Watching Chris Rock in 2004 -- 21 years into his comedy career -- is like watching a great prizefighter in peak condition. On his current Black Ambition Tour (which will be taped for his fourth HBO special, airing April 17), he forgoes an intro and just walks on stage with the houselights on, waiting for the audience to notice him and go nuts (a trick he copped from a U2 concert). And when he gets going, he prowls the stage with wiry confidence, jaw jutted out, as if staking his territory, occasionally driving a joke home with the smack of his mike on his open palm.
On marriage: ''If you've never wanted to kill your mate, you've never been in love. If you've never held a box of rat poison in your hand and stared at it for a good long while, you've NEVER been in love.'' POW!
On David Blaine: ''Are we so starved for entertainment that we allow ourselves to be entertained by a trickless magician?'' BAM!
On black people's money: ''We got no wealthy black people. We got rich people. Shaq is rich. The guy who signs his check is wealthy.... If Bill Gates woke up with Oprah's money, he'd throw himself out the motherf---ing window.'' K.O.!
Rock, now 39, has yet to find a comfortable niche in the movies, but when he's on stage he knows he's the funniest man in America. And most of his peers would agree: They speak of 1996's defining ''Bring the Pain'' special in the same reverent tones as they would Steve Martin's ''A Wild and Crazy Guy'' or Richard Pryor's ''Live on the Sunset Strip.'' ''It made every comic want to be better,'' says Dave Chappelle. Adds Rock's old ''SNL'' friend David Spade: ''As a comic, within two jokes I can say, 'I'm better than that guy.' When you see Rock, after two jokes you say, 'I gotta go write some more.'''