BURBANK, Calif. — Chris Rock’s eyes darted around the room, studying the chattering group of international print journalists. He licked his lips, clasped his hands ... and only dropped one F-bomb as they questioned him in a variety of accents.
“I’m never proper or careful, but I never curse in front of my mother, either,” Rock told the writers. So he’s not worried about getting bleeped on worldwide TV when he hosts the Feb. 27 Oscar ceremony.
“I don’t think people are nervous,” Rock said later during an interview with The Associated Press. “I just came off tour in America, a million people came to see me. They weren’t nervous.”
Shooting a glance at Oscar show producer Gil Cates, he asked, “Are you, Gil?”
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Cates didn’t flinch.
Neither has the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, although having the acerbic Rock as host is certainly a change of pace. The academy is known for its sedate style and the predominantly older, white membership that fills the Oscar night audience.
Rock mimicked the typical question he gets these days: “Oh, a black comic, how are you going to make it whiter? I’m like, ‘Dude, look around, can you get any whiter?”’
He honed his off-the-cuff style during a three-year run on “Saturday Night Live,” plus the club circuit and hit HBO specials.
“How do I say this without sounding like an egomaniac?” he said. “I don’t know a comedian that sells more seats than me in the red states and blue states, so I don’t see where I have to change that much.”
At least some of Rock’s cockiness stems from the positive response he received during his recent “Black Ambition” tour.
“When I’m in West Palm Beach, Fla., there are old Jewish people at the show,” he said. “When I’m in New Mexico, it’s Mexicans. Wherever I’m at, the people show up.”
Hip-hopping into the traditional footsteps of such Oscar emcees as Billy Crystal and the late Johnny Carson appealed to Rock, although he revealed he turned down the chance to host the Oscarcast several times before, believing it was “an old man’s gig.”
But he’s 39 now, and it feels right.
“I like the tradition of the Oscars,” he said. “I like that some of the greatest comedians ever have hosted the show.”
How did Cates choose Rock as host? “Billy is doing a show in New York,” he said, “Steve Martin is doing a movie—”
Rock cut him off. “Ellen DeGeneres has crabs. Jay Leno’s got a gig. They got to the R’s. Burt Reynolds said no.”
Rooting for Foxx
Creating an immediate buzz on Oscar night is Rock’s No. 1 challenge.
“A great monologue does it,” he said. “The secret to hosting awards shows is like sports — get a big lead and run out the clock. Then kind of hand off the ball and assist the show.”
As a kid in Brooklyn, N.Y., Rock tuned in the Oscar show for the host’s monologue, then tuned out.
“Any black people nominated? No, oh, back to bed,” he said.
Not the case this year. Jamie Foxx is a best actor nominee for “Ray” and a supporting actor nominee for “Collateral” — two of this year’s record five acting nominations for black performers.
“If he doesn’t win, I will steal the sound editing Oscar,” Rock declared.
Cates reminded him that award usually has multiple winners.
“They’re all punks,” Rock shot back.
Getting the world laughing
Rock isn’t a member of the academy, despite acting in “Head of State,” “Bad Company,” “New Jack City,” “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka!” and, of course, “Pootie Tang.”
“If you’re darker than a paper bag, you can’t get in,” he said.
Working a live audience is Rock’s forte, a good thing since the Oscars are broadcast in real time around the world. ABC has not yet decided whether there will be a delay on the broadcast to protect against stray profanities, as there was in last year’s post-Janet Jackson crackdown.
An Emmy-winning writer himself for his cable specials, Rock hired his own writing staff, and expects contributions from famous pals David Spade, Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy.
“I’ve been kissing --- for years and now I’m going to reap the rewards,” he said, cackling. “I’ve been paying for a lot of dinners and now I want jokes, damn it!”
How will Rock know if he’s killing the Kodak Theatre audience on Oscar night?
“I’ll probably pay more attention to the musicians in the pit than the stars because they’re the closest you’re going to get to normal people in the audience,” he said.
“If I can get them laughing, I know I got the whole world laughing.”
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