer had enjoyed modest successes before — on SNL from 1990 to ’93, with his 1993 feature CB4, and with his first HBO special, Big Ass Jokes (1994) — nothing compares to the veritable Rock festival going on now. His HBO talk/variety series, The Chris Rock Show, begins its second season Sept. 12 with a firm 12-show commitment. In October, his first book, Rock This, will be published by Hyperion. And starting in February, Rock begins filming Miramax’s comedy Dogma, playing Rufus, the forgotten 13th apostle. ”I think of Chris as the George Carlin of the now,” says Dogma director Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy). ”He’s a thought-provoking comedian.”

What makes Rock’s success remarkable is that he has resisted Hollywood’s practice of pigeonholing young black comics. Regarding the film roles he’s been offered, Rock describes them as: ”He’s an ex-con who does this. He’s a con man who does that.” The comic says the ultimate insult came when Disney asked him to audition for its upcoming animated Tarzan feature — as the voice of the sassy gorilla. ”They couldn’t understand why I would say no,” says Rock. ”That’s where they’re living.” (A Disney spokesperson says that approaching Rock ”wasn’t a racial decision.” The part went to Rosie O’Donnell.)

Avoiding typecasting is also why Rock has rebuffed broadcast TV. ”Every network has come at me,” he says. Peter Aronson, exec vice president of Walt Disney Television, notes that Rock ”has defined himself as a guy with a real voice, which is what you look for in stand-ups you build shows around.” But Rock has rejected all the offers. ”There is a glut of a certain type of black comedian and a certain type of white comedian,” explains Rock. Which is why, he says, ”stand-up sucks right now.”