How Black Comedy Got The Last Laugh

Chris Tucker

In late June, Chris Tucker flew to Los Angeles from his home in Atlanta to meet with President Clinton. Clinton was in Los Angeles, as he has often been, for a frenetic round of fund-raising, but he managed to clear some time for Tucker, who is not a major Democratic donor but a very funny comic film actor with a notion of writing, directing, producing and starring in a movie about the first black president of the United States. Tucker was planning to rendezvous with the leader of the free world at a nightclub in Hollywood called the Garden of Eden. When I spoke with Tucker not long before this planned get-together, he recalled that when he first met the president, in Washington two years before, ”I wasn’t even sure if he knew who I was.”

That Clinton would rearrange his schedule for Tucker, and that Tucker might actually play the first black president, has a lot to do with how funny Tucker is, and a lot more to do with how successful his last movie was. ”Rush Hour,” which was released two years ago and starred Tucker (as a cop) opposite Jackie Chan (ditto), was a huge action-comedy hit, grossing $241 million worldwide, and Tucker will earn $20 million — Tom Cruise kind of money — for his next film, a sequel to ”Rush Hour.” ”Rush Hour” also turned out to be the first of a surprising number of recent hit movies starring black comics, reaching a sort of critical mass this summer with ”Big Momma’s House” (in which Martin Lawrence played an F.B.I agent who goes undercover in a fat suit and a dress), ”Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” (in which Eddie Murphy dons six different fat suits) and ”Scary Movie,” which starred the youngest of the Wayans brothers. Perhaps the strongest testimony to the new clout of black comedy is the success of a documentary on the subject; Spike Lee’s ”Original Kings of Comedy” managed to gross a whopping $11.7 million in its first week of release. The success of these movies represents an enormous change in the movie business, a change that no one fully understands just yet, but one that is every bit as fascinating as Bill Clinton’s finding time in his schedule for a 27-year-old comic actor that few Americans ever heard of two years ago.

Tucker is reed thin and has beautiful almond-shaped eyes. He nearly always dresses in sharp suits designed by his tailor, who lives in Dallas, and highly buffed black shoes. Until he speaks, Tucker looks a little stiff, a little overdressed. But his voice, which is high and bears a faint trace of a Georgia accent, undercuts the formality of his attire. He sounds goofy, and the contrast is appealing: handsome plus squeaky equals funny.

Tucker is known for physical comedy. From his first starring role, in ”Friday,” in which he played a stoned slacker who hung around South-Central Los Angeles, to ”Rush Hour,” in which he spent most of the film reacting to Jackie Chan, Tucker’s on-screen persona has been about double takes and lightning-quick reaction shots. He is not particularly verbal, in the style of, say, Richard Pryor. Tucker likes to move — his characters bop and slide and spin.

Tucker’s comedy is not fueled by anger over racial injustice, and he does not use profanity. His characters tend to see themselves as the lone sane man in a crazy world. His benign acceptance of odd behavior propels the (negligible) plots of his movies. Tucker is best when he is completely lost — in ”Rush Hour,” Tucker cannot understand a word out of Chan’s mouth, and his confusion is very funny. This has nothing to do with being black, really, and everything to do with being hilariously, winningly crazy, which is how America — black, white, other — and much of the rest of the world, wants its laughs just now.

Chris Rock, a black comic with more heft and bite, more blackness, says, ”Chris Tucker is the biggest star in the world.” Meaning, in strictly business terms, he is asking for the same salary as Eddie Murphy and drawing more viewers worldwide. Michael Rotenberg, a manager who counts Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle among his clients, says: ”Comedies are colorblind right now. And Chris Tucker changed that. With ‘Rush Hour,’ he opened up the audience.”

The audience for ”Friday” was overwhelmingly black, at least when it opened in 1995. Something happened, though, when the movie went to video — Friday” is one of the biggest video rentals in history, which means its audience has had to include a fair number of white people. The crossover occurred first among white youths, because they flocked to ”Money Talks,” Tucker’s next big movie, and two years later they loved ”Rush Hour.” (This summer, the same pattern held for the other movies starring black comics: first, the black audience and kids, and then everyone else — all the way, movie after movie, to $100 million.)

