With his helium falsetto and excitable speech patterns, stand-up comedy legend Chris Rock has a voice made for cartoons.
He has played a hamster in “Dr. Doolittle,” a white blood cell in “Osmosis Jones,” a mosquito in “Bee Movie,” a stand-up comedian on TV's “King of the Hill,” the “Lil Penny” Hardaway puppet in Nike television commercials and Marty the zebra in the “Madagascar” movies.
Why does he choose to be in so many animated projects?
“They call me!” he exclaimed in a phone call to publicize “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” which opened Friday. “I turn down a lot. I guess that would be hard to believe. I like to work with good people. Seinfeld calls, what are you going to do? If you're in the comedy business, you give it a go. You get a chance to work with (‘Madagascar' co-star) Ben Stiller, you know, these guys are comedy. You just gotta go for it. I get less calls for live action.”
Whatever guise he takes, Rock makes no apologies that all his cartoon characters sound alike.
“That's the thing about being a comedian. People hire you to be you,” he said. “People hire Daniel Day-Lewis to sound like somebody else. They hire me to be me. And they'd be very upset if I didn't sound exactly like Marty the zebra.”
Rock's daughters Lola, 6, and Zahra, 4, liked “Bee Movie” a lot, he said, but the “Madagascar” films are “definitely their favorite of the things I've done that they can watch.”
Marty's catchphrase “crack-a-lacka” – an all-purpose exclamation for enthusiasm – has caught on with young audiences in a big way.
“My youngest likes to brag that her dad is the zebra in ‘Madagascar,' so I literally have to say it at every birthday party, any kind of play date.”
In 2003, Rock ran for president in the comedy “Head of State,” which argued that all America needed to solve its problems was a tough-loving, smart-talking hipster in the Oval Office. His campaign slogan, “That ain't right,” summed up the film's iconoclastic view of Washington.
“What kinda drug policy,” asked Rock's character, “makes crack cheaper than asthma medicine?”
Rock's character ended up winning the election and the presidency. Now, with political life echoing art, Rock is cautious about predicting a major shift in the nation's racial dynamics and social policies. Four years ago, Rock told Rolling Stone, “In my lifetime, whoever's president, Harlem is Harlem and Compton is Compton.”
He doesn't expect that to change with Barack Obama in office.
With the huge range of challenges facing the Obama administration, Rock said, if he were to organize a Comic Relief benefit for America, he'd direct it against the issue of debt.
“Debt's the big one. Credit is the devil, my friend. You dance with the devil, you're gonna get in trouble.”
Despite the economic uncertainty roiling global markets, Rock said it's a fine time to be a comedian.
“It's always a good time to be a comedian. There's no bad time to be a comedian. I've been a comedian for over 20 years. I can't tell you when it was a dry season.”