Chris Rock Opens Up About Life After Receiving a Startling Diagnosis
| LAST UPDATE 03/07/2023
He may be considered one of the world's funniest comedians, but all his life, Rock struggled with inner demons that translated into adulthood. And at age 55, he finally sat down to set the story straight...
Going for the Joke
Known as one of Hollywood's favorite funny guys, Chris Rock is one of those comedians that aren't afraid to push the envelope. He has no boundaries when it comes to race, gender, ethnicity, and so forth.
And maybe, if he had been diagnosed earlier on in his life, he would have incorporated his health status into his material. Regardless, Rock is known to integrate his upbringing, past experiences, and current affairs into his comedy -and well, it makes for a great show.
Hardships to Comedy
Despite a challenging upbringing, Rock eventually found a way to use these experiences to his benefit. His life may not always have been the easiest or most simple, but his motivation and drive to become a comedian stood near and dear to him growing up.
At the end of the day, he may be one of the funniest people on the planet, but he's also a human being. So when he was given his unexpected diagnosis later on in his life, Rock began to re-evaluate certain life events and experiences that have molded his character today...
Back in the day, Rock was just your average kid born in Andrews, South Carolina. However, it was when his family moved to Brooklyn, New York, at a young age, especially Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, that would eventually change his life. New York really can do that to someone, after all.
Son to Rose and Julius, the future comedian grew up with 7 brothers and sisters in addition to multiple foster children throughout his childhood. Despite their tough financial status, Rock's mother was dedicated to helping unprivileged kids over the years, which may have also meant Chris' condition was not as noticed.
Regardless, Rose and Julius were dedicated to their son and his overall happiness. His parents enrolled him at Stuyvesant High School, a public college prep school that's home to some prestigious alumni. Rock's parents were determined to give him the best education they could.
He was clearly a smart kid with big dreams, but there was something that was missing for him. He wanted to achieve, but a roadblock made it almost impossible to continue. Could this have been an early sign that something else was going on? His parents had to take action.
Bullies & Battles
His parents worried for their son and saw how badly he was being bullied, so they eventually pulled him out of high school. It was later revealed in an interview with Ebony magazine in 1999 that Rock felt like his time in school felt like being in "Vietnam."
Regardless, Rock went on to earn his GED. The comedian admitted he could never invest himself in his schoolwork because he was always on the lookout for the next ambush. "Your friends walk over you, your female relationships - everybody just f***s you over," his therapist later told him.
Rock's parents knew what the best decision was for their child at the time, and in retrospect, it sure was! Despite his troubled high school experiences, Chris went on to use these experiences in his future comedic ventures. And believe it or not, he was not the class clown back in the day.
However, that didn't stop him from being a top comedian later in life! As a kid, he would stay up late to watch The Tonight Show, mainly to watch a particular idol of his - Bill Cosby. "He'd do his monologue, and he'd… smoke when he did it… He used to smoke a cigar… He was so cool. He was a mack daddy back then," Rock recalled.
Despite his difficult teenage years, it was comedy that kept him rolling. There was something in his heart and soul that knew he was destined to get up on that stage and make people laugh. So, he knew he was going to do anything he needed to in order to get there.
He began working jobs at McDonald's and Red Lobster in order to pay the bills, but there was something else on his mind he was ready to pursue. Rock simultaneously took on gigs at New York comedy clubs, but success would take some time. The comedian pocketed just $5 for his first act!
Thank You, Eddie Murphy
However, he had one particular comedian to greatly thank, and that was none other than the comedic legend Eddie Murphy. "When I was young, I didn't think comedy was a job," recalled Rock "...Then I saw Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live, and it changed everything." But Murphy was just as taken back.
Murphy was at the peak of his career when he spotted Rock performing on stage, and he immediately knew the gem he had found. From that moment, he helped Rock get his career moving, becoming his mentor. And in 1987, Murphy helped Rock land a role on HBO's Uptown Comedy Express. He then worked alongside Murphy in his break-out film, Beverly Hills Cop II.
And everything he had done had led up to this moment: joining the elite cast of Saturday Night Live. SNL is every comedian's dream, and for Rock, he had finally made it. Rock was inaugurated into the hilarious SNL cast of 1990, and there were few friendly faces beside him.
That same year, new cast members Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, David Spade, and Chris Farley all joined the show - and immediately they were known as the Bad Boys of SNL. However, a horrible tragedy was around the corner that made the comedian almost ditch comedy forever.
When Tragedy Strikes
"The only time I ever wanted to give [comedy] up was when my dad died, and I didn't have any money. I wasn't making enough money as a stand-up to help my family," he told Ebony years later. However, he knew that his new role on SNL was going to open doors for him - and it sure did (eventually).
Although the sketch show wasn't the ultimate career-defining break Rock originally imagined, it paved the way for his future. During his time on SNL, he primarily was featured as the only token Black character on the show while his castmates were furthering their comedic careers.
