The closest Chris Rock came to a breakout character during his early 1990s tenure on "Saturday Night Live" was Nat X, fiery host of a show that looked a lot like David Letterman’s program, albeit much shorter. "This is the only 15-minute show on TV," Nat X noted. "Why? Because The Man would never give a brother like me a whole half-hour!"
Rock, whose time is in great demand these days, from Broadway to Hollywood, returns to "SNL" this week for a 90-minute victory lap with just his second hosting stint since leaving the show more than two decades ago.
The comedian, who last hosted the late night staple in 1996, is among the few superstar "SNL" alums whose success isn’t closely tied to the show. That seems to be an emerging theme, intended or otherwise, during this landmark 40th season. Sarah Silverman’s opening monologue on the Oct. 4 installment poked fun at her blink-and-you-missed-her run on the show 20 years ago. The most recent host, Jim Carrey, famously auditioned for "SNL" three decades ago, but didn’t get far enough to put on his manic act for producer Lorne Michaels.
Still, Rock carries the "SNL" DNA like few other performers. His strongest stand-up influences range from the show’s first host (George Carlin) to its biggest star (Eddie Murphy). Even if Rock didn't standout as a sketch player on "SNL," his experience helped prepare him for his subsequent great eponymous HBO program. He left "SNL," one of the toughest rooms in show biz, to become a performer who moves easily from movies to theater ("The M----F----- With the Hat") while transcending standup as one of our great comedic storytellers ("What does Daddy get for all his work? The big piece of chicken. That’s all Daddy gets," he told us in 1999’s "Bigger & Blacker").
Rock is sharing his "SNL" spotlight with Prince, who reportedly will play an 8-minute set mid-show as he promotes his two latest albums, "Art Official Age" and "PlectrumElectrum." Meanwhile, Rock is plugging his new movie, "Top Five," about a comedian who tries to become a serious actor while dealing with his Reality TV star fiancée.
Perhaps the title of the film, which opens Dec. 5, is an inside joke dating back to Nat X' Top 5 list segment: "Why five? Because 10 would make The Man nervous!" There are many more than five or even 10 reasons to watch Rock’s return to "SNL," including his promo reel for Saturday’s show featuring Bobby Moynihan. Check it out above.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.