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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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And their sets are similar: Both Chris and Tony trade in a blend of political riffing, racial observation and sexual candor. Tony's set Thursday touched on a possible Obama presidency, the government's response to Hurricane Katrina and his opposition to a ban on racial slurs, which he -- like Chris -- drops indiscriminately onstage. You could argue he lacks Chris's smoother execution. "They say it takes 10 years to find your voice," says Tony, who in July celebrated the 10th anniversary of his first performance. "My favorite comics are the ones who say funny stuff but also give you the message. They give you the laughter, but there's also the, 'Mmm -- I didn't take that into consideration.' " One message he shares with Chris is a pro-immigration shtick, in which he says blacks will be next if whites deport Hispanics.

His often cautionary political jokes made him a regular on the L.A. circuit, and he was cast in the UPN sitcom "All of Us" in 2003; it ran until 2007. Now, "The Tony Rock Project," his sketch-comedy show, is set to debut on MyNetworkTV (the Fox-owned broadcast network) in the fall.

He's come a long way since 1999, when a Boston Herald review said "he was far outclassed by his brother's comic grace" and called his material "generic" and "pointlessly obnoxious." His breakthrough came with an appearance on HBO's "Def Comedy Jam" in 2006. "It was an easy choice," says Stan Lathan, the show's executive producer. "He slayed an audience that had come here to hear dirty jokes with material that was substantive and topical."

Rock learned by listening to all the comics back in the rough Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, when brother Chris used to play the records of Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy and Sam Kinison. "We would just sit there for hours and hours and hours," Tony recalls. "Just put it back again -- what did he say?!"

Maybe the talent is hereditary. "I'm very perplexed," says mom Rose Rock, as to the reason Chris, Tony and her youngest son, Jordan, chose comedy. (There were eight Rock kids overall.) She giggles: "Maybe it's in the breast milk."

Tony was actually closest to his brother Charles, the eldest, who was in and out of jail, addicted to drugs and alcohol and died in 2006 while living in a homeless shelter, according to press reports.

Tony says he gravitated toward him because of his exotic roughness; Charles was the one who took him to the gym to learn how to box. Tony now calls stand-up "verbal boxing." He says he learned how to get up there, alone, and punch himself out of a corner, to come back from a pummeling.

As he did Thursday night, which was the triumphant counterpart to a New York performance early in his career, when he "bombed-bombed." A guy actually walked across the stage to flirt with a girl on the other side. Rock was unable to conceive a quick put-down and lost the audience.

But this time is different. "They told me I handled it like a champ," Rock says in his dressing room after the show, as patrons shuffle in and out congratulating him. "They told me I handled it like a champ."

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