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Chris Rock On Standup, Sellouts And Defining Success

<em>Top Five</em> unfolds over the course of a daylong conversation between Andre Allen (Chris Rock), a marquee comedian who has lost his roots, and reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). The goal was "to make it feel as much like real life as possible," Rock says.
Ali Paige Goldstein
Paramount Pictures
Top Five unfolds over the course of a daylong conversation between Andre Allen (Chris Rock), a marquee comedian who has lost his roots, and reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). The goal was "to make it feel as much like real life as possible," Rock says.

Quick: Can you name your top five favorite singers? What about authors? And comedians? Chris Rock plays this game in his new movie, Top Five. The film, which Rock wrote, directed and stars in, tells the story of Andre Allen, a marquee comedian who has abandoned his standup roots for blockbuster film glory.

"He's languishing," Rock tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "He's not as edgy as he once was. He's kind of watered down; he's kind of sold out."

The film unfolds over the course of a daylong interview with a reporter played by Rosario Dawson. As they walk around the city they riff on politics, show business and their favorites artists in a series of "Top Five" lists.

This is Rock's third outing as a director, and the film feels loose and fun. "The thing we kept saying in the editing room was, 'OK, that feels too much like a movie. Cut it,' " Rock says. "[We] took everything out that felt like a movie and just tried to make it feel as much like real life as possible."

Interview Highlights

On scenes that some people might not get

You know, it's weird. When I see a Woody Allen movie — and I see 'em all — there's probably two scenes or two moments in each movie that I don't get. But, you know, I actually like it in a weird way. It's like, OK, this is really authentic, what I'm watching here. This is authentic to who he is. But, yeah, there's a bunch of jokes like that in this movie.

On his character feeling disconnected from doing standup

I mean, I guess all comedians, that happens. I mean, standup's the only career like that, where once you get really big at it, people kind of encourage you not to do it. Some of our greatest standups don't do standup anymore. Steve Martin's one of the greatest standups to ever live — the guy doesn't do standup. Eddie Murphy, amazing — Michael Keaton, who's great in Birdman, was, like, a really great standup comedian. So many guys don't do it anymore.

On trying to stay connected to standup himself

I try to stay with it, and I try to stay in contact with comedians, just keep comedians in my life, because comedians are their own species. If you get away from them, especially as a comedian, I think it's dangerous.

On a standup joke from comedian Hannibal Buress that revived scrutiny of Bill Cosby and rape allegations

I mean, I can't really speak for Hannibal. I don't think he anticipated the [people recording the set on their] phones and I don't think he anticipated something going viral. I think he thought he was doing something just for the people in that room, and I know as naive as that sounds. ... Is it possible to do anything and expect it to be private? That's the real question. I don't know.

On whether the Cosby joke is an argument for not having taboos in comedy

Hey, everything's funny — in the right context and done by the right person — everything. Unfortunately. You know, I've told Michael Jackson jokes. If you got really technical, you could say those are jokes about child molestation. You could, if you got technical. A lot of this is just selective outrage, because honestly, the audience are the ones that tell us that something shouldn't be spoken. The audience lets us know, and I've never, in my almost 30 years of being a comedian, seen a comedian continue to tell a joke that the audience doesn't respond to. I've never seen it.

Success is just hanging out with my kids.

On how he defines success

What is success? Success is just hanging out with my kids. I mean, it's not even — I always say, if you have options, you're rich. A career is all about: Are you allowed to do other things? If you can only do one thing, you're not successful. But if you can jump around and do a few things, then you have really attained some success.

To me, success is the fact that, hey, I just did a movie and maybe I'll do some standup. Maybe I'll write a book. Or maybe I'll do a play. Like, I literally don't know what I'm going to do next. That's successful. And just having time. ...

I always said, you know, my dad worked every day. I didn't get into show business to work every day. So the fact that most days, I get to hang out with my kids after school, most days I get to see them off to school in the morning. ... I do a movie, that's three months of hard work. But most days I get to, like, spend really good time with my kids. That's what success is, to me.

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