Nick Cannon wants you to know that he can be any kind of Nick Cannon you want him to be. As the 36-year-old entertainer makes it clear from the jump in his latest comedy special Stand Up, Don’t Shoot, he contains multitudes: the cocky star of films like Drumline and Chi-raq, the charming host of America’s Got Talent, the musician, and the stand-up who pinballs around a stage exuding a rare mixture of braggadocio and goofiness.
Most of all, Cannon never wants you to forget that he is, above all else, a celebrity. Which is likely why he is able to get away with being as loose and freewheeling as he is during this hour-long special, bouncing from set pieces to small bits of on the fly silliness like smooching a middle-aged white lady sitting in the front row and riffing with rapper Too $hort who just happened to be in the audience. And why he is able to offer up some dissonant symbolism performing in front of blown up pictures of himself at rallies protesting police brutality while carrying around a microphone fashioned to look like a handgun.
What’s hiding underneath Cannon’s leather and swagger and A-list status is a thoughtful soul with some fairly cogent points to make about the state of the world. While it’s a slightly reductive take, his commentary about the “All Lives Matter” retort to the Black Lives Matter movement is a perfect analogy: if you’re walking around saying “Save The Whales,” that “don’t mean fuck all the other fish!” Cannon can also be incredibly sincere when the mood strikes him. He’s absolutely believable when he talks about wanting to give his kids unconditional love above all else.
But he uses that sincerity as the setup for a discursive and mocking segment towards the end of his hour about the dissolution of his marriage to Mariah Carey (with a little shade thrown at talk show host Wendy Williams for good measure). Honest though it may be, this gossipy bit feels like Cannon stirring the pot for the sake of stirring the pot, aiming for a quick wave of virality he can ride into the next season of Wild ‘n’ Out.
The same goes for his strained attempts at catchphrases or quotable moments. He builds much of the middle part of this hour from this notion that while Cannon isn’t a “real ni**a,” he surrounds himself with them. Fairly funny, especially when he uses this comparison to cut his street cred down to size a bit. He falls hard though when he tries to finish strong on the apparent truth that women will forgive much as long as they’re getting “good dick though.” You can almost see the hashtag dancing before his eyes as he circles back around to that same phrase over and over before landing one last Mariah zinger and dropping his microphone.
What was missing was the kind of audience response that I think Cannon was looking for. Maybe it was the editing or sound mix, but it never felt like the audience was falling out laughing in the way that he was anticipating or reacting to. He didn’t let it faze him any, as he still performed like he was onstage at the Def Comedy Jam. But it seemed clear that his jokes were landing very hard.
Again, this comes back to Cannon’s celebrity status. Chances are people weren’t there to see “Nick Cannon: comedian.” They were on board to be in the presence of a TV host and the ex-husband of a diva. Whatever he said on stage was likely secondary to that. And I have to believe that Cannon knew that going into the taping, affecting his material and his performance and nearly the entire special as a result.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.