Sadness is hardly a novel concept in stand-up comedy. Some of our most accomplished comedians—Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, Dave Chappelle, and many, many others—have built entire careers on making light of some of life’s worst blights. So it seems fitting that Tracy Morgan, returning to stand-up for the first time since a 2014 car crash that left him in a coma and killed his friend and collaborator James McNair, would tackle death, the biggest sadness of all, in his new Netflix special, Staying Alive.
From the onset, Morgan sets the tone as irreverent, strutting through a Brooklyn city street in the same outfit John Travolta made famous in Saturday Night Fever. He carries a Walmart tote bag, a wink to the retail giant, whose tractor trailer caused the car wreck that has sidelined the comedian for nearly three years.
Once we get through this grainy 70s-style homage, we arrive to the actual stage at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey—fittingly, as the car wreck took place only a few dozen miles north on the New Jersey Turnpike. Here, Morgan looks haggard and his voice rasps; it is plain to the viewer almost right away that this has been a long, arduous recovery for the comedian, and that this return to the stage is a giant personal milestone.
It all makes you really want to root for the comedian, because, as a person, he has been through hell and back to get to this stand-up special. However, no amount of good will curried by Morgan’s personal tragedy can make up for the fact that Staying Alive has a deficit of laughs and a surplus of discomfort.
Despite what the title and cheeky nods toward Walmart suggest, Morgan oddly shies away from really digging into his brush with death, instead talking about it in somewhat general terms and focusing more on family. In doing so, he gives us some amusing caricatures of various of his extended family members, but it can’t be shaken the feeling that the comedian is holding back, treading familiar waters instead of truly embracing a new, darker subject matter.
And, yes, those familiar waters include some of those which made Morgan infamous. There is plenty of crass humor about sex, which is where the discomfort comes in. For any chuckle drawn from his ridiculous stories, Morgan peppers in bits like wanting to have sex with Caitlyn Jenner, in which he mocks her anatomy as a trans person. It’s not surprising that Morgan might make a joke like this—he has remarked before that he would stab his son to death if he was gay—but the lack of surprise does not mitigate the insensitivity. One would think that, if Morgan was as changed by the car wreck and his recovery as he claims, that he might practice a little more empathy for someone like Jenner, instead of making her the butt of an unfunny joke.
Beyond the expected crassness, Staying Alive suffers from an uneven rhythm. There is little handiwork in stitching the spaces between bits together. Morgan’s energy ebbs and flows, and many of the transitions between one subject and the next feel contrived or are entirely non-existent. The hour-long performance arrives to an anticlimactic bit of visual comedy, before easing into Morgan’s earnest thanks to the audience. In moments like his curtain call, the special does have a certain amount of sincerity to it.
For fans of Tracy Morgan, whether for his previous stand-up or work in films and T.V. shows like 30 Rock, this will certainly be a nice return to form for a comedian who, only a few years ago, had a close brush with death. Morgan continues to mine his experience as a child of poverty and siphon it into comedy. It’s hard to root against an artist working their way back from the brink of demise. Unfortunately for this particular stand-up special, it’s harder to invest in such a narrative when it’s interspersed so liberally with flat, unfunny moments and flagrancy.
Tracy Morgan: Staying Alive is now streaming on Netflix.