Chris Rock stalked onto the stage at Harlem's Apollo Theater late on a Friday night earlier this month and opened his fifth HBO comedy special by explaining why it had been so long since the fourth. He wanted to wait, he told the audience, until the moment was just right. Rock has become the country's smartest, most essential comic by salting his punch lines with blunt social evangelism. And in a prior special, 1999's "Bigger and Blacker," he went on a riff about how the black community desperately needed a new generation of leaders, like Dr. Martin Luther King in his day—a not-uncontroversial stance, given that many of the old leaders were still very much alive. Now here was Rock, less than two months from a historic election, in the cathedral of African-American culture, arriving like a prophet to testify about Barack Obama. Everyone leaned forward: this is what we came for. To laugh, sure, but mostly to hear Rock on Barack. (HBO will air the special, "Kill the Messenger," on Sept. 27.)
Rock cut straight to the chase, opening his set with 10 solid minutes of material about the election. But he stuck mostly to low-hanging fruit, cracking some easy jokes about Obama's funny name and McCain's advanced age. They were good jokes, at least, like his bit about how he'd never in his life met another Barack or another Obama, and his dig about McCain picking his nurse to be his running mate. But Rock wasn't his usual provocative, penetrating self. He was plenty funny, but he wasn't dangerous.
Black comics often struggle with their conscience when it comes to joking about black icons, especially when white folks are within earshot. Just ask Dave Chappelle, who never shook the fear that his white fans were laughing at black people, rather than with them, and it caused him to walk away from his TV series at the peak of its popularity. Now that Rock's hoped-for moment of cultural breakthrough had unexpectedly arrived, perhaps the 43-year-old comic—who loves race-baiting his audience with a yelping, defiant "Yeah, I said it!"—was uneasy telling us all what he really, truly thought about Obama and this transfixing campaign.
Rock had other equally squishy reasons to pull his punches. Stand-up comedy is an amoral art. Either you make people laugh or you don't. And if no one's offended, chances are no one's laughing. "Yeah, I said it!" But in the 2008 election cycle, comedians have become pawns in the faux-outrage game, their jokes parsed in the service of identity politics. Al Franken's run for the U.S. Senate was nearly capsized this summer by a gag about rape that he floated during a brainstorming session for "Saturday Night Live" in 1995. Poor Bernie Mac, who died in August, made one final headline a month earlier when the Obama campaign was forced to apologize for bawdy jokes Mac told onstage at a fund-raiser—in other words, for doing his job. And this month, John McCain adviser Carly Fiorina called Tina Fey "sexist" and "disrespectful" for her Sarah Palin spoof on "SNL"—even though it was Fey, coming to Hillary Clinton's defense, who sparked a debate about sexism during the primaries. If Rock got too raw, would Obama have to apologize for him next?
When Rock did venture into taboo territory, raising the specter of a rigged election—"Sometimes [Obama] acts like he thinks he's gonna win fair and square"—it felt reflexive. His paranoia came off as a habit he was laboring to kick. Tellingly, Rock was at his most lively and inventive during a riff about the day after an Obama victory, as if the most dangerous, most taboo place he could go was believing in an America where the black guy wins. Yeah, he said it.