From 'Little Penny' to Big Willie

Article excerpt

Chris Rock always had a mouth almighty. Now he's bringing the pain to late-night talk.

WHEN YOU MEET HIM, Rock comes off all mild-mannered and laid back. You think, this is the riled black-power militant from "Saturday Night Live"? This is the voice of the ornery Little Penny puppet on those Penny Hardaway Nike ads? He's so small. But then the other side of him flares up. "Can we order?" he snaps when the waiters in the restaurant of his fancy New York hotel fail to acknowledge his need for breakfast. The food comes. The waiter goes. Rock, still unsatisfied, shouts, "Can I get an orange juice?" Then you think, inside Big Chris there's always been this Little Chris pushing his way out.

He's out now. An HBO stand-up concert called "Bring the Pain" that first aired last June raised Rock from semi-obscurity to the ranks of Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. An album version of this edgy, killingly funny concert, titled "Roll With the New," will be released by DreamWorks Records next month. He's got his own half-hour talk show on HBO, kicked off with Johnnie Cochran and Prince last week. Hyperion paid him a reported $1 million for a book due this fall. Which is probably a lot more than the juvenile Buttafuocos who used to beat him up in high school are making. "Life is long," the 31-year-old comedian says. "I think I won."

Like they say: he who laughs last gets to date Tyra Banks. Rock is happily married, but Little Penny--whose obsession with supermodel Tyra is a running joke on the Nike ads--has made it clear that he's available.

Hunched over his scrambled eggs, Rock seems tired. He's wearing gray Nike sweat pants, a gray Ralph Lauren sweater, a hat pulled backward-a just-rolled-out-of-bed ensemble. Clearly bored with media attention, he still answers questions with more eye contact and thought than many famous people bother to do. He bristles at Eddie Murphy comparisons (Murphy discovered Rock at the age of 18 in a comedy club and gave him a bit part in "Beverly Hills Cop 2") but engages if you flip the script. Told that his stand-up style has the oratorical force and cadences of a preacher, he lights up. "My grandfather was a preacher," he says. "When I was a kid I used to listen to records of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and study them."

Raised in Brooklyn, the son of a truck-driver, Rock dropped out of high school, but he's been a lifelong student of comedy, black and white. "Bring the Pain" opens with a montage of classic comedy albums: Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, the slightly more obscure Pigmeat Markham. (Cosby, not a fan of Rock's X-rated humor, has complained publicly about his inclusion in this pantheon.) Growing up in the '70s, Rock loved Flip Wilson, and Dean Martin's roasts on TV. He still goes to the Museum of Television and Radio to look up vintage Woody Allen clips. "The young comics, all they listen to is Pryor and Eddie," Rock complains. "It's corny, but I knew if I put those albums up there, there'd be people who'd go out and buy all of them."

Putting himself as the next big act in stand-up comedy's line of succession may seem cocky. …