Tony Rock, Standing Up To His Name

Common ground: Tony Rock performs his comedy act at DC Improv through Sunday.
Common ground: Tony Rock performs his comedy act at DC Improv through Sunday. (Dominic Bracco Ii - The Washington Post)
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By Gabe Oppenheim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 9, 2008

A man just threw a drumstick at comedian Tony Rock.

Which seems an appropriate projectile as Rock was just joking about black stereotypes, arguing that the one about loving chicken is actually true and that he wants a leg now. Still, this is awkward. As the drumstick rolls across the stage, the audience freezes. Nobody breathes. Managers rush forward. And everyone turns to the white man who tossed it.

(Perhaps this is why comedians don't tell jokes about tomatoes?)

Rock -- the younger brother of mega-comedian Chris Rock -- just smiles and tries to regain the DC Improv crowd's attention. Even Barack Obama, he says, if confronted with flung chicken, would bark, "Which [racial slur] threw this at me?"

Heaving laughter, then sighs of relief. Whew. Rock presides over it all with a boyish grin, perhaps moving closer to stepping out of a fraternal shadow.

"It's part of the gift and the curse of coming behind my brother," he said earlier that day in the comedy club, where he performs through Sunday. "I'm not afforded the luxury of just taking a set casual, taking the night off. Because if I bomb, it's 'Oh, he's not funny -- he's just doing it because of his brother.' "

Rock, 34, is nine years younger than his more famous sibling. Partway through a 30-stop tour, he landed here at 8 a.m. Thursday, did a radio appearance, then scanned the newspapers for material after arriving at his hotel (he co-opted the jailed mayor of Detroit for his routine, joking that Marion Barry announced, "You giving black politicians a bad name").

Behind him during the interview, on the Improv's wall, famous comics in framed photographs gaze out into the room. David Spade, Drew Carey, Jerry Seinfeld. And there, with the wild-looking eyes and the knowing grin, is the one Time magazine called "the funniest man in America." "I think that's my jacket," Tony says of the green Adidas zip-up Chris Rock wears in the picture.

Tony says they're close. He and Chris talk on the phone a lot, about their beloved Mets but not much about their jobs. Tony flies to Chris's biggest shows, and Chris attends some of Tony's. They spend Christmases together with their family in South Carolina.

Tony whips out his BlackBerry to show a photo that "Chrissy," as he calls him, sent from London, where the older Rock recently sold out a 20,000-seat arena. He sounds not envious but extremely proud, especially as a comic who's been working now for a decade -- and is just beginning to attract a wider audience.

"One of my favorite comics," Jamie Masada, owner of the legendary Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, says of Tony Rock. "Maybe 10 years ago, when he came in town, everybody said, 'Oh, that's Chris Rock's brother.' Now, the people say, 'This is Tony Rock -- very funny guy.' "

The basis for comparison isn't superficial. He resembles Chris, but Tony's face is longer, narrower, with softer features. And Tony sounds like Chris, but only when he really raises his voice, channeling some deep Brooklyn strain.

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