It's a cliché that whenever you meet comedians, they claim they developed their stand-up routine as a way to defeat school bullies. But Chris Rock is having none of that. "Oh yeah, I used humour to get the bullies away," he mocks. "Bullies were like, 'Oh that's such a good joke, I'm not going to punch you in the face now.' In real life I just got my ass beat."
An Emmy-winning comedian, film star and master provocateur, Rock is arguably the most powerful black artist in America. Presenting the Oscars last year, he caused a furore when he made jokes about Jude Law's acting ability. He's about the last person you would ever expect to sign up for a feel-good family sitcom.
But Everybody Hates Chris - the TV show he co-created with the writer-producer Ali LeRoi - has won rave reviews in the US. It was nominated for a 2006 Golden Globe. The Chicago Sun-Times calls it "a rare work of brilliance", the Washington Times "wonderfully original". One of the few nostalgia shows that doesn't patronise childhood, it is being compared with classic TV series such as The Wonder Years and The Cosby Show.
Everybody Hates Chris, which comes to Five this weekend, is a semi-fictional version of Rock's 1980s childhood in a tough neighbourhood in Brooklyn. As the eldest of three children ("the emergency adult"), 13-year-old Chris has to deal with pesky siblings, tough-love parents and playground bullying. And he hasn't a clue how to handle girls.
Rock doesn't appear in Everybody Hates Chris, but he narrates every episode. The family-friendly tone seems miles from Rock's usual profanity-drenched style of comedy (the "N" word is only used once in the whole series). But the comedian refuses to be pigeonholed. "People that curse have families, too," he jokes.
Rock, 41, is slighter and more handsome than his on-screen persona. ("I'm humble till I get to the stage," he once admitted. "Then I'm a cocky idiot.") Dressed in a sharp grey suit, black T-shirt and his trademark diamond stud, he arrives with the inevitable entourage. You wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of him - he shoots down foolish questions.
His relationship with LeRoi (who produced Rock's HBO comedy specials and writes most of Everybody Hates Chris) seems genuinely one of equals - even if Rock gets most of the headlines. "Let's just say I'm in the spacecraft and he's Houston," laughs LeRoi. "Fortunately Houston always answers. It's a good combination."
"I'm sure I'll get a movie and never see the show again," Rock jokes. In fact, he was very hands-on during filming of the first series. On set most days, he went through scripts, approving jokes, boosting the morale of the cast. And he was very involved in casting Tyler James Williams, who plays Chris aged 13, to make sure he wasn't a typical Hollywood brat.
The cramped Brooklyn apartment of Everybody Hates Chris is based on Rock's own family home (he had seven siblings). "I grew up in a very loving two-parent household in one of the worst ghettos of New York City, Bedford Stuyvesant," he recalls. "But I had so much love in my household that I didn't know I lived in the ghetto until I was, like, 20."
Not that life was easy. His mother moved the family out of the housing projects in 1982, believing that they would have a chance of a better life in Bedford Stuyvesant. Unfortunately it was just as the crack epidemic was starting in this part of Brooklyn.
Like his character, Rock was sent to a middle-class white school, two bus rides from home, to get him away from violent hoodlums. But his time there as the only black child among Italian-Americans (in the show the school is slyly called Corleone Junior High) was pretty hair-raising.
Everybody Hates Chris can be startlingly frank about race, but never chippy or resentful. Much of its charm comes from Rock's ability to vanquish political correctness in favour of a candid - and often very funny - look at the past. In episode one, Chris gets into the inevitable fight with the white school bully, but this is undercut by "Ebony and Ivory" on the soundtrack. There are jokes about OJ, Prince and the civil rights movement (sample line: "He hasn't been that happy about a dream since Martin Luther King").
The show is set during the Reagan era. Mum juggles the bills, dad has two jobs on the go. "This show is more about class than race," insists LeRoi. "Who doesn't have three kids and they're trying to make it?" For Rock, "The average person doesn't deal with racism that much. You deal with the effects of racism, like not having enough money."
