It has been said that comedy is tragedy plus time, which if true, makes Tracy Morgan a gold mine of laughs. Netflix’s Staying Alive is being packaged as Morgan’s big stage comeback after a fatal road accident that put him in a coma and nearly ended his life. After fighting the good fight, Morgan is back and ready to prove that he hasn’t lost a single beat. Morgan has made appearances here and there over the past few years, most notably back on the Saturday Night Live stage (which also earned him an Emmy nomination last year). While his guest appearances are beloved, this special puts Morgan right back in the mix with the comedy community, using his near-death experience as a means to make us laugh.
The special opens with an homage to Saturday Night Fever, where the happy footed comedian is dancing down the street to “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, eating three slices of pizza at once and buying himself a new wardrobe with a giant heap of cash. Oh, and the cash come straight out of a big, blue Wal-Mart bag. Already a lesson in visual gags poking fun at his handsome settlement, this opening is proof that Morgan is in his full-on happy place.
The elephant in the room is addressed right from the start. “We can get right to it. Everybody in here knows I got hit by that fucking Wal-Mart truck,” he says to the crowd, and from there, there’s no slowing down. The content of Staying Alive goes off on many tangents involving family, but at its center, it’s all about the accident. And why shouldn’t it be? To come that close to death and live to tell the tale is a miraculous thing. He breaks off into many different topics, including family, finance and health, but they all connect to the bigger picture—the Wal-Mart accident—which spawns one of my favorite jokes in the special: “I’m still here, I didn’t die. But you know I ain’t shit, because you know that expression ‘only the good die young’.”
Front and center is a black leather chair for Morgan to kick back and relax in during his set. For anybody else’s special this would be a head scratcher (I’ll save you the painfully obvious “sit down comedy” joke that could be placed here), but for Staying Alive, the symbolism couldn’t be stronger. It acts as a reminder that while he’s still recovering from that scary collision and may need to rest, he’s back up there doing what he loves anyway.
I’m sure it would have been so easy for this special to turn into a therapy session in which Morgan rants endlessly about his struggles in anger, but it doesn’t go in that direction. At least not for very long. Instead, he uses those beats to talk about joyous moments, like walking his wife down the aisle on their wedding day, or witnessing his new born daughter’s first steps. He even takes a minute to thank the audience with a sincere “I missed you all. I missed doing this.” We missed you too, Tracy.
Christian Becker is a writer and improv comedy performer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @TheAmazingBeck.