I had to mention that he was Chris Rock’s brother. I would’ve felt weird if I didn’t.
But Chris Rock is not Tony Rock’s mentor. In fact, they rarely talk about stand up together.
Tony always wanted to be a comedian. From the moment he listened to Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Bill Cosby, he was inspired. But he didn’t know them.
When his brother started doing stand up, it changed everything for him.
“The guy in the next room is doing it. Now it’s real,” Tony said.Because those other guys (the ones Tony grew up admiring) were just ideas to him.
He was inspired by Chris. And because of him, he became immersed in the comedy scene.
“I was a fly on the wall,” he said. “And I learned everyone has their own slant on this thing.”
Now, 24 years later Tony’s made this “idea” of comedy into a reality. And a career. So I wanted to know his process. And figure out how anyone can take these same techniques and apply it to their own project or side hustle. This is how you take your idea from the drawing board and put it in action, RIGHT NOW.
Here are 11 lessons I learned from Tony Rock:
1. Build Up The Habit (Through Repetition)
Tony gets asked for a lot of advice. And he always gives it. Happily.
“Every young comic that asks me advice, my number one answer is write everyday. Just get in the habit of writing everyday,” he said.
And this is true for every skill or any project you want to start. The first thing is showing up. Show up everyday and you’ll have a habit.
“You might look at it later on and go, ‘This is garbage,’ but you’re in the habit of doing this action everyday. Once you get in action of doing it. Then you’re going to do it without even thinking about it. It’s going to be second nature. Do it everyday.”
After Tony writes, he takes his ideas or jokes straight to his friends.
“We try and pass ideas around. We pan for gold. We try to see if it’s a nugget,” he said.
“Now we have a nugget, now we have something to work with. And then we just try to build off of that little nugget and we try and make it this big piece that’s going to change the world,” Tony said.
3. Immediately Take it to the Stage / Take Action
Not everyone has a stage. But you do have some action step you want to take.
Tony told me a joke he’s working on. It’s about women.
“Women love to get dressed up. But you know what women love more than getting dressed up? Taking their clothes off. Not in a sexual sense. They just like to go to work dressed up and then first thing a girl does when she comes home is kicks her shoes off and takes her jacket off. They just want to get comfortable and wear sweatpants and socks. They want to look bummy in the house.”
Tony passes this idea around with his friends. That’s step one.
Step 2: He gets out of his head. And into action.
“I’ll take that piece and go on stage because I need to hear it around the room. Sometimes I’ll write a joke and go to the comedy club that night and tell it just because I need to hear it in the setting. Because that’s is where it lives.”
“In my house I might think, ‘Yeah this is really funny,’ but if it doesn’t live in a comedy club then it doesn’t work,” Tony said.
4. Get Feedback
He told me he’d read the joke right off the napkin. He wants to hear the reactions, the cackles, the silence, to give him feedback.
“When you’re on stage 9 times out of 10 the audience, they’re guinea pigs,” Tony said. He uses the audience to get the joke where it needs to be for bigger shows, for the cameras.
5. When You’re Asked to the Big Leagues…
Tony has the opposite problem of most people. He was promoted too soon. And scared.
One day, (after working in comedy 5 years or something), Tony was pulled off the “featured act” and moved up to headlining.
It’s kind of a long story… after he “passed” all the clubs in NYC, he moves on to the Tri-state area. He was just featuring, but people wanted his autograph, too, because he was Chris Rock’s brother. So basically, the club promoters were like, ‘Oh! We can take him to a headliner and bill it as “Chris Rock’s Brother”’. That’s the short of it.
“I will be 100% honest with you, at the time I did not have the material,” he said. “But you can’t get called up to the major leagues in baseball and say, ‘No no no. I can’t hit the curveball, yet. I’ll just stay here a little while longer and then I’ll tell you when I’m ready to go up there’. You gotta go when they say you gotta go.”
He made it work. He started his sets with half written material and half crowdwork. And it worked for him. It forced him to find something to make funny in the room on the spot. He worked the muscle. “Now I can make anything funny at anytime in the room,” he said.
“I’d come home to the city and go on stage at The Strip. I had a 15 minute set. And I would try to do my whole set without telling one written joke,” Tony said.
He’s done it for so many years that anything can happen in the room and Tony will be able to make it funny in a second. He had to.
“When your back’s against the wall, it changes everything,” he said.
6. Use Your Own Perspective
So many comedians are focused on the premise/punchline set-up, instead of having a perspective and then letting jokes come out of that. I’ve noticed that the most famous comedians, like Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle, are known for their perspectives. This is how they gained such a big fan base. When something happens in the news, people are going to wonder,”What will Dave Chappelle think about this?”.
People anticipate what they’re going to say on certain things as opposed to the guy who’s just funny. You’ve seen him once, you don’t need to see him again.
“There’s no food for my brain. It doesn’t feed my soul,” Tony said.