As a result of his success, which has been sudden and painless, but also because he is who he is, comically and essentially, Tucker views his career as perhaps no black actor before him ever has. In his mind, he is not a black performer but a performer, period, which is to say he has the luxury of viewing his career as a white performer would. White actors do not consider the limitations of a given audience — they are interested only in mass popularity. Tucker may have started the black-comedy wave that hit this summer, but he doesn’t think too much about that. He just wants to choose his material based on whether he likes it.

Last year, after the success of ”Rush Hour,” Tucker was not happy with the scripts he was being sent by the studios. He was offered ”Shaft” but didn’t want to play another cop after ”Rush Hour.” And he said yes and then no to ”Black Knight,” which is about a down-and-out theme-restaurant employee who time-travels to the Middle Ages. ”I thought, What do I want to do?” Tucker recalled when I met with him in Los Angeles. ”And I realized that I wanted to play the first black president of the United States.”

Tucker needed to do research, and in September of last year he went to visit President Clinton at the White House, where he was ushered into the Oval Office. ”He let me sit in his seat,” Tucker said, still sounding excited. ”They took a picture.” That night, Clinton spoke at the Black Caucus. ”Chris Tucker came to my office today,” he said. ”He told me he was playing the first black president. And I said, ‘I’ve already beat you to the punch: I am the first black president.”’

Audiences do collide. Or better, perhaps, they grow and mutate, in ways those most concerned with audiences — for example, movie producers — work hard to gauge. This happened with the youth audience in the 60’s, and it is happening now with the audience represented by the increasingly prosperous black middle class, especially its younger members, an audience that both Chris Tucker and Bill Clinton clearly have a feel for. No one disputes that the black middle class is growing, but no one in Hollywood — that is, none of the white executives who make decisions about which movies and television shows we get to see — is quite sure what that means with regard to mass culture. The sensibility of the black-comedy explosion is not that of hip-hop, which, of course, the white executives who run the record business were dismissing as a passing trend only a year or two ago, despite rap’s having been around since the late 70’s. Eminem, who has had a summer that strangely mirrors the one black comics have had — a white guy appealing to black and white youth — appears to have finally convinced the record industry that rap is here to stay.

But rap is coming from a whole other place — geographically and psychically — than Chris Tucker, which makes things only more confusing for those whose job it is to figure out where the culture is headed. And then, too, this was also the summer when the Republicans devoted their convention to trying to show how many blacks were among them (this to woo not other blacks but moderate whites), in an effort to take back the White House from a man who, despite distancing himself from liberals and many black politicians in his own party, has been more popular among African-Americans than any president since polling began. America may still be black and white, but it is no longer simply black and white.

This is something Tucker appears acutely aware of. When I spoke to him about how in generations previous to his, the black middle class and its pop culture had been largely ghettoized, he said: ”That is changing. And that’s why I want to play the first black president. There’s humor there. It will be funny for me to meet ambassadors, to pass laws. I’m a regular person, and in the movie I’ll be a regular person who becomes president. People will like that. I’m not going to stress the black aspects of playing the first black president. Like Clinton, I’m more about being the people’s president.”

Clinton, for his part, agreed this summer to let Tucker follow him around for research purposes. Tucker plans to cast Lauryn Hill — a product of New Jersey’s black suburbs whose brilliant rap-funk-soul hybrid made for one of the biggest albums of the 90’s — as the first lady. I asked Tucker if his movie would be reminiscent of Frank Capra, a black-comic ”Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

”I haven’t seen that,” Tucker replied. ”But I play a kid who dreams of being president, and that dream comes true. Clinton liked that. He said that was his story. And that’s my dream:.I want to speak for everybody.” Chris Tucker wants to be America’s first black postracial movie star.

