A decade and a half after Newman and Baddiel sold out Wembley Arena, and the reviews decreed that comedy was the new rock'n'roll, Chris Rock has set a Guinness world record by playing to crowds of 14,500 on Friday and again last night at Greenwich's O2, the venue formerly known as the Millennium Dome. Does that mean that Rock is the new rock'n'roll? Despite the vastness of the auditorium, and the digital adverts for forthcoming Tina Turner concerts, it's remarkable just how un-rock'n'roll he is.
A small, slight figure in a stylish but sober blue suit, he creeps on stage without any kind of introduction, and strolls back and forth, talking into a microphone non-stop for 100 minutes, before walking off stage again. There's no encore, no light show, no props or costume changes, very little physical comedy, no pyrotechnics except verbal ones, and there's no music, even if Rock frequently verges on a James Brown yelp. It's rare these days to see an Edinburgh Fringe show that doesn't feature a PowerPoint display and a couple of songs, so it's quite something to see an Emmy-winning, Oscar-hosting, movie-directing superstar take his act back to basics in a venue that could swallow Wembley Arena whole.
Still, a few concessions to the setting might not have gone amiss. Beyond making a couple of references to darts and the exchange rate, Rock doesn't do much to connect to his audience, and, as your eyes wander from the comedian to the video screens on either side of him, you're almost as detached as if you were watching him on DVD. Maybe that's inevitable in a venue as gigantic as this one. The sound echoes off the back wall, so if you miss a gag you can hear it again a moment later. It's not conducive to losing yourself in laughter, and Rock's performance is neither hysterical nor energetic enough to unite us.
But it's amazing how quickly the evening goes by. Rock, who was named the funniest man in America on a Vanity Fair cover 10 years ago, is strong on the US presidential election (John McCain is so old "he used to own Sidney Poitier"), and even better when he's proposing that racial epithets are more acceptable when used in anger: "Someone crashes into me and they've got one leg, I'm gonna get out the car and I'm gonna talk about the leg." Expect these sequences to be YouTube favourites for years to come.
As contentious and downright filthy as he can be, one reason why Rock can put on record-breaking gigs is that, beneath the swearing, his material is fundamentally comforting. It's a truism that British comedy is more complex, surreal and experimental than its slick American cousin, so a UK comedy audience keeps having to gauge the precise level of irony and political correctness. Rock traffics in a more straightforward brand of observational humour that went out of fashion among our own leading comics around the same time as Ben Elton's sparkly suit.
Would an arena-filling British stand-up get away with a routine that began, "There are so many differences between men and women"? If that routine went on to say, "Your woman will leave you for a guy with two more nickels," he probably wouldn't. And yet Rock, who has the rhythm and attack of a baptist preacher, is so self-assured as he holds forth on race, sex, class and politics that he gives us permission, for one evening, to leave aside our neuroses. This, he declares, Is the Way Things Are. It may not be rock'n'roll, but it's music to our ears.