Review: Morgan returns with Netflix ‘Staying Alive’

Robert Lloyd
Los Angeles Times

In June 2014, comedian Tracy Morgan, formerly of “Saturday Night Live” and lately late of “30 Rock,” was returning to New York from a show in Delaware when the minibus in which he was riding was struck from behind by a Wal-Mart truck. Fellow comic James “Jimmy Mack” McNair was killed; Morgan was hospitalized with broken bones and a brain injury. He was briefly in a coma.

Almost two years later, Morgan made his return to the stage with his Picking Up the Pieces tour; an October appearance in Red Bank, New Jersey, not far from where the accident happened, was filmed for Netflix, which has been investing in high-profile stand-up specials by comics including Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K., Amy Schumer, Maria Bamford and Jim Gaffigan. Morgan’s premieres Tuesday for streaming, under the title “Tracy Morgan: Staying Alive.”

The special begins with a filmed opening, with nods to “Saturday Night Fever,” as Morgan cruises Brooklyn with a Wal-Mart bag full of settlement money; he buys three slices of pizza instead of two, and he eats them piled one on top of another. A gag transports him into a John Travolta white suit and onto the stage of the theater, which is set with a table and armchair into which he occasionally collapses. One suspects this may be a matter of necessity, but mostly, he is on his feet and moving, encouragingly, and carrying an hour of material in his head.

There is a shape to it; with a few video projections and lighting cues, you could call it a theater piece. Jokes and digressions are threaded on the story of his accident and recovery — in the coma, coming out of the coma, after the coma, on Earth and in heaven: “When I was in that coma, y’all, I saw that white light, but I didn’t go to it, because I thought it was police. I got warrants, man. You can’t get into heaven with priors.” Donna Summer’s “On the Radio” makes a motif.

To be sure, the hour is rife with “F” words, “B” words, “P” words and other words I can’t write in this paper and would avoid even if I could. Morgan has provoked controversy for his jokes before, including editorial chastisement over remarks about homosexuality (for which he apologized). As with all comedy, mileage varies, from listener to listener, and for any given listener, from joke to joke; you don’t decide what to laugh at, after all, you just laugh, or you don’t.

I laughed at times, winced at others. But Morgan stays mostly within bounds here; not everyone will like his impression of a joint-rolling Jesus, or his sexual meditations on Caitlyn Jenner, or his taste for breast milk (“and Splenda”). Apart from taking shots at members of his own family (“Because of my settlement, they think I’m supposed to pay for everybody’s funeral ... They think I’m supposed to put all their kids in college”), he stays largely positive.

His recovery is not only physical, but also spiritual — a pitch for self-acceptance, self-improvement and maturity, relatively speaking. He argues for fidelity, restraint and age-appropriate dancing: “When you get to a certain age, this is dancing,” he says demonstrating. “Two-stepping, that’s all you got to do, just one move — stomach out, stomach in, stomach out, stomach in.”

Morgan allows himself a smile now and again, but mostly, he is intent and intense — which is not to say angry. (“I forgave that driver,” he says of the man who hit him. “I’m not even mad at him,” and notes, “When I was in a wheelchair I still shopped at Wal-Mart — you still can’t beat their prices.”)

If comedy concerts don’t always translate well to the screen — it’s an art best experienced in the room, surrounded by laughter — there are moments, between lines, when the camera does its work. Moving in close, it gives us a glimpse of the comic as human, even more intimate than his altogether unembarrassed prepared remarks.

‘Tracy Morgan: Staying Alive’

Grade: B