March 07, 2005 12:00 PM

Chris Rock never stops honing his jokes until they kill. Being picked to host the Oscars on ABC Feb. 27 simply increases the workload. And so, as the big night approaches, he has been ducking into comedy clubs, delivering punch lines on this year’s nominated films in that familiar, blustery rasp. “I liked The Incredibles,” he said at L.A.’s Comedy Store. “They got the black version of The Incredibles coming out soon. It’s called The Aw-ights.”

Rock, who previously hosted the MTV Awards for three consecutive years, will probably be aw-ight himself headlining Hollywood’s annual stampede of stars. In fact, in a year in which no movie is expected to make a sweep, the biggest excitement is being generated by the prospect of what the 40-year-old Rock—a man known for comedy that is both slicingly sharp and profanity-rich—might say. A wisecrack to ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY that straight black men never watch the Oscars has already stirred controversy and prompted an unapologetic Rock to clarify that he meant to say “only gay people watch the Tonys.” But the good souls at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences knew exactly what they hired—a very hip talent who’ll draw in coveted young male viewers. And someone who won’t try to imitate Billy Crystal’s musical opening number. “You don’t want to see me go up there…and sing about Sideways,” he told 60 Minutes.

As to worries about his language—totally groundless, says his mother, Rose Rock, 60, who’ll be in the audience at L.A’s Kodak Theatre Feb. 27: No matter what cuss words he uses on cable or in clubs, “he’s so adaptable—he’s going to do well.”

Producer Gil Cates asked Rock about hosting as far back as 1997, but Rock thought he was then too young and inexperienced (and that the job was too old and too dull). Perspectives change, though: His career has matured, moving from three seasons on Saturday Night Live in the early ’90s through a couple of dozen movie credits (including the upcoming Longest Yard with Adam Sandler) and, most important, an Emmy-winning HBO talk show and specials that cemented his reputation, in the reckoning of fellow Saturday Night alum Jay Mohr, as “one of the five funniest stand-ups alive.”

Oscar-brand respectability goes hand in hand with the grown-up life he has enjoyed since his 1996 marriage to former publicist Malaak Compton, 35. They set up house in the New Jersey suburbs and now have two daughters, Lola, 2, and Zahra, 9 months, who he says are the center of his life. “He wants the best for his kids,” says his cousin Sherrod Small, 30, a panelist on VH1’s Best Week Ever. “Fatherhood changed him. He’s a lot calmer now.”

Rock himself was one of seven kids growing up in Brooklyn (his late father, Julius, was a truck driver). He sharpened his humor as a weapon against childhood foes: “Chris was the skinniest kid in the ghetto,” recalls Small. “He always got teased, so he had to come back at them verbally because he couldn’t fight.”

But he also had the cockiness of a natural-born star, says his mother. “From the time he was 10 or 12, whenever the kids were doing dumb stuff, he’d always say, ‘I don’t have to do that! I’m Chris Rock!’ We were like, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ ”

We’ll all find out on Oscar night, as he stands alone onstage and starts his monologue. “I expect it will be very brutal,” says his friend, comic Colin Quinn, “and funny.”

Tom Gliatto. Matthew Graham and Ken Lee in Los Angeles and Tiffany McGee, Omoronke Idowu-Reeves and Diane Herbst in New York City

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