July 07, 2003 12:00 PM

Five years after becoming a stand-up comedian, Tony Rock still hears grumbles that he’s riding the coattails of his older brother Chris Rock. “People will say, ‘I hear you’re performing. Chris must’ve helped,’ ” says Tony. “They act like they’re joking, but they’re not.”

With several new gigs of his own, little brother is no longer caught between Chris Rock and a hard place. Tony, 34, now hosts Can You Tell, an updated To Tell the Truth-type game show that debuted June 16 on Oxygen. This fall he’ll co-star in the UPN sitcom All of Us, loosely based on the lives of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. “Tony’s funny in his own right,” says Chris, 38. “It’s not a lot different than when someone got a decent job and came back to the neighborhood and said, ‘They’re hiring down there.’ ”

As a teenager growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, Rock—the third of seven children of Julius, a truck driver, and Rose, a teacher—studied his big brother’s comedic style. “I’d go home after school on Friday and run around watching him all weekend,” he says. Absorbing all he could, Tony began writing jokes at 14 and two years later climbed onstage for the first time. “I got booed off in about 30 seconds,” he recalls. Then in 1988, when Tony was 19, his father died of complications from an ulcer. Stunned by his loss, Rock wouldn’t perform again for 10 years. “All those years are a blur,” he says. “I was depressed for a long time.”

Encouraged by his family, Rock quit his courier job in 1998 to pursue standup full-time in New York City. The first two years, he’d buy drinks for strangers if they’d watch his act. “I was broke,” Rock says, recalling $15-a-night gigs. And though he worked as a writer on his brother’s self-titled HBO show in 1999, “he was in the clubs every night,” his pal and Can You Tell panelist Karen Bergreen says. “There was never any sense of entitlement.”

There still isn’t. Though he’s heading to L.A. this summer to shoot All of Us, the Brooklyn-based bachelor can be found onstage most nights cracking wise about families and relationships. “I haven’t been offstage for more than two days since I started doing comedy,” he says. As for the nepotism thing, says Rock, “Ask Frank Stallone how far your name gets you.”

Bob Meadows in Brooklyn

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