One night in L.A., I went with Tucker to the laugh factory on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. He had called the club and asked if he could drop by and work on some material. They said fine and gave him the last slot of the night. As Tucker bided his time in the lobby, club patrons passed by and looked him over the way people do with stars. Some approached him, and this seemed to make him a little nervous, but he signed autographs and posed for pictures and waited his turn to go on. ”Stand-up is like acting class for me,” Tucker said. ”It’s necessary.”

For the past 40 years, stand-up comedy has been the most direct route to black stardom in movies. Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy — they all began by doing stand-up. Tucker is no exception. He began doing stand-up in Atlanta, his hometown, when he was barely out of high school, and even though he’s a movie star now, he still loves to go onstage. Until recently, he had his own comedy club in Atlanta, but the building was sold, and the club has not yet been relocated. ”I want to have another club,” Tucker said — and then the manager of the Laugh Factory tapped him on the shoulder. It was time for Tucker to take the stage.

He started off talking about ”Gladiator” and then riffed about the Lakers and the Mexicans and the importance of making money. ”You gotta make money, because you never know,” he said. ”You don’t want to end up on the psychic network like Dionne Warwick.”

People laughed, but they were laughing because a famous comedian was onstage. Tucker wasn’t really funny, and I’m not sure he was even trying to be all that funny. It’s more like he just needed to be on a stage that night. He looked relaxed and contented. He said: ”I’m voting for Gore. Bush looks like he’s been partying too much,” and that got a laugh, but because of the charm of his delivery. No anger. No politics, really.

Tucker then asked the audience for topics — he was ready to improvise. People threw out names — Jennifer Lopez, Ray Lewis, Mike Tyson — hoping he would zing them, but Tucker refused to get nasty. As a stand-up, Tucker has never been quick with the barbs. But now the talk is that he has found religion and that it has made his humor even gentler. In Los Angeles, I heard the story again and again about how Tucker left his club in Atlanta one night last year and a homeless man told him to embrace the Lord. Tucker, who denies this story, wears a bracelet that spells out J-E-S-U-S. When I asked him about it once, he would only say, ”I am a very spiritual person.”

Brett Ratner, a former video director who went on to direct ”Rush Hour” and has been close to Tucker for a number of years, says Tucker is by nature careful, cautious. ”People take drugs, they scream at their staff, they spend like crazy,” Ratner says. ”But Chris hasn’t done any of those things. He just doesn’t want to mess things up. And there’s a lot of pressure. He knows that he’s the one who can make it, and he doesn’t want to make a mistake.”

After 20 minutes of free-floating observations, Tucker left the Laugh Factory’s stage to a standing ovation. ”That was fun,” he said, as he headed out to his car, alone, to head for home out in the valley. It struck me that any other star of his stature would, by now, have a mansion in Beverly Hills or a beach house in Malibu. ”I haven’t even been to a lot of those places in L.A.,” Tucker said. ”No one even knows where the town I live in is.” Tucker laughed. ”I live where my audience lives. It’s a little like Atlanta. It’s outside of things.”

In 1991, when Chris Tucker was 19 and moved from Atlanta to Los Angeles to seek his fortune in show business, the only major club that catered to black performers was the Comedy Act Theater on Crenshaw Boulevard, deep in the heart of South-Central. The club, like the Comedy Store or the Improv, had a branch on the East Coast, but the L.A. outpost attracted some of the best black stand-ups in the country. ”Black comedians were disenfranchised in the late 80’s,” says Chris Albrecht, who as president of HBO has showcased nearly every black stand-up comedian on his network. ”Black stand-ups couldn’t get any work. It was the time of Seinfeld and Jay Leno, and black comedians weren’t asked on ‘Letterman’ or ‘The Tonight Show.’ They could not break through.”

