It's been over a dozen years now since Chris Rock jump-started his waning career with the HBO special Bring The Pain (and its companion CD, Roll With The New), a brilliant, bruising, smart, unreasonably funny hour that stands alongside Richard Pryor Live In Concert, Bill Cosby Himself, Steve Martin's Wild and Crazy Guy, and George Carlin's Class Clown as one of the all-time great moments in stand-up comedy. Rock had seldom managed to make much of an impression during his tenure on Saturday Night Live, and his previous special and album had both been passably funny but mostly underwhelming. And yet, in that nearly-flawless performance, Rock reinvented himself as an insightful social commentator, fearless transcriber of the battle of the sexes, and a blisteringly powerful performer. No one since Pryor has been so skilled at telling uncomfortable truths and getting away with it.
But above all, he was funny--the fifth greatest stand-up of all time (per Comedy Central), the "funniest man in America," according to Time and Entertainment Weekly. They may very well be right; if he's not our finest working stand-up, there aren't many compelling alternate candidates.
Rock describes his stand-up regimen as being more akin to a musician then a comic; most stand-ups tour all year, he explains, while he goes out every few years, "hits it hard," then goes to recharge for a while. But his 2008 Kill The Messenger world tour is one hell of an accomplishment; Rock's two-hour show (whittled down to about 80 minutes for its HBO airing) was seen by over half a million people in eight countries over four continents.
They got an earful. While he doesn't top Bring The Pain (neither did either of his follow-up specials, Bigger and Blacker and Never Scared), that may be a height that won't be reached again. Kill The Messenger is plenty funny anyway. Rock tackles a number of subjects here, both new and old, but he makes the greatest hay out of the then-upcoming presidential election. This is a bit of a mixed blessing, since much of that material has already passed its expiration date, though most is funny enough that it doesn't matter (On McCain's age: "He was too old ten years ago! I don't need a President with a bucket list!").
Rock also has plenty of ire for outgoing President George W. Bush ("George Bush has fucked this country up so bad, he made it hard for a white man to run for President"), particularly in comparing him to Rock's candidate, Obama ("Is America ready for a black President? Well it should be--we just had a retarded one!"). He also has some funny riffs on the Iraq war ("We invade a country with oil, but gas costs more? If I invade Kentucky Friend Chicken, wings will be cheap at my house!") and the gas pricing crisis (including a bit imagining gas becoming currency for sex).
Other targets include interracial dating, prescription drugs, sports (an attack on the hero worship of Babe Ruth is especially good), social interactions, and the differences between having a "career" and a "job." Every bit isn't a home run; extended explanations of the rare circumstances when it's okay to use certain slurs are clever in theory, but they go on for far too long, while his de rigueur explorations of sex and relationships (funny though they are) are tinged with a bit more sexism than we're used to hearing from Rock.
These are minor complaints, however; his timing and delivery are as sharp as ever, as he paces the stage like a panther, using the cadences and refrains of a preacher on a roll. The primary difference between Bring The Pain and Rock's earlier work was his sudden, and supreme, self-confidence; that fierce skill has only grown stronger in the intervening years.
The Kill The Messenger special, as aired on HBO, adopted a unique and previously unseen approach to presenting Rock's live show. The network's crews recorded three separate shows on three continents--one in London, one in Johannesburg, and one in New York City. The three performances were then spliced together to form one performance; Rock will, say, start a joke in New York and then deliver the punch-line in London before doing a topper in Johannesburg. It actually sounds much more disjointed than it is; since he is such a consistent performer, the audio track flows smoothly, while the editors slickly mix the footage for minimum distraction, often hiding edits within Rock's physical actions and performance rhythms. This reviewer found the editing a little distracting at first, but ultimately a cool and unique lark. If you disagree, well, then you might want to pick up this 3-disc collectors edition, for reasons described below.
The show originally aired on HBO in high-def, and the transfer to DVD is a clean one. The deep blacks of the stage areas and Rock's suits show little compression, and the 1.78:1 image is nicely detailed, with close-ups capturing the texture of Rock's hair and the sweat on his forehead. A good-looking disc, particularly by the low standards of most stand-up DVDs.
The 2.0 audio mix is adequate if not exciting; it gets the job done, with every word clear and audience reactions well-modulated, though a more immersive surround mix would have been nice.
HBO Video is releasing Kill The Messenger in two versions: a single-disc regular edition, and this 3-disc collector's edition. This is the one for comedy students and Rock fans to pick-up, as they've made the fairly ingenious decision to include, in their entirety, the three separate performances as their own, stand-alone shows.
The original HBO version takes up disc 1. Disc 2 includes a Digital Copy of the HBO version (in both Mac and PC formats) and the New York Performance (1:34:23), from the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. It begins (as all three do) with a brief (about a minute) set-up of that particular city, showing Rock out and about as well as backstage. He then hits the world-famous Apollo stage, performing a somewhat looser set than the tightly-edited final version. There is also some differing material (he talks about Britney Spears' recent MTV Awards sweep and the Olympics), and alternate versions of some of the jokes (for example, the above-quoted KFC line becomes "If I invade an IHOP, pancakes will be cheap at my house").
Disc 3 begins with the complete Johannesburg Performance (1:32:15), which includes more new material, including a different set of Spears jokes, these related to the courts awarding custody of her kids to their father ("They take white kids quick! Even O.J. Simpson kept his kids, and he killed the mother!"). Next we have the full London Performance (1:25:13), which includes some localized material about British drinking, sports, and currency exchange rates.
Overall, the inclusion of the original shows is a nice touch. While you certainly won't want to take them all in at once, they do allow the opportunity to see Rock working out his material, fine-tuning and customizing it to different audiences; it also allows an alternative viewing experience for those distracted by the mixed locations of the HBO show, since all three look and sound as good as the main feature.
The third disc is rounded out by "Conversations With Chris Rock" (4:55), an interesting (if too-brief) compilation of sit-down interviews and on-the-fly tour home video.
With Kill The Messenger, Chris Rock re-confirms that he is one of the most skilled, gifted, uproariously funny comics at work. Every single joke doesn't land, but those that do are so spot-on that the misses are forgivable. Serious fans should definitely consider springing a few extra dollars for the collector's edition; it provides more Rock for your buck, in addition to some fascinating insights into his process. Highly recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.