After working as a stand-up comic and appearing in small film roles, Rock came to wider prominence as a cast member of Saturday Night Live in the early 1990s. He went on to more prominent film roles and a series of acclaimed comedy specials for HBO.
He was voted as the fifth greatest stand-up comedian of all time by Comedy Central. He was also voted in the United Kingdom as the ninth greatest stand-up comic on Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups in 2007, and again in the updated 2010 list as the eighth greatest stand-up comic.
Rock began doing stand-up comedy in 1984 in New York City’s Catch a Rising Star. He slowly rose up the ranks of the comedy circuit in addition to earning bit roles in the film I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and the TV series Miami Vice. Upon seeing his act at a nightclub, Eddie Murphy befriended and mentored the aspiring comic. Murphy gave Rock his first film role in Beverly Hills Cop II.
Rock became a cast member of the popular sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live in 1990. He and other new cast members Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider and David Spade became known as the Bad Boys of SNL. In 1991, he released his first comedy album, Born Suspect and won acclaim for his dramatic role as a crack addict in the film New Jack City. His tenure on SNL gave Rock national exposure.
A frustrated Rock left Saturday Night Live in 1993, appearing instead as a special guest star on the predominantly African-American sketch show In Living Colour. The show, however, was cancelled months later. Rock then decided to concentrate on a film career. He wrote and starred in the mockumentary CB4 but the film was not a success. Acting jobs became scarce, and Rock abandoned Hollywood to concentrate on stand-up comedy.
Rock starred in his first HBO comedy special in 1994 titled Big Ass Jokes. But it was his second stand-up special, 1996’s Bring the Pain, that reinvented Rock as one of the best comedians in the industry. For it Rock won two Emmy Awards and gained large critical acclaim. Adding to his popularity was his much-publicized role as a commentator for Comedy Central’s Politically Incorrect during the 1996 Presidential elections which earned him another Emmy nomination. Rock also was the voice for the “Lil Penny” puppet who was the alter ego to basketball star Penny Hardaway in a series of Nike shoe commercials from 1994–1998, and hosted the ’97 MTV Video Music Awards.
Rock later had two more HBO comedy specials: Bigger & Blacker in 1999, and Never Scared in 2004. Articles relating to both specials called Rock “the funniest man in America” in Time and Entertainment Weekly. HBO also aired his talk show, The Chris Rock Show, which gained critical acclaim for Rock’s interviews with celebrities and politicians. The show won an Emmy for writing. His television work has won him a total of three Emmy Awards and 15 nominations. By the end of the decade, Rock was established as one of the preeminent stand-up comedians and comic minds of his generation.
During this time, Rock also translated his comedy into print form in the book Rock This! and released the Grammy Award-winning comedy albums, Roll with the New, Bigger & Blacker and Never Scared.
Rock’s fifth HBO special, Kill the Messenger, premiered on September 27, 2008, and won him another Emmy for outstanding writing for a variety or music program.
It was not until the success of his stand-up act in the late 1990s that Rock began receiving major parts in films. Though he started off with supporting roles in films such as Dogma, Beverly Hills Ninja, Lethal Weapon 4, and Nurse Betty, he went on to star in films like The Longest Yard, Bad Company, and Down to Earth. Some of his more recent film appearances include Death at a Funeral, Grown Ups, and 2 Days in New York.
Rock has also increasingly worked behind the camera, both as a writer and director of Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife (both in which he played the lead role). Additionally, he has done voice work for the popular Madagascar animated film franchise.
In the fall of 2005, the UPN television network premiered a comedy series called Everybody Hates Chris, based on Rock’s school days, of which he is the executive producer and narrator. The show has garnered both critical and ratings success. The series was nominated for a 2006 Golden Globe for Best TV Series (Musical or Comedy), a 2006 People’s Choice Award for Favourite New Television Comedy, and two 2006 Emmy Awards for costuming and cinematography. More recently, he produced the series Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, which premiered in August 2012.