Traditionally, Hollywood (and the audience) anoints only one black comedian (always male) about every five years. In the 60’s, there was Bill Cosby, whose material was familial and anecdotal. Then, in the early 70’s, Flip Wilson, who was one of the first black entertainers to appear in drag, became a star. By the mid-70’s, there was Redd Foxx, who sanitized his act to play Fred Sanford. Richard Pryor, who was abrasive and hilarious and has been, perhaps, the most important force in comedy in the last 50 years, became really big a little later in the 70’s. By the early 80’s, it was Cosby again, with his TV show, and then Eddie Murphy emerged. Murphy, like Tucker, excelled at characterizations. At the age of 20, he starred with Nick Nolte in ”48 Hours” and became an instant movie star — the first real black movie star since Sidney Poitier. Later in the 80’s, at a moment when Murphy was making a string of flops (think of ”Golden Child”), he, too, frequented the Comedy Act Theater. It was then that the club became the place to be for black comics, who would arrive from all over the country and square off against one another. ”It was competitive,” Albrecht recalls. ”And it was raw. The audience was not racially mixed, and no one cared. This was comedy that was specifically for a black audience.”

The seeds of the current comedy boom were planted at the Comedy Act Theater. Robin Harris, a comedian who died of a heart attack in 1990, was the M.C. of the club. ”He changed everything,” says Dave Chappelle, a stand-up who played there. ”He was really funny, and he would set you up, present you. Nearly every night, everyone was there, everyone who’s a star now. Martin Lawrence, the Wayanses, Jamie Foxx, Bernie Mac, Chris Rock, Chris Tucker — they all appeared at the Comedy Act Theater.”

Murphy decided to more or less recreate the club as a television special and sold ”Uptown Comedy Express” to Albrecht at HBO in 1986. Murphy’s real-life Uncle Ray was the host of the show, and the set was directly modeled on the look of the club on Crenshaw. ”Uptown Comedy Express” was not turned into a regular series, but, in 1992, inspired by the show, Russell Simmons, the rap impresario, created ”Def Comedy Jam” for HBO, and suddenly the locus of black comedy shifted from Crenshaw to cable TV.

Cable was invented for shows like ”Def Comedy Jam.” Not only was HBO already attracting a proportionately larger black audience than network TV, but ”Def Comedy Jam” comedians, many of whom were culled from the best of the Comedy Act Theater, could also be as extreme and explicit on cable as they could not be on network TV. Their material tended to be raw in the same way that hip-hop was raw: it was a glimpse into the black world, or an aspect of it, anyway. Not since Pryor had anyone heard these voices. And they were loud-joking about violence and sex and race.

When Chris Tucker first performed on ”Def Comedy Jam,” in 1993, he saw the show as his big break. ”It was boiling hot,” he recalled. ”It was huge. ‘Def Comedy Jam’ made you an overnight success. Everyone watched it.” On the show, he didn’t go on about sex or race — he talked about his life and did his Michael Jackson impression. He was, Albrecht, says, ”instantly accessible to a wide audience.”

By the end of the ”Def Comedy Jam” run, in 1996, most of the top comedians had headed off to movies or television. You could call this the Cosby-Pryor split: a comic either opts for one of the networks, usually a sitcom on UPN or the WB, where he headlines his own show, la Cosby, or aims for the movies, which is what Pryor (and Eddie Murphy) did. Comedians like Steve Harvey and Jamie Foxx signed on for series TV with the WB. Tucker decided that TV did not suit him. He was more attentive to the careers of white actors. They did not go into television. ”I didn’t want to do television,” Tucker said. ”It was too limited. The audience was too narrow. You can’t relate to everybody on the WB.”

Perhaps because he made it so quickly, or perhaps because of how he sees himself, Tucker has never had the sense that most black comics have that he must maintain a strong connection to the ”black audience” as represented by those who go to black clubs to see stand-up or watch shows on the WB. ”I always have thought in terms of the largest possible audience,” he said. ”I want everyone to relate to what I am doing. And that’s been easy, because in my career I haven’t experienced any racism.”

When Tucker told me this, I couldn’t quite believe it. ”None?” I asked.

