So Chris Rock Is Your Big Brother? Try Comedy


When entertainment is a family business, there is often a grueling process to establish your own identity, and in doing so, to escape the shadow of the most famous sibling. Sometimes the skin is shed — see Solange, a creative force and Beyoncé’s sister. Sometimes viewers can’t get enough — see the three handsome Hemsworths. Sometimes the talent is all that matters — see Kate and Rooney Mara. And sometimes there’s no overcoming the top dog. Without looking, name all the Baldwin brothers besides Alec.

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Jordan Rock during a standup set.

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Carlos Gonzalez for The New York Times

Professionally, Tony and Jordan have kept a distance from Chris. They described a generational gulf as well as one created by his fame. When Tony started his standup career, Chris was already a celebrity in New York City. When Jordan started, Chris was a megastar. It was important to the younger brothers to create lanes for themselves. The Rock name was both a gift and a burden, but neither felt compelled to lean on Chris or resent his success. Both brothers said Chris never tried to take a heavy hand in their careers — and, indeed, gave them space to succeed or struggle on their own. (Chris Rock did not respond to multiple interview requests for this article.)

Chris, of course, is in the conversation for being one of the greatest comedians of his time and is in the midst of his first stand-up tour in nine years. His specials have influenced generations of comics. Many can still quote the memorable routine from his 1996 HBO special, “Bring the Pain,” about what he called the two types of African-Americans. The joke cannot be published here.

“That was just a common conversation we would have in the house,” Tony said, speaking with a feverish excitement that brought Chris to mind, during one of several recent conversations. “And it turned into this gigantic bit.”

Tony is an established stand-up comic in his own right. Last fall, he hosted “All Def Comedy” on HBO, a remake of “Def Comedy Jam,” produced by Russell Simmons. Tony appeared in its 2006 iteration as well. He just taped a pilot for CBS called “Living Biblically” and is constantly on the road playing comedy clubs. Tony also recently hosted “The Game of Dating” for TV One.

He struggled initially to set himself apart from Chris. When he first started performing, he was introduced as Chris’s younger brother, raising expectations for him and simultaneously pigeonholing him. “The Tony Rock Project,” a sketch show that debuted in 2008 on MyNetworkTV, a Fox-owned network, lasted one season. The Washington Post blasted it, saying, “Chris got the funny genes — making Tony the Dom DiMaggio or Ashlee Simpson, perhaps even the Jim Belushi, of the Rock family.”

“Keep in mind, he’s arguably the best comic in the country,” Tony said, referring to Chris, about his reactions to these comparisons. “It’s going to be a minute before they go, ‘Oh, he’s entirely Tony Rock.’”

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Jordan Rock, right, in Netflix’s “Love.”

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Suzanne Hanver/Netflix

But it’s different now.

“Every time I go onstage, it’s a little less ‘Chris Rock’s brother,’” Tony said.

Jordan is still a relative unknown. Softer spoken than his brothers and with a sly smile, Jordan has one major onscreen credit, a recurring role on the Netflix show “Love.” Standing on a sidewalk outside, Jordan and Tony discussed whether this was the big break for Jordan’s career after a day of shooting for the third season of “Love.”

“Everything is a big break,” Tony said to Jordan. Referring to a club in New York City, he continued: “When you first got into the Comic Strip, that was a big break.”

“No, it’s all equal,” Jordan said.

“At that level, getting into the Comic Strip is doing Vegas,” Tony said. “When you get to a higher level, something else will take its place.”

Jordan was fascinated by comedy as a teenager. Sherrod Small, a comedian in New York City and a cousin of the Rocks, said that Jordan would sit for hours in the basement of Chris’s New Jersey home, looking through old tapes with them to help Chris prepare for another special.

“There is no reason that a young kid would want to hang around this nonsense,” Mr. Small said. “Once I saw that, I called Tony at midnight and said, ‘Jordan is going to be a comedian, too.’”

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Tony Rock followed his brother, Chris, in standup.

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Carlos Gonzalez for The New York Times

Jordan grew up in Georgetown, S.C., after Rose Rock moved there with the younger siblings, and then headed to the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn by himself when he was 18, where his older brothers grew up, to pursue comedy. He didn’t finish high school.

Tony let Jordan open for him at spots around New York, including at the Gotham Comedy Club, one of the city’s biggest venues. No matter how hard Jordan pushed, however, Tony initially resisted taking him on the road. Jordan was green. Tony offered pointers such as not holding the mic stand or leaning while performing.

