Chris Rock's new show is one of Fall '05's best. UPN (yes, we said UPN) mines big laughs from the 'Bring the Pain' comic's Brooklyn childhood

By Jeff Jensen
Updated September 02, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT



UPN 8-8:30PM

Funny how the past can catch up with you. Chris Rock is experiencing this as he hangs out on the set of Everybody Hates Chris, a big-hearted, hard-edged riff on the comedian’s lean-and- mean Reagan-era adolescence, beleaguered by tough-love parents, racist bullies, pesky siblings, and an empty fridge. It’s The Cosby Show by way of Spike Lee’s Crooklyn —although visiting the Hollywood soundstage, with its maze of places culled from Rock’s memory, is like a Being John Malkovich head trip. Here, the cramped Brooklyn apartment that was home to Rock and his six siblings; there, the predominantly white middle school that was home to many kickings of Rock’s ass. This is where the comic is now, pacing the locker-lined hallway like a stand-up on the prowl, looking fastidiously Seinfeld-esque in a crisp dress shirt and spotless white sneakers. He’s explaining why he didn’t want Chris to be a shallow parade of cheap-shot pop references like That ’80s Show, Fox’s deceased nostalgia-com. ”And then Michael Jackson was on Motown 25,” rails the Oscar emcee with mock excitement, ”and everybody was moonwalking!”

Rock stops.

”That would make a good episode,” he says, turning to Chris‘ cocreator, Ali LeRoi. ”Michael Jackson week at the school! Everyone dresses like Michael Jackson!” Rock laughs his gulpy laugh — and then his past boomerangs back. ”Nahhh. After all the horrible jokes I’ve told about him, ain’t no way we’re getting [rights to] that music.”

”I’m pretty sure that the standing order at Neverland is to not take your call,” says LeRoi.

Fortunately, Everybody Hates Chris doesn’t need a Michael Jackson joke to be funny. Poignant, pointed, and raucous — even before Rock’s narration, which is peppered with his trademark realpolitik wit — Chris is the best sitcom ever…to air on UPN. ”I’ve heard the show even cures cancer,” quips Terry Crews, who plays Chris‘ stingy, two-jobs-a-day dad. Set in 1982, Chris‘(tall) tales from the (child)hood are built on a foundation of two Rock-hard facts: Clan Rock’s movin’-on-up transition from the projects to…crack-whacked Brooklyn, and Rock’s hard-knock education at a school short on melting pot manners. The show also accurately captures Ma and Pa Rock’s old-fashioned brand of parenting. In the second episode, when Chris’ little sister, Tonya (Imani Hakim), refuses to eat, Mom (Martin’s Tichina Arnold) spears a sausage off her plate and practically assaults her with it. ”This was during the day when there were no ‘time-outs,”’ says Arnold. ”This show comes from a very real place.”

But not too real. ”We’re not doing Cinderella Man here,” cautions Rock. Names have been changed, and the kids downsized to three, with Sesame Street vet Tyler James Williams as Chris and Ray‘s Tequan Richmond as his younger brother, Drew. Take some of the plots with a few thousand grains of Rock salt. In the pilot, Chris gets the better of a bigoted boy with quips and a punch. ”I mean, I got hurt,” says the Bring the Pain funnyman. ”But hey, it worked out.”