Q&A: Tony Rock
Tony Rock is on a roll. The Brooklyn-born comedian is coming off a serious hot streak, having landed recent gigs on the acclaimed CBS series Living Biblically, as host of BET’s uproarious game show Black Card Revoked, and most prominently as the host of All Def Comedy, HBO’s update on the classic series Def Comedy Jam. He stepped out of older brother Chris Rock’s shadow long ago and now he’s on the verge of yet another breakthrough. Las Vegas Magazine’s Brock Radke caught up with him as he prepared to return to the Vegas stage at SLS Las Vegas on May 19.
You have a pretty funny story from your very first time on the stand-up stage in Las Vegas.
The very first time I played Vegas, I may have peaked. I opened for the O’Jays and it was incredible. When you play a theater like that, it’s not like the setting in a comedy club—I was in front of the curtain doing my routine. I was supposed to do 15 minutes and then introduce the O’Jays. So while I’m onstage I can hear the band setting up behind me, then I hear the guy tuning the guitar, and then hitting the drums. I’m thinking he’s trying to signal me to wrap it up. So I’m, “Okay, enjoy the show, give it up for the O’Jays!” and then I walk off. But then the guys behind the curtain are yelling at me: “What are you doing? You still have five minutes left!” Every time I run into Eddie LeVert, he says, “You’re the kid that got offstage early.”
All that and yet you still enjoy performing in Las Vegas.
I’m a throwback. Don Rickles played there, the Rat Pack, Richard Pryor. To see your name in lights on the Strip is amazing in any form. To me, it’s larger than life.
Did you decide early on that you wanted to be a comedian?
Probably on the schoolbus. I used to listen to Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby albums and tell all their jokes and have my classmates in stitches. They’d ask for more and I’d say, “I don’t have any more, I have to go listen to the rest of the record for tomorrow.” And then I got into trouble because I was cursing on the bus but I thought I was just doing the routine. My mother told me, “You can’t do that. That’s their job.” And I was like, “Oh, it’s a job? I’m in.”
Was distinguishing yourself from your brother a big part of developing your style?
No, our personalities led to us having different styles. I don’t write thinking, does this sound like my brother? Am I far enough away from him? There are always going to be comparisons and some of my mannerisms and inflections are kind of similar, but I can’t do anything about that. I once had a manager who suggested I change my last name, but that’s not my brother’s name, that’s my father’s name.
Your younger brother Jordan is also in the comedy game. What’s the family dynamic like? Do you share advice with each other or bounce ideas off each other?
Jordan Rock is my favorite comedian in the whole world right now. Me and Jordan talk all the time and he lives in LA now so we’re around all the time. Chris and I have never had a conversation about comedy.
What was it like to bring Jordan out on All Def Comedy?
It was a great day. I was thinking, damn, I remember changing this kid’s diapers. I remember when he couldn’t get his zipper open in time and now I’m watching this guy rock a room on HBO. It was surreal.
It’s hard to overstate how influential the original Def Comedy Jam was. To host the new version must have been a big deal.
Absolutely. I went from watching it on TV, to going to the tapings and being in the cheapest seat I could find, to performing on that stage, to hosting the greatest urban comedy showcase ever. Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Cedric The Entertainer, D.L. Hughley, Mike Epps, Martin Lawrence, Chris Tucker, Bill Bellamy, all came from Def Jam. It’s made more stars than any urban comedy platform ever. Martin is the greatest host ever and no one could top him. He did amazing things. But I think I held my own. For them to put me on was an honor and a privilege.
What’s next up for you?
The number one thing I’m focusing on now is getting my hour special done. I’m getting the material to where I want it. There’s so much out there that I’ll my solid hour and then something will happen in pop culture or sports or race relations or my relationships, and then that has to go in. I’m trying to find the hour of material that’s like, this is it, I’m not changing it.