Is there such a thing as too many stand-up specials? No, idiot. With recent Netflix exclusives from Norm Macdonald, Maria Bamford, Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle, and damn near every working comedian on the planet, an asshole might try to argue something about quality over quantity. But that asshole clearly hasn’t paid attention to the current state of the world, a reality that makes Tracy Morgan’s Staying Alive occasionally poignant, frequently vulnerable, and always hilarious.
Some may assume that Morgan’s survival of the fatal 2014 car crash that killed his friend and fellow comedian James “Jimmy Mack” McNair might have forever altered his comedic approach, but the tragedy has actually had a more complicated effect on the former 30 Rock star’s material. Morgan’s signature vulgarities, thankfully, haven’t gone anywhere. But now, many of those intentionally near-cringe moments come from a hyper-authentic place of vulnerability.
The hour-long special opens how you might expect, with Morgan borrowing visuals from Saturday Night Fever whilst ordering three slices of pizza and paying with cash he pulls from a reusable Walmart shopping bag. As with the best of Morgan’s work, this loose homage would fall absolutely flat with arguably any other comedian. Morgan, however, makes it essential viewing by turning the Morgan-isms all the way up to 10.
The Walmart musings carry throughout the stand-up set itself, which was filmed in New Jersey and sees Morgan rocking similarly Saturday Night Fever-esque digs. These jokes, which riff on everything from his well-publicized settlement with Walmart to his inability to resist their low prices, even after the tragedy, wouldn't land so effortlessly if not for Morgan's mastery of pacing. Whenever a joke starts to climb to its limits, Morgan gives us (and himself) a moment of respite by sliding into a seemingly comfortable chair on stage and briefly pondering what the hell he just said.
But there’s more here than just (hilarious) Walmart jokes. Morgan also manages a Caitlyn Jenner-inspired update to one of his most classic lines without diving into the arguably transphobic territory that seemed to plague reviews of Chappelle’s Netflix specials. Morgan, between well-timed sit-downs, also reminds us he has plenty to say about getting closer to turning 50. The key to not losing your shit with each passing year, according to Morgan, is to just accept yourself, even the parts that would most certainly be edited out of the TV version of your life.
But, again, nailing these topics all comes down to pacing. The sporadic chair breaks help, but Morgan is also careful when simply walking from one side of the stage to the other, almost timing his movements to the veering back and forth between near-cringe and flashes of intimacy. Watching Morgan recalls hanging out with a friend when you’ve both just left someone’s wedding or an ill-attended party. In between casual mockery of society at large, you both usually end up stumbling into real moments of vulnerability and truth. Good stand-up gets to these moments of truth quicker than real life ever could, and Morgan is definitely giving us good stand-up with Staying Alive.
So, still debating on how to squeeze in a viewing of all the fucking stand-up specials on Netflix before they release approximately 948 more? Watch them all, but start with this one. Vulnerability is dope.