Top Five

7 Dec


I’m on edge waiting to see Chris Rock’s new movie, Top Five, which comes out next Friday. A longtime fanatic, it doesn’t take much to get me to check out Rock’s new work. But this interview he recently gave to NPR has me particularly stoked to check out the latest installment in the 49-year-old’s brilliant career.

I’ve always been fascinated by Chris Rock. He’s one of my favorite comics, and there was a point in the early 2000s when I could recite Bigger and Blacker pretty much by heart. Beyond the comedy, Rock’s always struck me as a super insightful thinker and commentator, and I think that really comes thru in the interview.

A few things strike me about this piece. The first is a clip from the movie they include early in the interview in which a bunch of comedians are debating the top-five rappers of all-time. Tracy Morgan weighs in passionately that a focused Nas is better than Jay-Z. I’ve been making this case for years, with little success, and Morgan’s validation is enormously gratifying.

Second, I like how Rock talks about success. To him, success means, first, being able to spend time with his kids, and, second, having absolutely no idea what he’s going to do next, but being excited about, and capable of, doing several different things. For a 29-year-old decidedly unsure of what exactly to do in life, Rock’s definition of success is heartening, because it suggests that lack of certainty does not necessarily connote having fallen off-track. In fact, handled well, uncertainty can become both the object of, and a catalyst for, future success.

Finally, Top Five is all about the importance of staying close to one’s roots — and, relatedly, about how easy it is to become detached from them. In Rock’s case, that means keeping in-touch with, and continually learning from, stand-up comics, those living the life he did as a young comedian trying to scrap out a living and somehow build a career. As Rock stresses in the interview, many of the world’s best comics have stopped doing stand-up, both because they’re busy with other projects (movies and TV shows, for example), but also because they lose a rawness, a hunger, that is part and parcel to less-established comics’ efforts to make it.

Rock’s argument about the importance of staying grounded focuses on comedians, but it reflects the challenger-champ dynamic that plays itself out across so many of life’s other dimensions. Challengers work hardest, because they have something to prove. Champs get complacent, because they’ve reached the top. Champs often forget where they come from, and what makes them them. There are no successful champs, because the only people who are successful are those who convince themselves that they actually remain challengers, and need to prepare, grow, and sacrifice accordingly. Whether you’re a budding comic or a young parent trying to build a life for her family, the champ mentality breeds stagnation, while challenging demands constant discomfort and, in that, growth.

Chris Rock has now been a comedian for nearly thirty years. He seems to have learned a lot during that time. I can’t wait for the movie.


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