Chris Rock: Never Scared Review

Surely it’s no coincidence that this disc hits the shops mere hours after Chris Rock has concluded his first stint as host of the Academy Awards. But look beyond the cynicism and there’s a certain value for money to this release as not only does it include Rock’s fourth and most recent (2004) HBO special from which the disc takes its name, but also his very first, a 27 minute effort entitled Big Ass Jokes from 1994. The latter is especially welcome, firstly because it wouldn’t necessarily justify an individual release (and as such can satisfy the completists), and secondly because it allows us to see how Rock’s style has evolved over the past decade.

The most immediate difference is wholly sartorial: 1994 sees Rock donning a shocking shirt in both senses of the word whilst in 2004 he favours a more neutral suit. This may be a detail that seemingly reveals only the trends of the time, but in fact it also tells us a lot about Rock himself. Whereas in the early nineties he was, essentially, a brash loudmouth, nowadays he’s a little more suave, a little more mature. Indeed, the shriek is somewhat toned down, but importantly the material isn’t. Moreover, whilst there has been an increase in confidence, the ego has been largely kept in check; of his two most obvious predecessors, Rock is now closer to Richard Pryor than he is to Eddie Murphy.

That said, the material Rock chooses to ponder over during his 90 allotted minutes still demonstrates both influences, although this doesn’t always produce a successful mixture. Most notable is the point in which he interrupts one of his big political riffs in order to make some crude gags about pro-abortionists being loose women. It’s not so much that the joke itself is offensive (after all, with Rock you know what you’re going to get) but rather the abruptness of the shift in tone. Plus, of course, there’s the fact that Rock’s forte has always been his shrewd observations on America’s political machinations, meaning that his revisiting of Eddie Murphy Raw territory isn’t really necessary.

Luckily Rock spends most of Never Scared sticking to his strengths, and whilst there’s nothing to quite equal his now classic “niggers and black people” monologue, he still finds plenty of material. Indeed, it is impossible not to detect a post-9/11 mood, even if the twin towers are never explicitly mentioned. Rather al-Qaeda and George W. Bush provide plenty of ammunition, especially the latter who also affords Rock the opportunity to move onto such subjects as gun control and gar marriage. The result is that the routines are very much U.S.-centric - and therefore also possess some attendant “I love America!” sentimentality - but then U.S. politics have hardly been out of the spotlight over the past few years so it is unlikely that non-American viewers will find much to struggle with. Indeed, it was only when Rock turned his attentions to some recent celebrity scandals that I felt occasionally left out, so to speak.

But then it would be churlish to criticise an American comedian for making culturally specific gags in front of an American audience during a gig that is being recorded first and foremost for American television. And with regards to the latter it would also be somewhat unfair to rail against the decidedly flat shooting style (despite being directed by Joel Gallen who has some cinematic experience in the form of Not Another Teen Movie). My personal preferences on stand-up concerts are that they should be filmed in a manner akin to music concerts, i.e. to show the performer(s) from the best possible views with minimal fuss. In the case of both Never Scared and Big Ass Jokes this is mostly adhered to, although both do have a tendency to cut away to audience members in the midst of paroxysms of laughter during the punchlines. Big Ass Jokes is the biggest offender in this respect, but it’s a minor niggle in what is a largely enjoyable experience.

The Disc

Shot on digital video for television broadcast, we perhaps shouldn’t expect too much from Warner’s DVD. Indeed, the disc is presented in a 1.33:1 ratio (and as such is non-anamorphic) and never really manages to be anything other than good. It’s perfectly watchable of course, but then any faults are with the decisions made at the time of production (more traditional film stock would have been much more pleasing on the eye). As for the sound, the Dolby Surround of the original HBO broadcast has been upgraded to a DD5.0 mix. It’s perfectly acceptable, although it does have a tendency to place much of the audiences’ reactions to rear speakers, giving the occasional effect more akin to canned laughter than a live audience. Otherwise, Rock himself remains crisp throughout. With regards to the extras, Big Ass Jokes is the only supplementary feature and has already been discussed in the main review.

Both concerts come with optional English or English Hard of Hearing subtitles.

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