“The best comedy specials are not one hour of comedy. They’re 40 minutes of comedy and 15 minutes of, ‘Okay, now that I have your attention, I have to say this. I have to deliver this message while I have this platform,’” Tony said.
And this becoming more and more relevant as our “selves” become commodities in the world. We have reputations that precede us with social media. So perspective is more important that entertainment. Now more than ever.
7. Be Observant (that’s how you gain perspective)
When Tony’s on the road, he pays attention. He tries to get a joke from the town he’s travelling in. That’s how he’ll open the show. I asked for an example. So he told me this:
“I was in Baltimore one night. And there was a guy that robbed a gas station and stole all the scratch off tickets. He got away. Then, 3 hours later a guy walks in with a winning scratch off ticket. It was the same guy.”
So he opened with THAT joke.
He paid attention. And then took it a step further. He added perspective. Because he trusts his own lens. That’s hard to do. Insecurity is a killer of opinion.
8. Find The Human Spirit
I wanted to know the difference between humor and stand up. Because I believe they’re very different. And Tony does too.
Humor can be seeing someone slip and fall on ice. ”That’s humor, it tickles your funny bone,”he said.
But stand up is something else. “Stand up is public speaking, news reporting, it’s thought provoking, it’s heartfelt, it’s reflection,” Tony said, “It’s the human spirit.”
We changed the subject really quickly. Because I felt the speed of learning was faster than the clock. I had more questions. So it’s hard to pull more meaning out of it, when he said, “it’s the human spirit.” But I think it’s a feeling. You know it when it’s missing. And you know when it’s with you.
The only solution I have for myself… is to laugh more. And feel it in my bones.
9. Embrace Your Uniqueness
Tony has 7 brothers and 2 sisters. His grandfather was a preacher. No one else has that kind of story.
“Your uniqueness sets you apart,” Tony said.
And this applies to everyone. Even me. We started talking about how I gave away all my possessions and lived out of Airbnbs. He was shocked. Because I’ve never talked about it in my stand up.
But I never thought about it. I guess because I felt like people wouldn’t understand or be able to relate.
“You’re judging your audience,” Tony said.
He’s right. But I also learned that I’m judging myself…
We all have different quirks to our lives. I’m going to start embracing mine.
10. Stay Relatable to Your Audience
Tony’s getting more and more successful. Which means it could get harder to relate to the audience. Because he’s growing, and writing new material. But will they still like him?
This can be a struggle for anyone, really. A boss talking to a new hire. A dad talking to a son. Different ages, experiences, cultures, classes, genders… we’re as good as connecting as we are bad at it.
So I wanted to know how Tony talks to people. Even as he grows. This is what he told me:
“I’m still the guy from Brooklyn that didn’t have anything growing up. So I think there’s a level of honesty and a level of realness when I’m talking in the room,.I’m talking for us,” he said. “I’m not talking down to you. I’m talking to you like I’m from there, too.”
Remember your roots. That’s how you relate. He taught me that you have to be a combination of where you came from and where you are, but not necessarily “where you’re going.” Because that’s unknown.
11. One Love Opens Many Doors
I started with a blog. Actually, I started with wanting to kill myself. But then I wrote a blog. I wrote everyday. People read it. I was invited to write on other sites. Then I started interviewing people. I put it online. It’s called “a podcast.” (Maybe you’ve heard of it.)
Then I got invited to speak at Google, Airbnb Open, and at colleges, conferences. I wrote books. I’ve written 10 bad books and 5 good books (or something else. I’ve lost count).
Tony does a lot, too. But it all started from one thing. I started with writing. He started with standup. And that one love is what opens all the other doors.
I feel like more and more people want to be discovered. No one wants to apply to a job. No one wants a resume. We want a bio.
“Stand up is the reason everything else is possible. 90% of all the good things that have happened to me in my career happened because somebody saw me doing standup,” Tony said.
Now he’s on CBS’ “Living Biblically,” BET’s “Black Card Revoked”, “Apollo Live” and “NBA – The Warm Up”.
He got on Will Smith’s show “All of Us” because somebody saw him on stage doing comedy.
Start with one thing. Set a target. Do that thing. Because if you find what you love, good opportunities will follow.
Links and Resources
- Watch Tony on CBS’ newest comedy, Living Biblically, based on AJ Jacobs book, “The Year of Living Biblically”
- Watch Tony on BET’s Shows Black Card Revoked + Apollo Live
- Watch Tony on NBA – The WarmUp Live on Twitter or on nbatv.com
- Follow Tony on Twitter + Facebook
- Ep. 293 – AJ Jacobs: Why We Experiment (And Why You Should Also)
- Inside the NBA
- Patrice O’Neal: Elephant In the Room
- Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip
- Chris Rock: Tamborine
- Dave Chappelle: Equanimity & The Bird Revelation
- The Kevin Nealon Show at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood
- Jay-Z Album – 4:44
- Louis CK: Live at the Beacon Theater
- All of Us