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‘Top Five’ has comedians getting serious, highlighting ‘black fame’

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Dubbed by The New York Times as “one man’s crisis of the soul,” the Chris Rock vehicle “Top Five” hits theaters Friday with a cast that also includes Gabrielle Union, Rosario Dawson and Kevin Hart. In addition to starring, Rock also wrote and directed the comedy, which centers on Rock’s character Andre Allen, a comedian attempting to reinvent himself as a “serious” actor.

It might be the movie’s premise but it’s a real struggle many comedians face when trying to break into film, said J.B. Smoove, a stand-up comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” writer.

“You would think you’d be more respected as an artist by changing your style … by doing a dramatic role,” said Smoove, who plays Allen’s security guard/assistant in the movie. “That’s kind of the situation (Rock) is in. I can see (that) because I’ve been through that as a comedian — as an actor where I wanted to do something different.”

To find that success, Smoove said comedians need to find the balance of selling themselves to their audience while authenticity throughout the process — a concept that plays out in “Top Five” with Rock’s character.

“That’s the one thing the movie kind of focused on — is you know you have to sell yourself first. And then, whatever your product is, it’s easier to sell your product because I will always know who you are already,” Smoove said. “I always say, anyone can tell a joke, but what happens is everyone can really tell the same joke, but how you … tell that joke, and how I tell that joke is two different worlds. It’s how we do it that makes it our signature move.”

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Rock himself said the movie is important in highlighting the experience of “black fame” and the expectations the black community has of its stars in Hollywood.

“’Hey, Tom Cruise … Stay white. Don’t forget your whiteness,’”  he said. “It’s, ‘Come back and visit the white people.’ ‘How– what you doin’ for white people, Tom Cruise?’ Nobody says that to Tom Cruise.”

Besides Rock himself, “Top Five” also has appearances from several prominent comedians, including Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Seinfeld and Tracy Morgan. This environment of friendship and a shared interest in comedy lent itself well to the success of the film, Smoove said.

“It’s always refreshing to come to a set (where) you know they’re familiar faces. You have fun. You joke around,” he said. “It makes the scene easy to translate also because you know when you’re playing a character opposite Chris (Rock) and he knows you already and you’re playing his friend in the movie and you’re his friend for real, it comes off real.”

Although the movie might not have seemed like work to Smoove, he said Rock took his role of director very seriously.

“He wrote the movie. He directed the movie and he’s in the movie. I truly respect Chris for being able to do all three,” Smoove said. “He has to not only be in the scene, but when he’s not in the scene, he has to picture himself in the scene. (He has to use) his ears and his vision all at the same time.”

“Top Five” has already taken home some awards despite its Friday release. The Hollywood Film Awards named it the Comedy of the Year, and Rock took home the National Board of Review’s Spotlight Award for writing, directing and starring in the film.

This film holds significance for not only Rock but his friends and fellow comedians who were involved in the production. Smoove named “Top Five” as the job from which he has gained the most knowledge and accomplishment.

“I’m playing straight different roles and I’m playing each character with heart because I have to have a commitment to this character, to Andre Allen’s character, to Chris Rock’s character,” Smoove said. “This movie is going to open a lot of eyes to different things that I can do and I think it was great. (It) is going to help me a lot to open other doors for me.”


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