“The road is a different animal,” Tony said. “I wanted to see him put the work in and take his lumps.”

Finally, two years ago, the weekend before Christmas, Tony allowed Jordan to travel with him to Virginia Beach. “I murdered Virginia Beach,” Jordan said, “and then Tony took me on the road after that.”

Years ago, Tony promised his mother that he would always look out for Jordan, the youngest in a sprawling family.

“Tony has always just had a soft spot for Jordan,” Ms. Rock said in an interview. “Maybe because he’s the baby. Tony always said to me, ‘Mommy, don’t worry about Jordan.’”

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Tony, left, in UPN’s “Everybody Hates Chris,” which ran for four seasons starting in 2005.

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CW

But with Chris, Tony had a different approach. “When I was growing up with Chris, I was the little brother that was kind of annoying,” Tony said. “‘Can I come?’ ‘Get out of here.’ ‘Can I play?’ ‘Get out of here.’ So that’s our relationship. I just do my own thing. I leave him alone.”

Jordan said his relationship with Chris was “partially the same.”

“It gets better as I get older,” Jordan said. Turning toward Tony, Jordan said, “Problems that I had in the beginning, I would just come to you with because I felt like his problems are up here,” as he pointed upward.

There are also stark personality differences. Tony and Jordan are expressive and gregarious, both with each other and strangers off the stage. Chris, according to their brother Kenny Rock, is the opposite.

“Chris has a different, high-caliber circle of people around him, and he’s very socially awkward,” Kenny said. He just turned 34 and is the sixth of the eight siblings. “When you’re around him outside of work, you’re not going to get many words out of him at all. He’s very introverted.”

Jordan said that he consults Chris on business matters more now, including a recent contract issue that he declined to discuss in detail. Chris’s advice, he said, was “get to work.”

Tony said he never had a conversation with Chris about pursuing stand-up. There are no Rock brother writing sessions. They aren’t giving one another notes. Any mentorship that is passed down seeps through like osmosis. The three have never performed together, although Tony and Jordan have both individually appeared with Chris.

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Tony Rock, left, and Jordan Rock, brothers of the comedian Chris Rock, outside Los Globos, a club in Los Angeles.

Credit
Carlos Gonzalez for The New York Times

“It’s not like a sit-down, ‘Let me talk to you,’ type thing,” Tony said. “You see what it is. You see what I’m doing. You see me working. You see me trying jokes. You see me writing every day. I lead by example.”

“I’ve never sought the advice,” Jordan said.

One place that Tony and Chris crossed paths: “Everybody Hates Chris,” a sitcom that Chris cocreated. It ran for four seasons starting in 2005 on UPN and was loosely based on his own upbringing. Tony had a recurring role as Uncle Ryan, based on their actual uncle.

All three are very different comedians. Chris’s comedy, according to Tony, is “political, cutting edge and pushes the envelope.” In describing his own, Tony said, “I talk to the audience like I talk to my friends on the stoop.”

Indeed, his set at Los Globos was more observational. He discussed moving to Silver Lake and Jordan’s teaching him new dance moves. He aired his grievances with rap music.

“I hate when rappers do interviews,” Tony told the crowd. “They say stuff like, ‘If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be dead or in jail.’ Like damn, those are the only two options? What about managing Kinkos?”

Jordan is the millennial Rock brother, as well as “hipster, cool kid, skateboard and wise beyond his years,” according to Tony. Paul Page, a D.J. and friend of both Tony and Jordan said, “It’s definitely two walks of life.” Mr. Page worked with Tony on “All Def Comedy.” Mr. Page said, “Jordan is talking about stuff like apps and social media, very relevant in Generation X. Tony comes from — I don’t want to say an old-school comedy — but he mixes the best of both.”

Onstage, Jordan compared President Trump to Lord Voldemort from the “Harry Potter” world, saying that his liberal friends didn’t like Mr. Trump’s name being uttered. He compared Tinder to Pokemon Go.

“It’s actually the same exact app,” Jordan said. “You just open it up wherever you are, and you swipe until you get one.”

Shortly after his set, Tony went home. He had an early morning. Jordan stayed for the rest of the show. He wanted to take it in. He wanted to grow. But he saw his brother again soon. Two days later, Tony took Jordan across the country to open for him in Philadelphia. After all, as Tony said, Jordan is his favorite comedian. High praise when you’re in a family that includes Chris Rock.

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