Chris Rock on his road to Madison Square Garden

Earlier in the year, Chris Rock showed up to try out material at two different shows I was on at Stand Up NY. Seeing him work on brand new ideas in a small room like that was really incredible. (I wrote about the first one back in March and the second one in April.)

On Monday night, he performs at Madison Square Garden in front of 20,000 people (and then goes on a six month tour). In Hard at Work on New Year’s Eve (NY Times), he talks about the months he's spent crafting his newest material.

But for Mr. Rock, as it is for those other guys, being gifted is really just about doing the things that make it look easy.

The least surprised person when that first laugh starts and then moves in a wave all the way up to the cheap seats will be Mr. Rock. For many months he has been piecing together his act in clubs in New Jersey, New York, Florida and Las Vegas. Comedy bit by comedy bit, he has built two hours of material one minute at a time, culling the belly laughs from the bombs.

And he knows it will work. Other people would admit to a deep breath or a big gulp before taking on the toughest crowd in the biggest room in their hometown — he grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant — but Mr. Rock does not roll like that.

“You got to realize, I’ve been working on my act probably since around April, March,” he said, sitting in an office he keeps on the Upper West Side. “I am ready.”

The Stress Factory is near his home so he's done a bunch of shows there. The owner talks about how his act has progressed.

“He knows that they are going to give him that first laugh because of who he is,” said Vinnie Brand, the owner of the Stress Factory. “But he came out here and worked his material, over and over, cutting and trimming, until by the last show you could not believe what he had put together. He still has that hunger to be a great stand-up comedian, no matter what his name is.”

Or as Mr. Rock put it: “Maybe for about three minutes after I walk onstage, they’re into my résumé. But after that it’s like, ‘What’s he got?,’ especially in a town like this where you see famous people walking down the street.”

Two good bits from the interview: Rock says a good comic never blames the audience and that getting people to be quiet is "true ownership of the room."

He complains about nothing and is nobody’s victim. The responsibility, as he sees it, is all his, here and on the stage. The audience is there for the winning, but it takes work.

“When you get up there that first time and you don’t do well, you’re basically hearing ‘No’,” he said, looking out the window of an office from which you can see all the way to Harlem. “How are you going to approach this ‘no’? Are you going to respect it and put the blame on yourself and improve who you are, or are you going to blame the audience like an idiot?”

“It’s never their fault,” he said. “No matter how late it is, no matter how much they did or didn’t drink, no matter what the sound system is like, no matter how hot the building is or how cold the building is, it ain’t the crowd’s fault. You want to get up there, you want to be a good boy, you want to headline, that’s what you have to go in there with.”

Mr. Rock watched Eddie Murphy take over the Garden many years ago, and he has not forgotten.

“There were moments you could hear a pin drop, and that’s really what it’s all about,” he said. “Anybody can just say stuff and get people to scream. If you’re really good, you can get them to be quiet. Quiet is true ownership of the room.”

If you're curious to learn more about his workout shows, check out the writeups I mentioned: March show and April show.

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