Inside the numbers: Rock

Posted: Mar 01, 2005 12:00 AM

Polling has consistently shown that the American public as a whole believes Hollywood is out of step with mainstream views in this country. That belief was borne out Sunday night by comedian Chris Rock, the emcee for the Academy Awards.

 I sometimes find Rock to be entertaining. I'm probably one of the few people who found his unusual film Pootie Tang to be funny. That almost certainly proves to the entire world -- and perhaps to Rock -- that I'm possibly out of my mind.

 But it was the funnyman himself who was off his rocker on Oscar night. His political diatribe against President Bush during the opening monologue was plenty predictable and for the most part unfunny. Many TV viewers probably noticed that most of the live audience in the Kodak Theater apparently shared his views. Even so, the politicism of Rock's Bush-bashing reduced the laughter to a series of self-conscious giggles. It all but destroyed Rock's cadence and his connection with the crowd.

 It's not so much that Rock's comments didn't make a certain oblique sense. The world political stage certainly unfolded in ways unexpected to many people when the president won re-election in spite of his many problems, including Iraq and the national debt. But Rock's political punches were both trite and inappropriate for this night, which is supposed to belong to people of all stripes, political and otherwise.

 I found myself anticipating an appearance by some Native American political activist -- or whoever it was that accepted Marlon Brando's Best Actor award for The Godfather back in 1972 -- this time holding up a "Kerry Wuz Robbed!" sign.

 So here's a key message to all the smart folks in Hollywood. In between producing about three good movies a year, to go along with the endless succession of remakes and blood-and-guts rubbish, they apparently haven't realized that their nation rejected their political views last November.

 I could only imagine television sets in the often-demeaned "red states" switching from the Academy Awards to a TV Land rerun once Rock turned to politics. Like me, they could quickly see that a night of attacks on only one side of the political divide would prove this to be another typical Hollywood self-love fest.

 Interestingly, the cameo comic monologue by Robin Williams blew Rock out of the water. Williams apparently shares most of Rock's political beliefs, but at least he was funny. Williams followed in the edgy tradition of prior Academy Awards emcees like Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal. They've all taken their jabs at conservative politicians, but with a sense of balance and with their funny bones in working order. 

 Why does any of this matter? It probably won't to Rock, who will remain entertaining and successful as the Oscars fanfare subsides. The point is less about Rock as an individual and more about the industry he represents.

 In my handful of encounters with the film and entertainment industries several years ago, it was confided to me more than once by trusted friends and associates never to reveal that I was a Republican.

 Those friends were right. From studios in California to newsrooms across the nation, there remains in place an overwhelming, if usually unspoken, article of faith that anyone Republican is unworthy and probably untalented.

 Sure, the occasional Ben Stein is allowed to utter a few lines of pro-business sentiment during a comedy skit. Or someone of conservative-lite credentials may sometimes rise to the top, as Clint Eastwood did when he became mayor of Carmel, Calif.

 When I made past appearances on TV "entertainment" shows, such as Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect," it seemed customary for staff and fellow guests to warm up to me only when I mentioned that I was in the Republican minority because I liked Bill Clinton. That usually served to transform me in their eyes from a Newt Gingrich troglodyte to a reasonable, likeable fellow. (Host Maher was himself an exception to this rule; he balanced his own political views with those who felt differently.)

 Unfortunately, Chris Rock isn't Bill Maher. At the Oscars, Rock stumbled out of the gate as an amateur entry in a field of political-humor pros. And he turned off many viewers who were only looking for a little Sunday night distraction before facing the real world again on Monday morning.

 Despite the awards show, my family and I still don't regret being part of the handful of people who spent Thanksgiving Day 2001 viewing (and for the most part comprehending) Pootie Tang at the local cinema. If only I had comprehended Rock's comic strategy this time around.