Rock of Ages

My favorite comedian is Chris Rock. In (largely) jest, I call him a prophet - a nod to his penchant for pinpointing societal truths in his standup routines that only become more relevant as time goes on, a la George Carlin. The description is also a little hat tip to one of my favorite movies, Dogma, in which Rock plays Rufus, the 13th Apostle rudely written out of the Bible.

The idea isn’t completely laughable, however. Consider some of the topics Rock, who hosts the Oscars on Sunday, has tackled, oftentimes years before they became hot-button issues:

In his 1999 HBO special, Bigger and Blacker (my personal favorite), Rock discusses how diseases have been hanging around for decades, because the profit incentive lies in treating – not eradicating – them. “Ain’t no money in the cure,” Rock, resplendent in head-to-toe black leather, says.  “The money’s in the medicine. That’s how you get paid. On the comeback. That’s how a drug dealer makes his money.”

In a world in which Marin Shkreli can walk around without being struck by lightning, can you argue with that?

Shkreli, who obtained the manufacturing license for an anti-parasite medication called Daraprim used to treat people with weakened immune systems and immediately increased the price from around $13.50 to $750 per pill, is an extreme example. But he’s far from alone in a country in which pharmaceutical companies set their own prices and call their own shots.

Think about it. When’s the last time you made it through a TV program without seeing the naked backs of two people in separate bath tubs, or listened to a rapid-fire list of potential side effects to a drug whose purpose remained a mystery? The creep has been so insidious we hardly take notice anymore – which Rock pointed out in 2004’s Never Scared:  “They just keep naming symptoms till they get one that you got. Are you sad? Are you lonely? You got athlete’s foot? Are you hot? Are you cold? What you got? You want this pill.”

Is the government actively engaging in conspiracies to keep people sick? No. Is any meaningful reform being sought to rein in Big Pharma, perhaps second only to the NRA in the political power it wields in Washington? No. Do people get hooked every day on legal drugs in this country and start down a dangerous, Oxy-to-heroin path that has now wound its way to middle-class white suburbia? Yes.

Consider another gem from Bigger and Blacker: Bullet control.  

“I think all bullets should cost $5,000,” Rock opines in the rollicking cadence that calls to mind his preacher grandfather. “Five thousand dollars for a bullet. You know why? Because if a bullet cost $5,000, there’d be no more innocent bystanders.”

Makes more sense than anything Congress has – or, more to the point, hasn’t – done to address the gun epidemic that fellow ammosexuals don’t believe exists in America.

There is also Rock’s helpful video with advice on avoiding getting your ass kicked by the police. Among his bits of wisdom: Stop when you see flashing lights, stay in the car, and don’t run: “Everybody knows, if the police have to come and get you, they’re bringing an ass-kicking with them.”

He also advises choosing those you let into your car carefully: “If you have to give a friend a ride, get a white friend.  A white friend can be the difference between a ticket and a bullet in the ass.”

All good comedy has a dark undercurrent. Google Jerry Seinfeld’s online series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and watch Seinfeld laugh as the 1967 Lamborghini Miura he’s driving gets pulled over for speeding. Then look at Rock, who has taken to recording his own real-life instances of being stopped for Driving While Black, sitting rigid and unsmiling in the passenger seat.

Of course, as Ferguson and Baltimore and New York and Chicago have made sadly clear, sometimes an ass-kicking is the least of it.

I caught the Richmond, Va., stop of Rock’s 2008 Kill The Messenger tour. He joked about how Barack Obama really thought he stood a chance to win the upcoming election, fair and square:  “He thinks having the most votes is going to mean something. Shiiiit. They will change this whole system on his black ass overnight.”

Maybe not, but an entire faction of the government might make it a stated goal to fight him tooth and nail at every turn for eight years, country and Constitution be damned.

 Rock isn’t infallible. Head of State is two hours of my life I can’t get back. But when I’ve had a tough day, a tall, cold glass of Pinot Grigio and a standup special I know every word, gesture, and head bob to make it better, immediately and without fail.

It’s funny because it’s true.

Serious issues such as racism are very real in this country, as the Oscars themselves have demonstrated repeatedly with their monochromatic nominations. (Watch Creed and tell me Michael B. Jordan doesn't deserve a nod. I dare you.) You can deny the reality and live in a bubble, or face the truth, which comes with the added benefit of Rock's wry, wise observations on where we are - and where we're going.