TAMPA — There are two reasons why Chris Rock can say the kinds of things most other comics — okay, most other people — could never even think of trying to attempt saying, in these politically conscious times.
First, he's the funniest brother on the planet — a fact he had indisputably proven by the end of his nearly two-hour, standup comedy show Wednesday night at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, rocking a near sell-out crowd of 2,235 with baldfaced references to John McCain's age, Barack Obama's too-black name and black women's foibles.
The second reason? He's dropping serious knowledge about race, culture and class — leavening the lessons with so many laughs, most fans don't even know they're being schooled.
For example, check Rock's dissertation on why black women really hate black men who date white women: "Black women are not attracted to white men," he said. "You see a black woman with an overweight white man, that means her credit is (messed) up."
His explanation for why white people are hesitant to support Barack Obama? "A lot of white people seem scared ... sure, he seems like a nice guy, but it might be payback time any moment — like they're going to be stuck on the back of the bus tomorrow."
And what about the military's inability to capture Osama Bin Laden? "I don't think Bin Laden really exists," thundered Rock, stalking the stage. "A 7-foot-tall diabetic Muslim? I think Bin Laden and Borat are the same person."
Decked out in a turquoise blue suit and boatloads of attitude, Rock took the stage to a standing ovation, with jokes ready made for the Tampa Bay area ("I hear this is the strip club capital of the world," he cracked at one point. "They teach you pole dancing in the third grade.")
He may have done everything from playing a crackhead on film to hosting the Oscars, but the 43-year-old Rock remains the kind of comic talent who shines brightest onstage, working the crowd like his preacher grandfather, sometimes repeating the same point two or three times, just to make sure it sinks in.
One moment, he noted his black neighbors are superstar singer Mary J. Blige, rap legend Jay-Z and top actor Denzel Washington, while his white neighbor is a dentist. "The black man got to fly to get something a white man can walk to," Rock said, ruefully. "Do you know what a black dentist would have to do to live in my neighborhood? He'd have to invent teeth!"
The next moment, he unleashed a string of McCain jibes that angered the GOP fan sitting next to me, even as the guy doubled over in laughter.
"John McCain is too ... old — didn't he used to own Sidney Poiter?" Rock asked, in one of the rare jokes that can be printed in a family newspaper. "Who's going to be his vice president? A nurse?"
That's the comedy that moves mountains — edgy and relevant, teaching us something about ourselves even as it entertains us. When Professor Rock goes onstage, class is always in session.