For the past few days after watching Chris Tucker: Live, I’ve been trying to suss out the motivation behind the 43-year-old actor and comedian finally agreeing to film a stand-up special. Until this point, he has never captured his stage work on album or in this format, outside of a few appearances on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam. To much of the world, he’s still Smokey from Friday or Det. Carter from the ridiculously popular Rush Hour films. Why finally release a special now?
Chris Tucker: Live feels like a way of reasserting his place in the pantheon of black comics. He’s still an incredibly popular stand-up, capable of drawing big crowds around the world. But his peers (Eddie Murphy, the gents from The Original Kings of Comedy) and contemporaries (Kevin Hart, Katt Williams) are the ones with syndicated TV shows or toplining films. Unless you keep yourself visible in the eyes of the populace, you risk being forgotten about.
Give him credit on doing it this way rather than signing on to do Friday After Next or a fourth Rush Hour movie. As he’s been trying to prove in recent years by taking on small film roles in Silver Linings Playbook and the upcoming adaptation of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, he has the potential of being a fine actor, so why pander?
That’s what makes Live work so well, too. He doesn’t shy away from his celebrity, peppering his routines with long stories about his friendship with Michael Jackson and spending time in Africa doing humanitarian work with Bill Clinton, but it never feels cloying or pointless. Those segments instead reveal just how human Tucker is. As he tells it, he kept messing up the shoot for the “You Rock My World” video because he kept staring in awe at Jackson. And when he had the chance to hang out with the King of Pop and Barry Gibb, when they started singing “How Deep Is Your Love?” and he tried to join in, Tucker was asked to leave because he was embarrassing himself.
Live also serves as a reminder of just how gifted Tucker is as a mimic and a physical comic. He can dance and sing just like Jackson, does a passable version of Clinton’s genial Southern drawl, and does some hilarious work aping the voices and mannerisms of his various family members.
The most revealing quality of it is the sadness that lays just below the surface of Tucker’s onstage persona. He wrings some great laughs out of his pitiable attempts to find love and his family’s reaction to his success (according to him, some of them quit their jobs after he became a movie star). And it’s moving to hear him talk about how much he still misses his friend, Jackson. But there is a note of sorrow to it all, the hole that just can’t be filled by a fat paycheck and the consort of other celebrities. That that mood never takes over the set is the mark of a professional, but that shading certainly adds depth to what might otherwise have been a throwaway hour of him basking in the glow of his own fame.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.