Aug 15, 2012

What Chris Rock learned from TV preachers

Televangelists are not often praised. So it's interesting to hear an outright appreciation of TV preachers. And of the art of TV preaching.

From Chris Rock, of all people.

The comedian talked on NPR's Fresh Air last week about how his comedy is similar to his grandfather's preaching, and how he learned and continues to learn from TV preachers.

As the conversation starts, it seems like Rock is dismissing preachers as hucksters, manipulators. As it goes on, though, that doesn't seem to be his point. Instead it's admiration. And emulation. He respects preachers' ability to hold attention, keep a crowd, and communicate.
From the interview:

Chris Rock: "When you grow up with a preacher, it's almost like, it's like seeing a magician stuff the rabbit in his side jacket. Like, I knew all the tricks."

Terry Gross: "Did your grandfather think of it as tricks?"

Rock: "I don't think he thought of it as tricks, but every job becomes a job. And you figure out short cuts and you figure out, y'know, y'know, ways around things. I can watch a preacher now -- what's that guy, Joel, Joel Orsteen?"

Gross: "Osteen."

Rock: "Osteen. I watch him a lot. I watch T.D. Jakes, I watch -- and I can see when they're preaching, and I can see when they're, you know, there's tricks. When they're kind of losing the crowd and have to go to something. I can tell when they make audibles. And have to go to something else so they can get the crowd back."

Gross: "So, are you watching them for performance reasons?"

Rock: "A little bit. Half of  it for performance reasons. And half of it just 'cause  I like a good sermon and you're always looking -- A) It feels, a good sermon's always great. And B), you know, these guys, they're always -- they have this task of coming up with a new, with new material every week. I like how a preacher can talk about one thing for an hour and 10 minutes. I keep trying to figure out how I can do that in standup. So how I can like, OK, how can I just be funny about, you know, jealousy. A preacher will pick a topic and they'll run with it for the whole sermon. And take you on a ride. Talking about literally one thing. I just love that style. I've always, always been trying to figure out how I can do that in standup."

I wonder how many noted American comedians have studied their craft by studying preachers. Some certainly seem to have structured their shows as sermons. George Carlin. Lenny Bruce. Though perhaps Bruce would have said the distinction between comedy and preaching is that comedy's Jewish, preaching goyisch. ("A lot of people say to me, 'Why did you kill Christ?' I dunno. It was one of those parties... got out of hand"). Louis C.K., obviously. Not to mention Broderick Rice and those who'd make the connection explicitly. It's not all comedians, certainly, but there're many with a style or sense of structure that seems preaching-related.

Though there's also the point that the influence has significantly sometimes run the other way.