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Comedy 101 with Chris Rock; The dean of American humor says it's time to let black writers in on the joke. A Howard University magazine is his first step.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- The pale face of college humor will soon be changing.

Next month, after two years and two Chris Rock comedy workshops, Howard University plans to launch a humor magazine in the fearlessly satirical spirit of the Harvard Lampoon.

"The magazine will be the black version of the Harvard Lampoon," Rock, the superstar African-American comedian and actor, said this month in New York. "It's my way of finding black kids who want to write comedy. There's just no outlet for it."

The new quarterly magazine, the Illtop Journal, is the pet pit-bull project of Rock, 34. He's funding the magazine and likens its start-up to the birth some years back of another novel outlet for black artists -- hip hop.

In early 1998, Rock approached Howard University administrators with the idea of establishing the first major black college humor magazine. It's like Cal Ripken Jr. dropping by your college and saying: What we need is a baseball team. I'll hold the first auditions, provide the dough for the equipment and come by once in awhile to check on batting stances and glove work.

Essentially, that's what happened at Howard. The university's School of Communications willingly found itself in the humor magazine business with the CEO of American comedy. Rock's 1996 Emmy-winning "Bring the Pain" stand-up performance established him as a leading force in comedy. His HBO special this year, "Bigger & Blacker," cemented his reputation as one of the most interesting and popular performers in America. These days, the comic has his own talk show on HBO, produces the TV sitcom "The Hughleys," and has dramatic lead roles in two coming movies.

Now Rock also has a humor magazine with his signature on it. "There's a rich history of black humor but not of black literary humor," says Rock's partner in the project, record producer and Illtop adviser Bill Stephney. "There aren't any black Erma Bombecks out there."

Given its high-profile founder, university officials have been deluged with media requests -- 35 organizations by last count, said Jannette Dates, dean of Howard's School of Communications, which will be publishing Illtop. All the attention has made university officials lock-jawed about what one press release calls the "Chris Rock Comedy Writing Project." No comment has been the common comment.

But word has spread like a good Internet joke. Time, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker have already taken note of Rock's project. And Illtop is the buzz not only on Howard University's campus, but on a certain campus in Cambridge, Mass.

"The founding of his magazine is really a landmark event for college humor publishing," says David King, an editor of the Harvard Lampoon. Last year, Rock met with the Lampoon staff to discuss ideas for his new magazine. "He talked about keeping up standards and not being satisfied with shock value or vulgarity," King says.

"Everyone," he adds, "thinks it's awesome that Chris Rock is trying to do something about a scarcity of black comedy writers."

The Lampoon network

During his budding years on "Saturday Night Live," Rock had noticed how many writers started their careers at the Lampoon. The 123-year-old Lampoon is virtually the only name among college humor magazines and has graduated writers to the staffs of "SNL," "The Late Show with David Letterman," "Seinfeld," and "The Simpsons."

Rock, a successful high school drop-out, recalls vowing that he'd one day start his own humor magazine. He chose Howard University because it's "the closest black school to my house." Also, Rock's wife, Malaak Compton, is a Howard graduate.

Rock's idea, like his humor, was topical. Racial disparity in the creative ranks of the entertainment industry remains an issue, as illustrated in the debate over this fall's television season.

Critics labeled the new season "a television blackout," given that not one of the 26 new shows on the four major networks starred a black performer. Last summer, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume called the pending fall lineup "a virtual whitewash."

Other observers also have noted the need for more minorities behind the cameras in jobs such as producing and writing for TV sitcoms and dramas. A widely published study this fall, conducted by the Writers' Guild, showed that of its 9,000 members, 345 were black.

A pipeline for writers

Against this backdrop, Howard University -- fueled by Rock's financial and creative juices -- hopes to provide a breeding ground for black writers who might one day find themselves writing for a hit sitcom or developing their own shows. Until now, as Rock and others believe, there hasn't been a pipeline for aspiring black writers. "We were always looking for young, black writers. We just didn't see too many," says Al Franken, a 15-year veteran writer and performer for "Saturday Night Live." Typically, there were many available writers who had worked for the Harvard Lampoon. Being a " 'pooner," as Franken calls Lampoon writers, usually meant other 'pooners would hire them for a writing job. Networking, they call it.

"It makes a lot of sense," Franken says of Rock's humor magazine. "Hopefully, it will attract black writers to Howard, and it will become a place people will look at to find writers."

Humor, by nature, is uneven. So, there might be years where the Illtop isn't considered very funny, says Franken, who weathered times when "SNL" was considered off its game. But Howard's magazine, like any other humor publication, needs to open strong. Make a statement.

"It's got to be funny, at first," Franken said.

That's all. Just be funny. Remember, it's only Chris Rock who will be reading.

Already on two occasions, Rock and his traveling band of writers and producers from his HBO show unflinchingly decided what was funny and what wasn't when they met with students at Howard. In a packed auditorium, Rock sat before a microphone to hear young people attempt to be funny on the spot.

With his trademark meekness, Rock set the tone during the first Illtop seminar at Howard in October 1998.

"Our comedy-writing skills," Rock told the students, "are far behind that of the white man."