For all the swearing and provocation of his stand-up act, Rock has been labelled the voice of black middle-class America. His believes in hard work, family, self-sufficiency, law and order. In one famous routine, he declared: "Niggas always want credit for some shit they're supposed to do. They'll brag about stuff a normal man just does. They'll say something like: 'Yeah, well I take care of my kids.' You're supposed to, you dumb motherfucker. 'I ain't never been to jail.' Whaddya want? A cookie? You're not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherfucker!"
Everybody Hates Chris has similar family values. Most black fathers on TV are absent or in jail, but it has a strong patriarch - based on Rock's father who died in 1989 (played by Terry Crews). In the show Chris jokes that his dad is one of just four fathers in the neighbourhood. "He didn't have to say, 'I love you.' Coming home was his way of saying I love you."
Shot on single camera without a laughter track, Everybody Hates Chris is full of witty, quick-cutting vignettes. But we know that we are firmly in sitcom land. Rock cites The Cosby Show ("Cosby is the Shakespeare of stand-up") and the 1970s American TV series The Jeffersons, about an upper-middle-class black family, as inspirations. He loves Carol Burnett and The Two Ronnies. "The sitcom was never dead. We're just skilled comedians writing a comedy."
Rock and LeRoi have tried not to make the show a kitsch love song to the 1980s. The set has an almost timeless quality. They have also resisted having showy guest stars (à la Friends and Will and Grace), who would upset the balance of the show. "I've never seen stunt casting that was funny," argues Rock. "They're just there to be famous. You just want to get the best actor. So if Morgan Freeman wanted to play the grandad, well then, yeah...."
Most recent hit US sitcoms (Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld) have been about uptight middle-class white folk. So it's great to see a working-class black family take centre stage. "If a show is based in Utah, I've no problem if there's no brother in it," Terry Crews tells me later. "But if it's set in New York like Friends and there are no black people, it kills me. Let's be truthful in what we're acting and writing."
Everybody Hates Chris was always intended to be a small show. But the pilot in September 2005 achieved higher ratings than NBC's premiere of Joey, giving United Paramount Network its third highest rating in history. Everyone knew it would draw a strong black audience (it has won two awards from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), but 39 per cent of viewers are white. To everyone's astonishment it has now been sold around the world.
British audiences used to the jump-cut editing and visual gags of alt-comedy shows such as Peep Show or Green Wing might find it slightly dated at first. But as the characters develop over the episodes, it becomes a real joy. There are some deliciously sarky lines such as: "Much like rock'n'roll, high-school shootings were invented by blacks, and then stolen by the white man."
But LeRoi and Rock are keen to play down any social message - especially in a post-Katrina America where other black stars have become politicised. "We're just trying to be funny and make people laugh. We are not trying to teach lessons at all," Rock says. "There's war, there's racism. There's fights. And then you find the joke in it," adds LeRoi.
Rock's big break came when Eddy Murphy discovered him at an open-mike night at a New York club. Murphy cast him in Beverly Hills Cop II, and in 1990 Rock began a three-year residency on Saturday Night Live. His 1996 stand-up special, Bring the Pain, reinvented him as one of the hottest comedians in Hollywood.
It stirred up major controversy, especially his routine "Niggas vs Black People", where Rock claimed it was socially acceptable for black people to refer to segments of the black population that degraded the black community through laziness and stupidity as "Niggas".
Since then he's won three Emmys and two Grammys, appeared in some bad blockbusters (plus indy films such as Dogma and Neil LaBute's Nurse Betty) but one senses Hollywood doesn't know how to harness his talents. The good news is he's in talks with LaBute about coming to London soon to star in a new play.
Meanwhile, Everybody Hates Chris offers insight into those bumpy early years. "We try to save the sentiment to the very end of the show," says Rock. "It's a case of asking: 'All this bad crap just happened to the kid, was there anything good that came out of it?'" And, of course, Rock's own life is the pay-off. "We all know how Chris Rock ends up," says Crews.
"That's the great thing about the show. We can be merciless because we know he becomes so rich, so cool. He might have been ostracised when he was young, but now he's the richest man on earth."
'Everybody Hates Chris' begins on Five on Sunday at 8pmReuse content