‘Chris Tucker Live’: TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
A talented comedian plays it too cautious.

Despite several hearty laughs, Chris Tucker’s Netflix stand-up special errs on the safe side.

It begins with a succession of family photos that trace the childhood, teenage and adult years of comedian Chris Tucker. He’s best known for starring in the blockbuster Rush Hour trilogy, which netted him increasingly profitable paydays. (Better to remember his hilariously ill-fated motormouth Beaumont Livingston in Quentin Tarantino’s undersung Jackie Brown.) But it’s clear both Tucker and director Phil Joanou are attempting to start this Netflix comedy special—recorded in the comic’s hometown of Atlanta, Georgia—on a more down-to-earth note. This is Tucker the family man, not Tucker the celebrity, yet throughout his hour-and-a-half routine you can sense that he’s at war with himself, trapped in some strange space between blinkered privilege and shrewd experience. 

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Don’t turn here for trenchant laughs, in other words. There are walls Tucker just isn’t willing to breach, which doesn’t mean his particular brand of humor (frequently blue, but unerringly safe) is devoid of all hilarity. He’s best when dealing with more day-to-day matters like relationships: The set opens with a very funny discourse on dating and marriage that culminates in Tucker, using only a prop stool, acting both sides of an aggressive quickie in the office. (Never underestimate the amusement inherent in a man schtupping himself.)

Things quickly turn to celebrity matters, and that’s where the special starts to bog down. Tucker can do uncanny impersonations (his Bill Clinton and Maya Angelou are especially killer), but these riffs play more like cloistered snapshots from high society, and Tucker’s sheepishness about being in this select club comes off as disingenuous. The nadir is an extended section in which Tucker is invited to Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch (the comic costarred in the iconic musician’s “You Rock My World” video) and gets on Jackson and Bee Gee’s member Barry Gibb’s nerves by joining them on an impromptu rendition of “How Deep Is Your Love?” It’s a humblebrag stretched to excruciating lengths, totally disconnected from any pointed or penetrating reality.

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Tucker is on much firmer ground when he takes on his own family and his place within it. The comic turns suddenly, bracingly callous when recalling an uncle who tried to get in on some of his millions, doing a mean burlesque of his relative moping around for a good minute before he finally comes to the point. “I don’t know how the hell I’m gonna pay all these damn bills, Chris,” he says. Tucker’s gutbusting retort: “I don’t know how the hell you’re going to pay them neither!”

That says more about the frequently discomforting nature of celebrity than any of Tucker’s ivory tower anecdotes about hanging with his fellow moneyed elite. But in the best section of the special Tucker goes back even further, to a Sunday in his youth that begins with him accidentally eating his mother’s breakfast (she really just wanted him to hold it for her while she drove) and concludes with a tense parent-child showdown over some crowded church pews. Watching Tucker enact both his mother’s volcanic rage and his own brazen adolescent defiance is truly sublime because it’s tinged with the kind of specificity and humanity that informs the best comedy. Tucker lets his audience in here in a way that much of the rest of the special could have benefitted from. It’s a glimpse of unguarded genius from a performer who too often treads cautiously.  

Twitter: @keithuhlich

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