With the tragedy of his dad's passing, Rock was truly questioning his career moves. And after 3 seasons on Saturday Night Live, he left the show for another popular sketch show - In Living Color. However, after just 6 episodes on the series as a special guest, the show was canceled.
After the show got the boot, Rock was back on his own, trying to figure out what was next. He knew he had it in him to be a comedic star; he saw the way people reacted to his characters on SNL and In Living Color, but moving forward required a whole lot of risk-taking...
Finding His Groove
He had big dreams of being a comedian and making people laugh, but Rock needed to take charge and do anything he could to get to the top - and that's exactly what he did. He went on to create and star in the hip-hop comedy CB4, which ended up being a major hit.
It was after the release of the hilarious pastiche that his career began to skyrocket, and he signed on as a client for 3 Arts Entertainment. From there, the star headlined his first HBO comedy special that turned into a series, which evidently brought an entirely new audience to his platform. He was finally being seen.
Rock ended up taking home two Emmys for HBO specials, and that was just the start! Although he was unaware of his diagnosis at the time, it clearly didn't interfere with his success. He was just continuing to make it as a Hollywood comedian and climb to the top.
However, he often found himself stuck in the middle of a whole lotta controversy. The thing about Chris Rock was that he was never afraid to speak his mind and discuss touchy topics - from issues of race in America to gender equality and everything in between.
A Perfect Combination
Before standing on some of the world's biggest stages, Rock spent hours and hours perfecting his skill in his Brooklyn basement. Later in his career, he revealed he covered the room with mirrors so he could see himself from every angle to truly see himself.
Despite all that confidence we saw on stage, Rock still felt some insecurities deep down. "I had this great combination of big ego and low self-esteem. And the ego gets you out on stage, but the low self-esteem is the thing that makes you practice so much because you don't believe in yourself at all," he told The Hollywood Reporter.
Regardless, Rock was fighting these insecurities, getting up on stage, making people laugh, and acting like a natural performer. Eventually, all his talents led him to his very own TV show, The Chris Rock Show, on HBO. The show gained great critical acclaim, leading him to a few more Emmys!
After his talk show aired in the late '90s, there was no one who didn't know who Chris Rock was. Whatever feelings he was fighting deep down only came out on the show as pure confidence and comedy. His career continued to skyrocket, seeing him act in more and more outstanding roles. For now...
Hosting the Oscars
After being dubbed as "the funniest man in America" by Time magazine and Entertainment Weekly, it was clear that Rock was the entertainer of the moment. There was nothing he couldn't do, no audience he couldn't make laugh, so naturally, he was tasked with one of the biggest roles of them all: Oscars host.
Let's set the scene. The year is 2005, Million Dollar Baby won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Chris Rock is the host. Naturally, Mr. Rock didn't hold back on the jokes, made a few hilarious gags at audience members, like Tom Cruise and Jude Law, and even attacked the Academy itself. But hey, all in a great show.
Despite his jabs at the audience and the Academy, Rock was invited back over a decade later, in 2016, to host again. He might have referred to the Oscars as "idiotic" in 2005, but he had some unfinished business to handle on that stage, so he came back for more. And he didn't hold back...
The host went straight for it, asking the audience, "Is Hollywood racist?" to which he said, "You're damn right Hollywood is racist. But it ain't that racist that you've grown accustomed… That's how Hollywood is, but things are changing." And his honesty was praised by critics nationwide.
His Oscar-worthy performance in 2016 only led to more success. Besides starring in multiple hit-comedy films prior, Rock starred in the Netflix film The Week Of in 2018 and appeared in Dolemite Is My Name in 2019 alongside his idol, Eddie Murphy. And just like that, everything came full circle.
However, throughout his career, Rock was dealing with an internal struggle that he would eventually receive answers for. At age 55, the comedian spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his life-altering condition and what it took for him to start going to therapy after his diagnosis.
After a friend of his suggested to him that he may have Aspergers, Rock began exploring the possibility. Aspergers is a form of autism that impacts social interactions and communication skills and allows people to fixate on particular interests and repeat ongoing behaviors.
With this in mind, Rock was determined to get to the root of the issue. He went through a series of 9-hour cognitive tests that finally gave him the answer he had been searching for all these years. Rock was diagnosed with a condition called nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD).
Read Between the Lines
NVLD is a learning disability that hinders people's social, motor, and visual-spatial skills. It can create challenges in the workplace and often hinder one's social life. And although it may not have seen like it truly impacted Rock from an outsider's perspective, it finally gave him answers for what he's been feeling all these years.
Although it's seen differently in every individual, for Rock, it hindered his ability to detect nonverbal cues, which makes everyday activities more difficult. "All I understand are the words," he told The Hollywood Reporter, which considering around 80% of communication is nonverbal, can be very challenging.