”No,” he replied, and shook his head. ”From the beginning, people seemed to like what I did. I was a regular person who was funny.” He seemed a little pressed. ”That’s what the audience is looking for. They want regular, and they want funny.”

Four years ago, Tucker bought his mother a two-story colonial house just outside Atlanta, and when he’s in town, which is most of the time, that’s where he stays. ”She cooks,” he told me one afternoon as we sat on a plush sofa in his mother’s living room. ”In L.A., I don’t get food.” The room was dominated by dark brown porcelain angels, which were arrayed on either side of the big-screen TV. ”My mother says angels remind her of me,” Tucker said, sounding shy.

He grew up not far from where his mother now lives in a mustard-colored brick house across the street from a creek in quiet, comfortable, suburban Decatur. His parents were separated when he was fairly young, but he saw a lot of his father, who lived not far from him and ran a service that cleaned office buildings at night. ”That’s the only other job I’ve ever had,” Tucker said. ”From when I was small, I knew I was funny. I always had to get some attention. While we were cleaning, I’d practice routines at night in the empty buildings. You have to be by yourself to be creative.” The youngest of six, Tucker performed for his family, his classmates, teachers, anyone. ”I was a terrible student,” he said. ”Teachers scolded me constantly, ‘You can’t cut up in class.’ But I thought, This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I was quiet about my plans. Nobody in Atlanta said they were going to be an entertainer. It wasn’t L.A. or New York.”

Tucker performed at talent shows and, when he was 18, began appearing at a local comedy club. He was, by all accounts, a natural from the beginning. At the talent shows, he would tell jokes about kids in school, tease the teachers, do impressions of the principal. He didn’t write routines — his material was nearly always improvised. Even as a teenager, he could do spot-on impressions of Michael Jackson and other black performers. ”I could do Eddie,” he said, almost sheepishly. But Tucker was never political, never controversial. Most of all, he was happiest on a stage. ”I felt like I was home,” he said.

Tucker longed for success. ”I would sit on my living-room couch and pretend that Arsenio was interviewing me,” Tucker recalled later that day as we drove over to his former high school in his rented Town Car. ”I didn’t watch much TV, but the first movie that I remember sticking with me was ‘Stir Crazy,’ starring Richard Pryor. I was like, man. And then Eddie Murphy came out with ‘Trading Places.’ I thought he was great.” From the start, television did not intrigue Tucker.

Even now, he hardly watches, just tuning in for sports. (”I go with the winners.”) He told me he has never seen Chris Rock’s show on HBO and hasn’t seen any shows on UPN or the WB. ”But I do like the movies,” he said. ”I always have. I go now in the middle of the day when there’s no one there.” And yet, for all his movie watching, he still hadn’t seen any of the breakthrough black comedies of the summer. ”I loved ‘Gladiator,”’ he said. ”That’s me right there.”

Tucker paused, then said: ”I always wanted to star in movies. From the time I was a kid here in Atlanta, I always had a vision. I wanted to do stand-up and go straight to features.”

In the 90’s, with the success of ”Def Comedy Jam,” the Big Three networks decided it was time to further tap into the black audience. They signed stand-ups like Martin Lawrence (whose Fox show is still one of the top-rated in syndication) and Dave Chappelle, who was then a 19-year-old playing Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. But the big networks soon became convinced that black situation comedies do not attract the coveted 18-to-49-year-old white-male demographic and have given up on them. The shows have been ghettoized on the WB and UPN. Although he did a number of pilots, Chappelle has had only one show on the air, which was canceled before the season ended.

Having had stops and starts, Chappelle, like most stand-ups, is curious about Tucker and his career strategy. They all want to know how he managed to avoid the trap of TV. Rotenberg, who manages Chappelle, says: ”Even with the success of these black movie comedies and Chris Tucker getting $20 million a movie, it is almost impossible to get a half-hour sitcom with a black comedian on one of the top three networks. Sadly, Chris Tucker’s success does not seem to rub off on television. It is still segregated.”

