‘Everybody Hates Chris,’ standup guy
Yes, he's funny. If only there was more depth.
September 22, 2005
Everybody Hates Chris is everything everyone said it would be, funny, lively, irreverent, much like one of its star’s standup monologues.
That’s good but also not so good. Chris Rock, the very funny comic, is the show’s star but he is a star to the exclusion of the rest of the ensemble of characters of the new UPN sitcom, which debuts tonight at 8. With Rock narrating off camera, the other characters primarily serve as props Rock moves into position for his punch lines.
“Chris could be so much more. The series is ostensibly about Rock’s teen years in the Brooklyn of the 1980s. His well-meaning, working-class parents are determined to steer him away from the dangers of the ghetto and toward a good education, but they are fairly gruff and demanding. They send him to a predominately white school far from home, where he’s picked on.
That’s the kind of thing that can either inspire a kid to prove himself or drive him to defeat. It’s potentially an illuminating story as well as a comic one. But for that deeper story to come to life it needs supporting characters with real depth. Viewers need to see beyond the comic brilliance of the star to identify with the ambitions and pains of a family that wants that better life for their son. The actors in Chris are denied those roles, diminished to serve solely as foils to illustrate his anecdotes.
That failing is compounded by the fact that our star is heard as the narrator but not seen. We see a family and a young actor, Tyler James Williams, playing Rock as a 13-year-old, but the comic himself is never before the camera.
The pace is hurried: Tell one joke, then on to the next. Example: Narrator Rock informs viewers that his father was the kind of guy who always told his family the exact worth, down to the penny, of the products they were consuming. Next we see actor Terry Crews–with a shaved head and a mellifluous voice worthy of Isaac Hayes–sitting at a table and growling into the camera: That’s 49 cents worth of spilt milk on the table “ drink it up!
Then it’s on to next joke.
This pacing leaves the appealing young actor, Williams, little time to relax and really connect with his role. He’s too busy sprinting from setup to punchline.
It’s worth comparing Everybody Hates Chris with another new series that heavily uses narration and features fast-moving jokes and set pieces, My Name Is Earl. Jason Lee’s Earl is providing the narration, but he’s also before the camera as the show’s lead character. The effect is to draw the audience toward the character and strengthen the bond.
In “Chris,” with Rock narrating off camera, the effect is to heighten the separation.
But all that said, Rock is still very engaging, and anything he does will deliver laughs, often with a political and racial bite to it. That is the case here, although his scathing wit has been toned down for a family audience.
He and co-creator Ali LeRoi also inventively use the camera as well as the pen to get the jokes across. The show favors a single-camera, cinematic style to connote lots of movement and uses post-production trickery to set up gags, such as fantasy sequences, flashbacks, inserted documentary footage, and time-lapse photography.
In a smartly executed example, a fast-moving montage of attractive scenery–a sunset, Monument Valley, flowers in bloom–passes by as young Chris and a white student fight for 30 minutes at school. Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s saccharine Ebony and Ivory plays on the sound track.
One can imagine Rock and LeRoi pitching this show’s premise around the broadcast networks and being rejected because there’s not enough of Rock actually in it.
Give us a ˜Seinfeld,’ an ˜Ellen, a ˜Chris under Fire,’ executives probably pleaded.
Finally, the low-rated UPN agreed to it, happy to get a piece of Rock’s star power any way it could. But it remains to be seen if a large audience will feel the same way. Will they continue tuning in?
After nearly 18 years, it’s time to say good-bye
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