The last time that I think Chris Tucker had an indelible effect on my memory was his cameo in Silver Linings Playbook. The unexpectedness of his appearance and his trademark high-pitch voice, was a much needed reprieve from the the slower parts of the film. (Silver Linings was good. It wasn’t amazing. Fight me.) Sadly, Silver Linings was in 2012. Besides hushed jokes about Tucker touring overseas, the comedian retreated from our collective consciousness just as quickly as he had reappeared, like a rare Pokémon shrugging off a low-level Pokéball.
Fast forward to 2015 and Tucker is back on the scene with Chris Tucker: Live, his first-ever stand-up comedy special, on Netflix. It wasn’t until the advertising for this special went up that I fully realized that Tucker was truly a movie comedian. Yes, he’d done plenty of stand-up on Def Comedy Jam but the man had made his bread and butter putting butts in theater seats. The stage, then, was a renewed crucible for a man who hadn’t graced it for at least a decade.
So, it was with a weird curiosity and trepidation that I cued up the special.
Is Chris as funny on stage as he was on-screen?
Was he just trying to cash in and pay off the IRS?
What’s the name of Chris Tucker’s dermatologist?
Will he make any Friday jokes?
Honestly, without malice, let me say upfront that the special is okay. Just, okay. Simply, okay.
That aside, I was rooting for this special. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to see a man who had been out of the game, comeback with high levels of clarity, wit, and self-assuredness. So, maybe I expected too much.
As much as Tucker is animated and alive, his jokes feel tired and dead on arrival. Possibly because this is a (born again) virgin experience. Or maybe because the jokes themselves have seen more use than a motel mattress. For real: Tucker starts his set with the classic “dating/marriage” scheme, diving into the particulars of both subjects, even awkwardly pulling off a few home-invasion sex fantasy re-enactments. That particular set of jokes felt…weird. Maybe because I’m a social justice kid at heart. Or maybe, how the joke quickly pivots around leaves you not sure if it’s okay to laugh at it.
To his credit though, I’m here for (some) offensive jokes. I think we need to hear some things to be able to confront ourselves (and our own dark issues) in different ways. Louis C.K. is the current king of gross-out humor injected with messages. And Chris Rock has never been one to mince words for your feelings.
But back to Mr. Tucker.
Over the course of the special, Tucker covers much of his life, from family and his financial troubles, to Michael Jackson and hanging out with Bill Clinton. Unlike the more cerebral comedians of his generation, Tucker is an animation; he is not animated. The difference is that his very being, from frenetic movement to his oft-falsetto voice, channels “cartoon” more than it does “performance.” I say this with respect, mind you. From jumping around the stage, to making heavy usage of everything on it as a prop, Tucker creates his own little world. Some of the best, or more successful, comedians employ this vein of comedy. The best analogy here is the tour de force that early Kevin Hart stand up was. But even then, Hart took two stand-up specials before his jokes really started feeling passé. In contrast, Tucker starts at the used joke store.
If you want to see the funny in Tucker’s time on-stage, you’ll probably laugh. For me, however, it felt like the jokes themselves were less jokes and more anecdotes. Tucker tells stories, yes. But he doesn’t really deliver hard-hitting jokes. In a way, the comedy is missing here and Tucker’s stand up is more “cool story, bro” and “this dude tells funny stories” than “damn that was hilarious.” In contrast to his proven comedic record on-screen, Live feels a few years too late, like a simultaneous victory lap and come-back for an athlete nobody really remembers in the first place. Ultimately, the impetus to laugh missed me somehow and I found myself more preoccupied with just listening and watching him.
Maybe I’m broken inside.
Or maybe I’m not? If I’m convinced of anything, I’m convinced that if you really watch him, there’s just something about Tucker that feels…disconnected and distant. In choice moments, he almost seems resigned on stage, looking like a man phoning one last verse in for the sake of getting his album out. The resignation in his performance isn’t always clear, because he does a lot of running around. But if you pay attention you’ll see a very different man than the one we’re used to in the movies; you’ll see a man who’s seen some things, who’s tired, and who’s not at the top of his game.
Alas, considering the personal and anecdotal nature of many of Tucker’s jokes, I think this entire special could have been a compelling personal documentary. A 30 for 30 for a comedian, if you will. It would have been able to shine light on his life while giving him a sympathetic jumping board for a return to comedy. But, in its current form as a comedy special, it feels lackluster for a man who was once the top paid actor in Hollywood.
What happens then, to a comedic career deferred?
We’ve seen plenty of comics bloom late (see: middle age) or burn bright early and then dive into a different career, or, quietly collect residuals on the backend. But for those who burn bright and then relapse into comedy later in life, what do they do when they can’t recapture our attention the way their younger selves could? I think that’s a question comics like Tucker still need to answer and we need to ask more.
So if you want to make sure Chris Tucker is still alive and not riding Zebras in Kenya with Tupac, this special is for you. However, if you’re looking to laugh out loud and slap your knee a few times, this one might be best left off your Netflix queue. Let your nostalgia hold you over until he can catch his stride again.
The original Homeboy With A Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. @dapisdope