Tucker is not particularly concerned about the ghettoization of television. ”I don’t really pay attention,” he said as he parked his car in a corner of the Columbia High School parking lot. When Tucker began at Columbia in the late 80’s, the student body was black and middle class, and that has not changed. A man with a whistle around his neck and a notebook under his arm spied him and waved. ”That’s my old football coach,” Tucker said. The coach sprinted over to the car. ”Hey!” he said. Tucker rolled down the window. ”Come out and say hello,” the coach said. Tucker looked nervous. ”O.K.,” he said, straightening his black jacket.

At first, the girls waiting for the bus, the boys on their way to pick up their yearbooks, the teachers locking their classroom doors, didn’t really notice Tucker. And then someone shouted, ”It’s Chris Tucker,” and a stampede began. They mobbed him, screamed his name, climbed on top of his car, knocked one another over. The crush got so bad that the coach had to act as a bodyguard and escort Tucker into the building. Tucker was dragged up a flight of stairs and was soon cloistered back in his eighth-grade English teacher’s classroom.

”He was just as funny then as he is now,” she said, as kids lined up outside the door for autographs and photos. ”He was never that good at school,” she continued, ”but every day he took my class away from me. He was so funny. He’d do impressions. Make faces when I asked him a question. Dance to his seat. He was hilarious. And he never did any work.”

Tucker signed autographs and stayed for nearly an hour. He was gracious but a little embarrassed by the fuss. He smiled a lot, but he looked awkward. Tucker is nice: he smiled when his former teachers insulted his scholastic record; he smiled when the students grabbed his jacket and pulled. He didn’t joke or crack anyone up. He just smiled.

This lack of emotion struck me as strange. Tucker has innate charisma, and he is faultlessly polite, punctual and considerate, but he is distant. He is not witty or clever in the style of Chris Rock, and for a man who makes a fortune, he is surprisingly modest. There’s no entourage, no bodyguard. ”I just want to stay as regular as possible,” he told his former teacher. ”I want to be the way I was when I sat in your class.” She laughed. ”If you were still in my class, you’d be going to see you,” she said. ”You’d be your biggest fan.”

Dave Chappelle thinks that Tucker has, in a sense, never really left suburban Atlanta. ”When you meet Chris,” he says, ”you immediately know that he is not from L.A. or New York. He’s not urban or tough. He’s from Atlanta, and he’s a little country. And that’s part of why his audience responds to him. He has that funny frequency, but he’s also familiar. Chris is one of them.”

In the early 90’s, Tucker did some touring, appeared in a music video by Heavy D and snagged a small part in ”House Party III,” a sequel to the hip-hop duo Kid ‘n’ Play’s sleeper hit. He carefully kept an eye out for the kind of role that would separate him from the other stand-ups. ”If you’re black,” he told me, ”you need a real breakout part to get a bigger audience.”

Cast as Ice Cube’s stoned, slacker sidekick in ”Friday,” Tucker immediately shined. The movie was an antidote to violent ghetto-setting films like ”Boyz N the Hood” and ”Menace II Society.” Cube and Tucker wanted to expose the funny side of inner-city life. ”Friday” was a modest hit, but following its video success, New Line took notice and signed Tucker to ”Money Talks” opposite Charlie Sheen. Before filming began, Tucker had a small part in ”The Fifth Element,” starring Bruce Willis and directed by Luc Besson. It was a supporting role, but it, too, played into Tucker’s career strategy: take parts in nonblack movies. Except for ”Friday,” all of Tucker’s films have been racially mixed. He either stars opposite a nonblack man or has a small part in an ethnically diverse cast.

