FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
One of the toughest things you may ever have to be is just grow up. Ask Chris Rock. Like a lot of us, the superstar comedian had a rough time as a kid. Now, Rock has turned those growing pains into the award-winning sitcom, "Everybody Hates Chris." Rock does the voiceover for the hit show. His young self is played onscreen by actor Tyler James Williams. Young Chris is awkward, ambitious and never fails to wiggle his way into a jam. Like lying to his father Julius played by Terry Crews, or having a recent faceoff with the school bully.
(Soundbite of TV show "Everybody Hates Chris")
Mr. CHRIS ROCK (Actor): (As narrator) That's Joey Caruso, a little thug with a big chip on his shoulder. You know I managed to avoid him before I wore these shoes.
Mr. TRAVIS FLORY (Actor): (As Joey Caruso) Nice shoes, bojangle.
Mr. TYLER JAMES WILLIAMS (Actor): (As Chris) Bojangle? That's not what you mother called me when I was tap dancing in her drawers last night.
Mr. ROCK: (As narrator) I know you think I'm crazy, but if I let him get away with that, he'd be doing it all again. Now, I couldn't beat him, but I thought, maybe I could out-black him.
CHIDEYA: "Everybody Hates Chris" just began its third season, but Williams is 15 years old and growing up fast. So, the show's been under the gun trying to knock out new episodes before their lead actor stops looking like little Chris Rock. Even with a hectic production schedule, the show's co-creator and executive producer, Ali LeRoi, found some time to talk when I visited the set at Paramount Studios in Hollywood.
You've been working with Chris for years and years and years. How did you learn the business side? I mean, because this is - I want to get to the creative side in a second, but this is coordination, this is business. You're on the lot. How do you, you know, how did you learn to do all this?
Mr. ALI LEROI (Executive Producer, "Everybody Hates Chris"): I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing. But a team of trained chimps come in everyday, after I'm gone.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: Mop up the boards, put up new things.
Mr. LEROI: You see, I speak English, the chimps don't. So…
CHIDEYA: So I'm assuming - I'll interpret that for you - this is a hard one experience. Did you do film school stuff?
Mr. LEROI: I did not go to film school. I pretty much learned everything that I know, you know, on the fly by osmosis or, you know, something along those lines.
CHIDEYA: So, let's get to the creative side. You guys have an incredible success on your hands and it's one of those shows that really takes the lens on adolescent, where you're just like, ow, oh, that's funny, ow - because you can just feel the pain. How did you come up with what you think is the winning formula?
Mr. LEROI: I don't know. You know, it's Chris' story, you know, to a certain degree, you know? We have taken some poetic license, but, you know, it's a simple family, so it's fairly universal. These people just happen to be black. This show even exists in the same era that "The Bill Cosby Show" of the '80s, you know, that great Bill Cosby Show - these people lived across town.
Mr. LEROI: You know? We had people that are doctors and lawyers represented on this show, and we have people who are bums and crack addicts, and all sorts of people in between. And those people, you know, have points of views about the other people who are inhabiting their space.
CHIDEYA: So, your lead star is growing up fast. What are you going to do, you know, reverse human growth hormone? How are you going to deal with the fact that actor's age and character's age, but not always at the same time?
Mr. LEROI: We had him start smoking last year…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEROI: …and that seems to be - that's slowing things down a bit. Well - no, I mean, but the funny thing about it is that people ask that question is interesting to me. Because television viewers are very accustomed to growing up with a family, you know, they're very accustomed to it. So, when I listen to people at networks or studios talk about, what are we going to do, the kid is growing up? I was, like, Rudy Huxtable grew up. You know, Raven grew up, you know? Malcolm grew up. They all grow up.
And the thing about it is, is that in the context of this show, this is - you know, it is a morality play and in some ways, you know, it is sort of a coming of age story. Because what this is about is how this young kid starts to become Chris Rock, the guy we know now, you know. I used to always tell the people at the network, I say, you know, the day this kid walks into a comedy club, the show's over. Because that's when he began his journey as the guy that we know. This show is about everything that led up to the point to make that decision to become to other guy…
Mr. LEROI: …you know?
CHIDEYA: Do you have a favorite episode you've written?
Mr. LEROI: That I've written? No.
