In this review, Judge Victor Valdivia is the messenger. Please don't kill him.
South Africa, London, New York.
Chris Rock: Kill the Messenger marks the fifth standup special Rock has recorded for HBO. His first, Big-Ass Jokes (1994), clocked in at barely 30 minutes. Although it earned some critical acclaim and a few award nominations, it didn't really resonate much outside of the fan base he had earned during his three years on Saturday Night Live. It was his second special, Bring the Pain (1996), that made him a genuine mainstream star, as it should have. Bring the Pain was a landmark standup performance, one that was on par with Richard Pryor and George Carlin's best work. His two subsequent specials, Bigger and Blacker (1999) and Never Scared (2004) were not quite as groundbreaking, but they did cement his status as one of the best standup comics of his generation.
Now comes Kill the Messenger and it's clearly intended as the apogee of Rock's standup career. Rock taped three of his concerts—one apiece in New York, London, and Johannesburg—and then edited them together into one special. This marks the biggest change from his previous specials, which were all taken from single performances. It also winds up, in some ways, as this show's undoing. For one thing, the edits are so distracting that they sometimes wind up undercutting the jokes. Instead of showing parts of one show and then parts of another, the editing is shorter and jagged. Rock will start a joke in New York, start the punchline in London, and end the punchline in Johannesburg. This frequently means that you'll be focusing more on the editing and audience reactions than the actual joke itself.
Far worse is that by attempting to cram three performances into one special, the show winds up coming off as somewhat bloated. Rock is a brilliant and insightful comic, but his humor works best when it's tempered with brevity. It's not an accident that Bring the Pain, which was a bit less than one hour long, is considered his masterpiece. For that show Rock handpicked the best moments and delivered a focused performance. Here there's just too much padding. His riff on the word "faggot," for instance, isn't particularly trenchant, or original, or even outrageous. It's just interminable. The setup is so elaborate that the payoff, which isn't even really that funny, could never possibly live up to it. The follow-up bit, about how people in reduced circumstances can say things that other people can't, is even more longwinded and dull. That's not to mention how much Rock keeps harping on the idea that women are as obsessed with material comfort as men are with sex. There is some comic gold to be mined from this idea, and Rock does find it, but this section takes up almost the entire last half-hour of the special. For every funny line, there's a whole lot of filler that just belabors the point.
The decisions made by Rock and director Marty Callner in editing this special together can be judged with this three-disc set, which includes all three original performances in their entirety. The New York one is the longest, clocking in at 100 minutes, while the other two are only a few minutes shy of 90. Most of the material on the three shows is identical. Rock starts with his observations on the 2008 presidential campaign, remarking of McCain that he doesn't "want a president with a bucket list." He also riffs on racism and the economy, the difference between a job and a career, and the aforementioned sexual differences between men and women. There are a few routines that are different, though. The NYC and Johannesburg shows both have quite funny routines on Hillary Clinton, in which Rock remarks that he can't understand why she would want to work in an office where her husband received oral sex. He also tells us how much he doesn't want his kids to be spoiled and that he can't relate his poorer childhood with theirs. He also sometimes changes references in identical jokes, so that mentions of Jessica Simpson and A-Rod in the NYC show become Keira Knightley and soccer star David Beckham in the others. The opening story about his visit to Africa that opens the HBO show is only heard in the Johannesburg show and the other shows start with some local bits, like the bit in London about exchanging his dollars for Euros.
In watching these complete performances, Rock's choices in deciding what to keep and lose become even more mystifying. The Hillary Clinton routine is much funnier than some of what actually made it into the finished special. It also shows how some bits don't really work as well in front of some audiences. Rock does a brilliant routine about how in the neighborhood where he lives, all the black people are super-wealthy megastars, while the white people are only mildly successful. This bit resonates strongest in NYC, where people recognize its meaning, but doesn't go over as well in the other cities. Strangely, though, Rock has included the weaker audience reactions from the other concerts, which tends to make this seem less well-received. It would have been immensely useful to hear from Rock about some of the decisions he made in putting this special together and how he feels about his material and the reactions it received, but the five-minute featurette on disc three is too brief and superficial to be of much value. There's also the obligatory digital copy for fans who like that sort of thing. The anamorphic 16:9 transfer and Dolby Digital 2.0 mix are both satisfactory, with no flaws to speak of.
Ultimately, it would have better for Rock and Callner to simply take one of these shows, particularly the NYC one, which is the most consistent, and pare it down to a lean 60 or so minutes. The special would have been more concise and would have flowed much better with only minor, less obtrusive editing. Alternately, maybe they should have made a documentary about Rock's world tour with excerpts from each performance thrown in.
As it stands, though there's some genuinely good material here, Chris Rock: Kill the Messenger: 3-Disc Collector's Edition is guilty of overstuffed excess. Rock's best humor is as smart and incisive as ever, but fans shouldn't have to wade through so much filler to get to the good parts. Next time, he should remember that quantity is not the same as quality.
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