During ”Money Talks,” which was directed by Brett Ratner, the rumors about Tucker began percolating. ”They said he was illiterate,” Ratner recalled recently. ”That he was crazy, and he couldn’t read, and that no one could understand him, but that, in spite of all that, he was going to be the next Eddie Murphy, a huge star.” Ratner laughed. ”Chris can read, but sometimes the references have to be explained to him. Often these scripts are written by white writers, and they’re just too white. In ‘Money Talks,’ Chris had to say, ‘I’m waiting for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.’ He didn’t know that line came from ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ He had never heard of ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ and he didn’t know DeMille was a great director. So he changed the line. He made it his own. And frankly, if Chris doesn’t get that reference, neither will the audience.”

During his brief career, Tucker has dropped two managers, including Michael Ovitz, who worked for him for just a few months last year, and three agents. Currently, he has only a lawyer, Susan Adamson, and no plans for any other representation. ”I want the responsibility,” he explained. ”It makes me work harder. I’ve got these big dreams, and I want to have the weight on me.”

His lack of representation and his unwillingness to be part of the community feeds the rumors about Tucker. He spends most of his time in Atlanta, and his older brother, Darrell, travels with him. If you have a movie offer for Tucker, you send it to a post office box in Los Angeles, and Darrell picks it up. He has no wife, no children, no private plane. When Tucker is in L.A., he drives a rented car. ”I don’t want a Ferrari,” he said. ”I don’t want all that flash.”

Michael DeLuca, president of New Line Pictures, says: ”Oh, they all think Chris is crazy. He won’t jump at an open checkbook, and people out here get frustrated. Chris is picky. They get impatient when they can’t get him in their lousy scripts. But Chris is not just another actor for hire. He wants to have a long career.”

”Money Talks” was a modest hit, and Tucker next took a small part in ”Jackie Brown,” directed by Quentin Tarantino. He is in only three scenes, but again, the movie was an interesting, unpredictable choice. ”I wish I’d been in the whole film,” Tucker said, and sighed. In 1997, he signed on, opposite Jackie Chan, for ”Rush Hour.” It is a classic fish-out-of-water buddy film, and the combination of Chan and Tucker is inspired. The film cost $35 million and was an international smash, which is unusual for a film starring a black actor.

”The biggest problem with these movies” — that is, movies starring blacks — is the foreign market,” says Michael Rotenberg. ”Denzel is flat, Eddie is not strong overseas, Will Smith works, but he usually teams with a white actor, and he does action films. Every day, I hear from the studios that you cannot sell black stars internationally. And you can’t really blame the studios. There is so much racism in these countries. They don’t want black pictures.”

Some of the overseas success of ”Rush Hour” can be attributed to the international box office appeal of Jackie Chan, but through the movie Tucker became known all around the world. ”Tucker is huge for New Line,” says DeLuca, who is paying him $17 million more than he got for ”Rush Hour” to make the sequel. ”Rush Hour II” will take place in Japan, where Tucker will be the misfit. ”Hollywood is a 24-hour-a-day search for a franchise, and ‘Rush Hour’ looks like a franchise,” DeLuca says. ”The only guaranteed return on an investment in the movie business is special-effects movies or high-concept comedies. And comedies are usually less expensive to produce. It’s great when you find a personality that can break out in a movie — Jim Carrey in ‘Ace Ventura,’ Adam Sandler in his films and now Chris Tucker. When you find someone like Chris Tucker, they are worth their weight in gold.”

When Chris Rock heard that Chris Tucker refuses to think about his audience, he seemed genuinely perplexed. ”How can you not think about audience?” he said when I went to see him in his HBO office. As he talked, he paced behind his desk. ”The greatest myth,” he continued, ”is that blacks make up half the population. The media pushes the idea, but it’s just not true. There are 30 million black people in this country out of 265 million. That means that if a movie makes $100 million, white people are in the audience.”

Rock continued to pace. This is his onstage demeanor — smart, observant, quick, direct. Unlike Tucker, Rock is complicated, both in his sense of comedy and in his personality. While Tucker is striving for simplicity — that universal joke that will amuse every race, creed and color — Rock is abrasive, more interested in the truth that provokes.