(Nothing would have been more interesting than to attend a Chris Rock comedy seminar -- he even brought clips of Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby as visual aids -- but the off-campus press was not invited to the sessions. The recounting of the workshops, including Rock's comments, is based on Howard English professor Todd Kliman's reporting for the university's Howard Magazine and an article he wrote in September for the New Yorker. Dean Dates and Bill Stephney also offered their recollections for this story.)

At the first workshop, Rock brought along Stephney, who has been overseeing the magazine's start-up. Three writers from Rock's HBO show also joined them in the auditorium, which accommodated about 200 students. Understandably, "most came just to see Chris," Dates recalls.

Rock quickly got down to business -- the "unglamorous" business of writing comedy. "It's grounded in something serious," he told the students. "Be serious and make it funny."

Inevitably, the subject of profanity in comedy was raised. As much of America has heard, Rock's stand-up routines are not sprinkled but plastered with expletives. But underneath (or perhaps hiding from) the profanities are strong ideas illustrated by piercing observations. So his answer was both surprising and appropriate: Keep profanity to a minimum, the comedian instructed. No one has to go to school or train to curse. We all know how to do that already, Rock said.

The idea of a humor magazine written by black writers raises the question of whether there's a distinct comedy subgroup called "black humor." In fact, students asked Rock whether they should be writing so-called black humor.

"Chris said that's kind of redundant since you are black and writing humor," Stephney recalls. So, the answer is yes. "There are consistent, common, cultural experiences among groups of people. White folks have a humor base, black folks have a humor base, Jewish folks have a humor base," Stephney said.

In other words, there's no confusing a Jeff Foxworthy routine with Jackie Mason's; or Paula Poundstone's stand-up with Damon Wayans'.

Comedy -- which can't be taught -- best springs from an informed maker, Rock advised. Develop a broad frame of reference. He and his staff passed out two pages of recommended reading and "source material" -- everything from Bill Cosby and Monty Python's Flying Circus to "The Portable Dorothy Parker" and Woody Allen's "Manhattan" (Rock is a huge Allen fan). Read newspapers and magazines, read books and listen to music you wouldn't ordinarily be interested in, Rock said. "You've gotta open your brains," he said. "Limited experience" is the enemy of good comedy, he said.

After having their pictures taken with Rock, the students were given homework: produce a sketch; write a parody of a news article; write an original joke. Their deadline was April, when Rock returned for another workshop.

Between workshops, about 40 students submitted jokes and parodies, which were passed along to Rock and his writing staff in New York. "He graded the papers -- with a red pen," Dates says. "And Chris chastised those who went immediately into the mode of obscenity and vulgarity."

It's all rewriting

A core of students was invited back to the April workshop, where the students read aloud their submissions, which were critiqued line by line by Rock and the other panelists. Pacing and timing were stressed, as well as revision. Rock said 99 percent of his HBO special, "Bigger & Blacker," had been rewritten up until the day of filming. "Writing," Rock advised, "is all rewriting. It's all about knowing it's not there."

The business of starting the magazine had begun in earnest. But logistics still had to be addressed. The communications department, with its radio and TV stations, didn't have a magazine sequence. It will now, given it has a magazine to publish quarterly. And how would Howard publish the Illtop? The department, Dates said, didn't have up-to-date computers with layout and design capabilities. Here again, Rock and his staff are providing funding and professional staffing.

The magazine needed a name, of course. Someone came up with the Illtop Journal -- a play on the name of the student newspaper, The Hilltop. But what does Illtop mean? "Good question," said Robert Frelow, Howard's media relations manager. The meaning escapes the dean, too. "Sick humor maybe?" Dates says.

"The Howard Lampoon is a better name," Al Franken says. "[The students] would get a number of jobs just out of the confusion" with the Harvard Lampoon, he suggests.

Next, the Illtop needed a staff. The 30 or so students eventually named to the inaugural staff come from a range of university schools -- nursing, psychology, business and arts and sciences. After months of writing (and, Rock would hope, rewriting), the best material will debut with the first edition, which will include a mission statement of sorts from its founder.

"But Chris probably will not call it a 'mission statement,' " Dates says.

Besides Rock's contributions, the Illtop got another helping hand this year when Time Warner Inc. contributed $2 million to Howard to endow a Time Warner Endowed Chair in Media. The corporate gift will support the department's training of students in traditional and entertainment media and in new media ventures, including the Illtop Journal.

"It will be a publication that does more than poke fun at people but will give insight, as well," says actor Bill Duke, who was named the first Time Warner Professor at Howard and is chairman of the university's Radio, Television and Film department.

He reminds, though, that the Illtop, while aiming for Rock's standards, is still a student publication. Professional writing and those attendant pressures come later. For now, Duke says, students should take risks with their writing -- and thinking.

"I don't know how you grow without failing," Duke says. "You won't be forgiven for your mistakes once you leave school. This may be the last chance you have."

Maybe the last chance to fail. The last chance to express what you think and feel and find funny before the years of bosses and paychecks, in this window of opportunity called college, at Howard University, where Chris Rock has started a humor magazine because life is a seriously funny business.

Sun correspondent Ron Dicker contributed to this article.

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