NEW YORK -- Chris Rock is holding his tongue. Like a lottery ticket.

"I can't say anything bad!" the 22-year-old Brooklyn comedian wails in mock torment. "For the rest of my life!"

Rock has joined the cast of NBC's "Saturday Night Live," which begins its 16th season tonight. Therefore a little circumspection is in order. Even for a young performer who declares "hard" rap music to be an influence.

"I've had a crazy, controversial career," he explains. "It's like, 'All right, let me keep a job for a while. Let me do something right.' "

Here's the first joke Chris Rock ever told on television -- well, cable -- back in 1987:

"I was driving down the street, I saw a prostitute. Asked her how much. She said, 'For $300, I'll do anything you want.' I said, 'Bitch, paint my house.' "

Right away, you could sense something about him. The leather jacket. The snaggled overbite and Jheri Curl. That street vibe. ("I'm the streetiest!" he says with a grin, like he's huckstering breakfast cereal.)

This was a kid who looked like he might push too far. And did. In late '87, after Arsenio Hall had taken over Fox's "The Late Show," Rock came on and told the kind of jokes you don't hear except on inner-city playgrounds. ("Miles Davis is so black, they should call him Uncle Oil.") He went over well with the crowd, but he later got lectured by fellow Brooklynite Spike Lee and by Hall himself. "What I tried to get him to understand," Hall recalled, "is that he's as dark as Miles, number one."

When Rock appeared on "The Arsenio Hall Show" last year, Hall wound up apologizing for him on the air. Rock had done his now-infamous "date rape" bit.

"In retrospect, I don't think I should have done the joke on broadcast TV," Rock says. "But the audience laughed." He says the joke got him spanked in the pages of Ms. magazine, and "even now, if I go to a college, some women's group will come up to me and say, 'Don't do that joke.' "

But that was the old Chris Rock.

Today, his wet-look curls are gone in favor of a more fashionable fade. He has moved from his mom's home in Bedford-Stuyvesant to the tony Brooklyn community of Fort Greene, where his neighbors include Spike Lee, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and author Nelson George. "Fort Greene is like old Harlem right now," he says. "Everything is black-owned. It's a real cool area."

And he's sitting here in the headquarters of NBC, where his idol and mentor Eddie Murphy once ruled.

"It's like the '70s again," Rock says of the emergence of a new generation of black stars. "A lot of black people are getting famous. Real black people are getting famous. Not like -- "

Not like who? Oprah? Whoopi? Prince?

"Oh, I can't do that," Rock says, as if to himself. He laughs uncomfortably.

Even without "Saturday Night Live," Rock is on the verge of bigness. During the summer, he filmed a role in Mario Van Peebles's crime drama "New Jack City," and he recorded a comedy album for Atlantic Records -- "Chris Rock, Born Suspect." Both projects are due out early next year.

The album is "real hard," Rock says proudly. "I did it before I got this show. Now I'm thinking about re-editing it." Uh-oh. Here we go again. "I'm on a network show, man."

What kind of jokes might he erase from the album? Well, one routine begins: "Everybody's scared of blacks, everybody's scared of Puerto Ricans. But there's no group of people more horrifying than a bunch of poor white people. They're just mad at everybody and everything."

Rock says he knows what he's talking about. "We weren't rich, but my father had a Cadillac," he says. "I was bused to school in a poor white neighborhood, Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn." And the white kids "used to hate our guts." He smiles. "There's nothing a white guy with a penny hates more than a nigger with a nickel."

Edgy stuff. It might have to go. "I don't even want to get into all the wild sex stuff {on the album}," he says. "I'm on the Cosby network now!"

One topic does loosen Rock's tongue -- joke thieves. A few weeks back, Paul Rodriguez used Rock's line "I was born a suspect" on national television.

"I'll say it in print: {Expletive} Paul Rodriguez. He robbed me." Rock laughs and says that Buddy Hackett stole his "paint my house" joke. "Buddy Hackett's on Johnny Carson doing it one night. Doing my joke. I'm on an all-black HBO special, so they figure they can rob me like they did Bo Diddley or somebody. ... I'm in Bed-Stuy stepping over crack addicts and Buddy Hackett is making, you know, 50 grand a night in Vegas doing my {stuff}."

That's more like it.

"SNL" creator Lorne Michaels had been checking out Chris Rock for a year or so. After a mass audition in Chicago a few months ago, he hired Rock and comic actor Chris Farley as "featured players." Their status is less than that of the show's front-line cast, but the opportunity is there for upward mobility.

Picking talent "is one of the things I think I've gotten good at," Michaels says humbly -- this from the man who assembled the mythic original cast in 1975. He calls Chris Rock "funny. I mean funny in the way that we can make use of on the show."

Rock provided a glimpse of his sketch-comedy abilities in Keenen Ivory Wayans's "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka." His one-minute as Rib Joint Customer, a toothy homeboy trying to negotiate a meal with 50 cents, was a highlight of the movie.

Alas, "Saturday Night Live" has no black writers. Murphy, who was 19 when he began as a featured player, burst forth after he hooked up with two of the show's white writers, who tailored material to his talents.

The show's most recent black featured player, Damon Wayans in 1985, wasn't so lucky. Just try to recall anything he ever did on the show. But seeing how "In Living Color" just won an Emmy, and Wayans is its standout, he could have become a star back then.

Will "Saturday Night Live" be able to develop its new black guy?

"I guess we're going to have to find out," says Michaels. "We have trouble writing for white people."

Already, Rock has approached one writer with a sketch idea about Flavor Flav of the popular rap group Public Enemy. ("In Living Color" did a brief takeoff of Flav recently.) The writer, says Rock, "didn't know who Flavor Flav was. And he's like in his twenties. So I'm like, 'Okay, I've got to think out my plan.' " He laughs.

"Black people and white people just live in such different worlds, man. I could name five groups that would sell out Madison Square Garden that she wouldn't even know about," Rock says, pointing to a young white woman -- an NBC publicist -- in the room.

"I beg your pardon?" she says playfully.

Hey, let's try it!

"Uh, Boogie Down Productions," says Rock.

"Okay, you got me on that one."

Laughs all around.

"And if you can sell out Madison Square Garden, if you can sell out 20,000 seats in New York," Rock says, still chuckling, "you can be a sketch."

Watch your mouth.