CHIDEYA: They're all perfect, right?
Mr. LEROI: No, they're not all perfect, but just in terms of how I function in the series - and I was talking to a writer the other day, and I was just saying, you know, where someone may have written, you know, five or six episodes or possibly even more, I said, for me, I've worked on, at this point, 66, you know? I worked on them all. And so, at some point, for me, it's not a matter of a favorite episode that I wrote, you know. I got a sequence in this show that I like a lot and, you know, and another one came up particularly well, you know.
Yeah, you'll never know, you know, you'll never know what's going to be. And I have guys down on the floor pitching ideas sometimes. Not to take the place of writers, but even the crew they know the show well. They know the characters well. So there are situations when, you know, somebody would walk up to me, you know, shouldn't he be doing this, because he says this thing, or shouldn't he be doing that, or you know, have you thought that he could this - and, you know, they're all a part of this show for me. So, somebody got a good idea and they feel like, you know, I should hear it, you now, I'll listen to them. And if it sucks, I'll tell them it sucks and then they go back to hanging lights.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEROI: But if not, you know, but this is okay, though, you know?
CHIDEYA: Well, Ali, this is great.
Mr. LEROI: You're welcome.
Unidentified Man #1: Okay, cut. Good, bring them up. Now, we come up to normal lights.
Unidentified Woman #1: Cut.
CHIDEYA: So, we're here on set, during a break, with Terry Crews. Make a comparison for me between who you are and who you play. What's the same, what's the difference?
Mr. TERRY CREWS (Actor): You know, what's the same is that I'm married with children and I've been married 18 years with five kids. So I get the whole family thing. The difference, though, is that I am not cheap.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CREWS: The problem is I, basically, at the mall, you just follow the trail of 20's to me, it's like I just drop them all - money everywhere, whereas Julius is the cheapest man alive.
CHIDEYA: What drew you to this show, when you were first checking it out, auditioning, all that.
Mr. CREWS: What drew me to this was, first of all, it was Chris Rock, which was, you know, anyhow, the number one comedian in the world. Then, it looked like a movie. That was my big thing. And it has a lot more freedom, a lot more, you know, we can do the quick pops and make the joke even better, you can improve it. And it wasn't limited to just the stage. So, it felt good.
CHIDEYA: We were just talking to Ali about the process of writing the show. How do you interact with the writing, do you get to tweak things if you feel like it?
Mr. CREWS: Oh, yeah. I mean, you know, we get to do that all the time, we'll tell Ali. I mean, Ali will tell us, he'll say, Man, we write it, but you know, we don't have to say it. And Tichina and I and Tyler, we go into like, mmm, this doesn't sound right coming out of our mouth, whereas on a lot of other shows, you don't get to do that.
CHIDEYA: People all over the world get to se that work that you do. What does that make you feel?
Mr. CREWS: It feels good. I was in France about four months ago, and somebody comes up to me in the airport and they go, Chris, Chris, you're Chris and…
Mr. CREWS: …it's like, wow, you know? Now, that's the difference between it not - us not having a studio audience, as opposed to, you know, just doing it like this, because we work, we pump these things out. And then, I go another place, and all of a sudden, you know, you get the reaction later. It's some - for delayed reaction, you know what I mean? So, it's really - it's powerful. You realize how powerful television is, you realize how powerful this whole medium is. And people are like, you know, Julius, you're a good man. Oh, (unintelligible), you're a good man. You're like, hey.
CHIDEYA: Well, Terry, I hear it's a silence on the set moment. Thank you.
Mr. CREWS: You got it. Thank you.
Unidentified Man #1: Cut. End time. That's all we need, guys. That's really great. Thank you. That will give us little cutting pieces.
Unidentified Woman #1: Cut.
CHIDEYA: That's the bell and that's a wrap for our visit to the set of "Everybody Hates Chris."
(Soundbite of applause)
(Soundbite of music)
CHIDEYA: That's our show for today. And thank you for sharing your time with us. So listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org. No spaces, just nprnewsandnotes.org. To join the conversation or sign up for our newsletter, visit our blog at nprnewsandviews.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium. Tomorrow, we get a chance to talk the Zimbabwean ambassador about the nation's economic and political crisis.
I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.
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