ATLANTA - Actor and comedian Chris Rock has been called the funniest man in the US.
Known for his shouting stand-up routines, which often rise to shrill screams, Rock has often cut a controversial figure, unleashing his lacerating wit on subjects ranging from race and politics to sex and relationships.
He punctuates those bits with a steady stream of profanities, and uses the n-word in ways that have elicited such discomfort that one writer once called Rock "reactionary".
But his tone has mellowed a bit recently with projects such as the sweetly acerbic family sitcom Everybody Hates Chris. And O, the Oprah Magazine,named Rock one of the 12 most authentic people of our time.
On The Oprah Winfrey Show a few weeks ago, with his wife of 10 years, Malaak, and their two daughters, Lola and Zahra, Rock revealed another kinder, gentler side: the devoted husband and doting father.
Not coincidentally, perhaps, in his new film - I Think I Love My Wife, directed and co-written by Rock - he plays a New York City investment banker with a beautiful wife and two kids who has grown bored with his predictable life and suddenly becomes tempted by an alluring old friend.
While in Atlanta recently to pump the film, Rock - dressed in a stylish wool sports jacket, slim slacks and Nike shoes - picked through the remains of a plate of white chocolate cookies at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Except for brief bursts of his hyped-up stage persona, he is a surprisingly serious conversationalist, who sometimes treats a question as an opportunity for a question of his own.
"Are you married?" Rock wonders at one point. "Do you have kids?"
He doesn't miss a beat when the answer comes back: Not any more, and no kids.
"Then you weren't married," Rock declares, clasping his hands together and flashing a sly smile to deliver the punch line: "You had a government girlfriend."
It's pretty clear that Rock has some strong feelings about marriage, especially as an institution for raising children.
"There are worse reasons to be married," he says. "People go, 'Are you gonna just stay for the kids?' Well, it's better than staying for the crack - for the cocaine."
The matter is topical not only in terms of his movie, but his life. Tabloids have recently reported that his relationship with wife, Malaak, is in trouble. Rock has denied the rumours, which he believes were started because he jokes in his stand-up act about being bored with marriage.
And the comedian and his wife even went so far as to issue a public statement, saying that they remain "very happy and committed to our marriage".
I Think I Love My Wife is based on the classic 1972 French film, Chloe in the Afternoon, by Eric Rohmer. Rock says he found the DVD in Tower Records one day when he was "going through a foreign movie phase". Soon after, he asked his writing partner, comedian and actor Louis CK, to take a look.
"Not only did we both like the movie," Rock says, "we both thought it could be kind of funny. All the situations were there - not just for a great relationship movie, but for a comedy, too."
Of course, Rock and CK changed the setting from Paris to Manhattan, and added their own brand of twisted contemporary humour. And Rock cast soulful Gina Torres as his wife and sexy Kerry Washington as his love interest.
Though Rock says he was going for a funny version of a racy Adrian Lyne (Unfaithful) film, I Think I Love My Wife is also something of a homage to Woody Allen.
Here's some more of what Rock had to say:
l On his previous movies: "I guess it's hard to believe that the team that didPootie Tang did I Think I Love My Wife. I might have made a mistake in the past, trying to fit in - in the movies anyway. Maybe I was trying to make mainstream comedies. I'm proud of those movies; they're fine. And, in some ways, this movie is more mainstream."
l On his family man role in I Think I Love My Wife: "It's so right down my alley. But no one was ever going to cast me in anything like this. Maybe when I'm 50, someone will think I'm 30. But I never get any scripts where I'm a grown man."
l On the jokes in I Think I Love My Wife: "This movie is the closest thing to my stand-up. When people talk about me, they always focus on the political stuff. I'm on stage an hour and 30 minutes, politics is probably 20 minutes. Most of the show is about relationships. And relationships is what sells the seats."
l On the current state of comedy: "I saw Jackass and I thought it was sophomoric, but I thought it was funny. But here's what I said: 'One of these days, a smart guy is going to do this and it's going to go through the roof'. And that's Borat. Sacha [Baron Cohen] is a genius, man, and he's really out there. Will Ferrell is great, and [Steve] Carell, and [Adam] Sandler and [Ben] Stiller. Everybody is just doing their thing."
lBob Townsend writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution