How do you top a winter in which you’ve made fun of Oprah Winfrey to her face, gleefully butchered a classic Simon and Garfunkel song during a telethon and made a guest appearance on Kanye West’s mega-selling CD?
If you’re Chris Rock, the next stop is Broadway.
“I always look for everything,” says the comedian, sitting at a table at the theater-district hangout Sardi’s before rehearsals of his new gritty play by Stephen Adly Guirgis.
“You want to give your audience something funny or something good — that can be anything. It can be a play, it can be a movie,” he says. “Hey, I was on Kayne’s record! That’s funnier than probably anything I’ve done in a couple of years. You know what I mean? How can I be funny this year?”
The answer now is “The Motherf----- With the Hat,” a play that Rock describes as “‘The Honeymooners’ with drugs.” It’s about a man on parole and trying to live clean with his volatile girlfriend, who is far from sober. Rock, making his Broadway debut, plays the man’s drug counselor.
“Honestly, it was the best thing I read all last year. It was better than every movie script, every book — it was better than everything,” he says. “I read a couple of other plays and thought, ‘This is easily the best one I’ve read.’”
Director Anna D. Shapiro, who won a Tony Award for “August: Osage County,” says Rock is working hard to meld with fellow actors Bobby Cannavale, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Annabella Sciorra and Yul Vazquez.
“The day is filled with a lot of laughing and hard work and generosity, and all of that is because of who he is,” she says. “He’s refining a skill he already has. He understands the technical demands of that now every day better and better.”
Rock, 46, is just the latest comedian to be drawn to Broadway this season, joining Robin Williams, Ben Stiller, Jim Gaffigan, Dane Cook, Colin Quinn, John Leguizamo and Kathy Griffin.
“People want to work, man,” Rock says. “They don’t make Sydney Pollack movies any more. They’re not making ‘Marathon Man’ any more. So if you want to act — if you want to be in something of substance — and you’re not 19, it’s hard.”
Rock says acting on stage isn’t too far from his roots doing live stand-up or acting in films such as the recently released “Grown Ups” and “Death at a Funeral.” He compares it to a gentler version of his three years aboard “Saturday Night Live.”
”‘Saturday Night Live’ is like Olympic boxing and this is real boxing,” Rock says. ‘Saturday Night Live’ is five minutes: You’ve got cue cards; you’ve got a helmet — kind of like Olympic boxing. This is real boxing. This is 12 rounds.”
Above all, he says the story was set in present day. “I always say the worst two words a black actor can hear is ‘period piece,’” he says. “Literally, as an actor, I don’t really care about anything that happened before the Jackson 5.”
Rock has had an interesting few months. He teamed up with Tracy Morgan to sing “Scarborough Fair” on “Night of Too Many Stars: An Overbooked Concert for Autism Education” and had a hilarious cameo on West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
He also mocked Winfrey at the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors, an annual celebration of the arts in Washington. “No one deserves this award more than Oprah Winfrey,” he said from the stage, that trademark twinkle in his eyes, “but no one needs it less.”
Rock knows what he’s in for on Broadway, having seen such shows as “Fences,” '‘God of Carnage,” '‘Rock of Ages” and “Race.” He has grown a goatee for his new part and says he likes being able to sit down and discuss the work with the playwright.
“I like this process because it values the writer. Literally, nothing’s done without the writer’s approval — and that’s so different from the movies. In the movies, they kind of hate the writers,” he says, laughing. “The writers’ union needs a Rosa Parks.”
Guirgis impresses him. “So few people can write and so few people can write blue collar. Nobody can do it,” he says. He has another, more personal reason to like the script, too: “It’s weird. When it gets good, it sounds like me.”
Being on Broadway may be stepping out of his comfort zone, but Rock points to other times he has done just that, such as the TV show “Everybody Hates Chris” or his documentary “Good Hair.”
“You just want to be involved with good work. It’s not even about, ‘Oh, look at me: I’m doing a play.’ I didn’t do ‘Good Hair’ because it was documentary. I just thought, ‘I could do something good here.’ Plain and simple. It’s all comedy anyway.It’s not all that different,” he says. “It’s a little more dramatic than things I’ve done, but it’s funnier than ‘New Jack City.’”
Rock says that, so far, the experience has been fun. He gets to enjoy a regular schedule after years of touring and take his kids to school in the morning, although the adult language in the play means his two girls, the oldest is 9, can’t visit daddy at work.
“It’s not a bad life. I got no beef. If it works out fine, I could absolutely do one of these every once in a while,” Rock says. Then he notes the title of the play and adds: “If I do another one, it might be a little more family friendly.”
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