By Ken Tucker
Updated July 09, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

In his new stand-up comedy special, Chris Rock: Bigger & Blacker, Rock is also angrier and more frightened than he was in his previous showcase, 1996’s ferociously revelatory Bring the Pain. Bigger & Blacker was taped recently in Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, and the comedian stalks back and forth across that famous stage as if it’s a shooting gallery — and he’s the duck. Rock seems to revel in the notion that he’s a moving target. When he talks about gunned-down black public figures from Martin Luther King Jr. to Tupac Shakur, you get the feeling Rock fears that his own loudly spoken truths might put him in the crosshairs of some malcontent.

He begins with a funny riff on just that sort of paranoia, claiming that when he walked onto an elevator earlier that day, two white teenagers got in, and he hopped back out. Referencing the Littleton shootings, he says, ”I’m scared of teenage white boys.” Pursuing this thought, he sneers at media witch-hunters who ”want to know what music [the killers] were listening to, what movies they watched. Who gives a s— what they were listening to?” Rock yells, his voice breaking into a shriek. ”What ever happened to ‘crazy”’ — i.e., why can’t we consign such behavior to the inexplicable awfulness it is?

One crucial trait that distinguishes Rock from every other comedian of his generation is that his jokes proceed from a thought-out political philosophy containing both radical and conservative elements. As he was on Bring the Pain, Rock is riotously funny on the subjects of poor parenting and the systematic oppression of minorities (not just blacks, but gays, Latinos, and American Indians as well). Rock’s narrow face is nearly always frowning, his mouth never far from a grimace; he’s so thin, the black leather suit he wears seems filled out by a series of paper-towel tubes, not flesh-and-blood limbs. His appearance suggests a young man whose electric ideas have worn him to a frazzle.

Rock gets away with excusing Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism by proposing something worse — ”Black people don’t hate certain kinds of white people; we hate all white people” — because he has spoken enough common sense for us to consign such nastiness to comic exaggeration. This is, after all, the guy who just got through telling a cheering crowd, ”It don’t make no sense to be a racist or a sexist, ’cause who you hate is going to end up in your family. If you hate gays, you’re gonna have a gay son. If you hate Puerto Ricans, your daughter’s gonna come home” — here he breaks into a Ricky Martin song and dance — ”livin’ la vida loca!”

Still, when Rock turns to the differences between men and women, your laughter might stick in your throat. ”A man is basically as faithful as his options” is his excuse for catting around. He goes on: ”Women need food, water, and compliments — and an occasional pair of shoes.” Say what? Rock frames Freud’s question profanely, ”What the f— do women want?” while telling women what men want: ”Food, sex, and silence.”

When Rock goes off like this he exposes his flaw as a major artist still working out his relationship with his audience and his material. Especially when his subject is male/female issues, he’s a complainer, not an explainer. He doesn’t yet draw upon his own experience, his own soul-deep beliefs, as his idol Richard Pryor did, to justify his often harsh judgments. Bigger & Blacker is an accurate title: Since he did the career-revitalizing Pain, Rock is indeed a bigger star (his special premieres just after the HBO debut of Lethal Weapon 4, profit-making junk in which he stole the screen from Mel Gibson and Danny Glover) and a blacker one (in the sense that more than ever, he’s interested in documenting and criticizing his culture, which at its best leads to gasps of recognition from blacks in the audience and laff-injected revelations for the whites). B&B contains gleaming bits about the beauty of ”fat black women”; an assertion Charlton Heston could get behind: ”I like guns — you got a gun, you don’t have to work out”; and a sweet memory of the improbable medicinal properties his parents held in Robitussin. (”Got a broken leg?” he quotes his dad. ”Pour a little ‘tussin in there, that’ll take care of it.”)

Rock also makes a plea for increased medical research that a TV critic would have to love: ”You know the last disease they cured? Polio. How long ago was that? That’s like, the first season of Lucy!” B+