Pointing the Finger
However, it didn't stop there. Rock was taking things too literally, to the point it started to affect his personal life. "By the way, all of those things are really great for writing jokes," he told the outlet, "they're just not great for one-on-one relationships."
"And I'd always just chalked it up to being famous. Any time someone would respond to me in a negative way, I'd think, 'Whatever, they're responding to something that has to do with who they think I am.' Now, I'm realizing it was me," he admitted. "A lot of it was me."
Calling It Quits
So how exactly are his personal relationships affected by his diagnosis? Although he is now divorced, Rock was married to the founder and executive director of StyleWorks, Malaak Compton, for nearly 20 years before admitting to being unfaithful in his marriage.
However, while the couple was married, they had two beautiful daughters together, Lola and Zahra. Rock often posts pictures of his girls on social media. We can only imagine what it was like on "career day" for these girls. They must have had the coolest dad around!
Million-Dollar Netflix Deals
But at the end of the day, the couple remains friendly, and Rock is currently dating actress and director Lake Bell. However, being the brilliant comedian he is, Chris used his divorce from Compton in a later Netflix special. It was relatable and hilarious.
The star made a few jokes about his marriage and even said he was accepting bad jobs to pay those alimony payments! LOL! However, he was out there making millions. He had made $40 million for his first Netflix special, Chris Rock: Tambourine, and signed on to make two more.
Connecting the Dots
At the time of his interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Rock opened up about his diagnosis making it difficult for those "one-on-one relationships," but didn't suggest it had anything to do with his divorce. However, he did share it made certain situations more awkward.
With this new information, Rock had started to put together certain pieces of his life that, up until that point, had made no sense. So, with his NVLD diagnosis, the comedian began going to therapy 7 hours a week. He finally began to make sense of his childhood and the series of events that had impacted his being.
Everybody Hates Chris (Rock)
Rock always was first to use his personal experiences throughout his comedic ventures. That was one of the best parts about his work; he was never afraid to hold back. And although it was hilarious for audiences to watch, Rock was speaking the truths behind his traumas growing up.
He even went so far as to create an entire sitcom around it. He created the comedy series, Everybody Hates Chris, which was loosely based on the comedian's family and education, attending an all-white school in New York in the 80s. Rock narrated the entire series.
No More Lies
He had made an entire career of making jokes about his childhood, so Rock truly believed he was over all the challenges and racial abuse he had faced during his upbringing. However, once he was diagnosed with NVLD and finally addressed the subject, he realized he wasn't.
"I thought I was actually dealing with it, and the reality is I never dealt with it," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "The reality was the pain and the fear that that brought me, I was experiencing it every day." And now, in his 50's, he was properly dealing with it for the first time.
Pains From the Past
It might have been the comedian's diagnosis that got him into therapy, but it was the tool he needed all along to help deal with the most traumatic parts of his childhood. Rock said, "I'm not belittling today's youth, but I wish somebody had sent me a bad text when I was a kid. These m************ were trying to kill me."
Years later, Rock opened up about some of the most brutal parts of his childhood. The comedian told The Hollywood Reporter that kids regularly attacked him physically and even threw balloons with urine at him. He recalled one of the most traumatic events when he read signs that said, "N**** Go Home."
Feeling the Pressure
Growing up with bullies on your back is no easy feat, and although his parents eventually pulled him out of school, Rock admits his parents were "from the suck-it-up school." He said, "no matter what I was going through, it paled in comparison to what my mom or my dad went through. So, there wasn't a lot of dealing with it."
During his sit down with The Hollywood Reporter, Chris added that he felt fearful in his professional career at one point as well. The pressure of being perfect all the time was becoming too much for him to handle. "[That expectation] just depletes you," he said. "I had to let it go. I was just dying, dude."
With all this new information, Rock is finally putting his health first. Besides getting into therapy, Rock is constantly looking for new projects and new ways to make people laugh. He told The Hollywood Reporter he's looking to get back into Broadway eventually!
Most recently, Rock returned to Netflix after some time with Chris Rock: Selective Outrage, which was the streamer's first-ever live event. And who better to host than the funniest guy around? And since its recent release, the special is getting a whole lotta attention - especially over his comments regarding the Smiths...
Revisiting The Slap
While he served as host for the third time in 2022, Rock was slapped by Will Smith on national television over a joke he made about wife Jada Pinkett Smith. The audience was obviously stunned, and it took a while for any party to speak out. A few months later, Smith apologized. However, it took some time for Rock to finally say his piece.
"Everybody knows what happened to me, getting slapped in the face by Suge Smith," Rock joked. "You'll never see me on Oprah or Gayle crying… I took that punch like Pacquiao." As he sees it? He got the last laugh. "I did not have any entanglements," Chris continued. "She hurt him way more than he hurt me…"