Among the white intelligentsia, Rock is better known than Tucker, but that doesn’t make him more popular than Tucker. Audience is tricky: everybody wants the biggest, widest-ranging following that is possible, but if you’re black, you have traditionally tended to worry about having to choose between catering to a mostly white or to a mostly black audience. Consider the career arc of Chris Rock. He has jumped from one audience to another over and over again. Discovered by Eddie Murphy, he broke on ”Saturday Night Live” (which was white) and quit to perform on the Fox network show ”In Living Color” (black). The show was canceled the following season, so Rock went back to stand-up (most comedy clubs are white) and played ”Def Comedy Jam” (black and white). His first major HBO special, ”Bring on the Pain,” attracted everybody, but especially the white audience, which embraced Rock as the heir to Pryor. He was cast in movies like ”Lethal Weapon IV” (a racially mixed crowd), ”Dogma” (only non-Catholic whites) and, this fall, ”Nurse Betty” (white, white, white).

Last summer, Rock taped his second HBO special. He titled it ”Bigger and Blacker” and performed the show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He intentionally sold tickets only at the box office the week before the show, in order to attract a black audience. Had he sold the tickets earlier or through a ticket service, he said, the audience would have been whiter. Rock had thought of playing Madison Square Garden, but he was worried about losing his base of support. There were very few white faces at the Apollo show, and they were definitely not on camera. ”You cannot leave your audience behind,” Rock explained. ”They don’t like it. But crossing over isn’t a big accomplishment. You’re only impressed because you’re white. I wish I could crossover to Asians. There are many more of them. But nobody would care if I was big with Asians.”

Perhaps Tucker represents the future. His audience has never changed — it has just grown with him. He never had to work to reattach himself to the black audience, and the white audience has bought tickets gradually. But it’s also a matter of sensibility. Tucker has maintained this consistent level by picking mainstream material. Rock takes greater risks — like his hero, Woody Allen, he appeals to the white sophisticates looking for a potentially more profound kind of entertainment. Tucker, meanwhile, hasn’t seen a Woody Allen movie.

All of Chris Tucker’s movie-star role models are white. ”Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise and, especially, Tom Hanks,” he said when asked to name whom he respects. ”They will go down in history. And that’s my hope.”

Tucker believes, as he says repeatedly, that ”funny is funny.” Meaning, that race should not matter in comedy. ”I don’t believe in racism,” he explains. ”I believe people just don’t like people. There are so many different nice people. If I don’t like you, I don’t like you. It’s not racism.”

Tucker may be nave, but he has also been lucky. He has not really had to struggle on the road to $20 million. He has been careful to pick projects that mirror his worldview. And his humor, which is physical and mostly nonverbal, has universal appeal. Tucker’s kind of comedy is not related to race. He is not topical — he, like Chaplin or Keaton, is just a funny character.

”Crossing over is really important to me,” he said. ”I look at it like this: the audience crosses over to you. The funnier you get, the more creative you get, the bigger your audience. Funny is funny. They don’t look at black or white.”

And yet, and yet, Hollywood would still rather crown a funny white man than a funny black man. Even this summer, which may have permanently changed the marketplace for black comedians, has not deterred the studios’ search for white leading men. ”Jack Black is a third banana in ‘High Fidelity,’ and they now send him every script,” Rotenberg says. ”I wouldn’t have every offer in the world for Dave Chappelle had he been in that movie. The truth is, the movie business will never truly be colorblind, because their favorite color is always going to be green. And they believe that white leading men will make them the most money.”

Tucker refuses to accept that thinking. He dreams of being the biggest star, and doesn’t see why the dream can’t come true. This summer, with all its black hits, means nothing to him. He’s thinking forward — 10 years, 15 years. He just turned 28. The new pop-ularity of black comedies doesn’t really intrigue him. It’s nice, but does Tom Cruise think about the racial breakdown of the audience for ”Mission: Impossible”? No. So neither does Chris Tucker. He approaches life, or his life as a star, anyway, as if race had nothing to do with it. ”There is no racism,” he repeats. ”Funny is funny.”


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