The Tracy Morgan I saw at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre on February 21st, 2016 — three weeks into his Picking Up the Pieces tour — is a far cry from the man who dances onto the stage in Staying Alive. Announced in early 2017, Morgan’s new Netflix special adds his name to an impressive roster of stand-up comedians who signed on with the streaming giant to distribute their latest concert films. Yet unlike Amy Schumer, Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K., the Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock alum’s contribution stands on its own. Not so much because it’s funnier or better looking, but because Morgan is literally standing.
One of the most jarring aspects of seeing Morgan perform live then was knowing that, 16 months prior, he was nearly killed in a devastating car accident involving a Walmart truck. (The June 2014 incident on the New Jersey Turnpike killed comedian James “Jimmy Mack” McNair and left Morgan in critical condition.) That’s especially true since, due to his ongoing physical and mental recovery, the comic delivered his material at a noticeably slower pace. The atypically soft-spoken Morgan also made greater use of a large chair located center stage that, though similar to the one seen in 2014’s Bona Fide, he almost immediately sat down in.
This is not at all the case in Staying Alive, which begins with a parody of the iconic opening scene from 1977’s Saturday Night Fever. Dressed like John Travolta’s Tony Manero, Morgan struts his stuff through Brooklyn while carrying a recognizably blue Walmart shopping bag. After a few visual gags the short bit gives way to the special, in which Morgan doesn’t beeline for the chair like he did at the Wilbur. Instead he dances onto the stage, delves right into a brief screed about the accident (“Everybody here knows I got hit by that f*ckin’ Walmart truck!”), and jokes about being kicked out of heaven by God — while standing.
Six minutes into the routine, Morgan seemingly accepts his newfound physical limitations and sits in the chair, but it’s not what you think. For the remarkably active performer is using the chair not so much as a place of rest, but as a prop. Recalling the first days after he came out of his coma, when the doctors explained the extent of his injuries, Morgan jokes: “I asked my doctor, ‘Is my dick okay? I don’t need no thigh bone. I need my dick!’” Miming his response had they told him the worst, Morgan sits in the chair for the first time and continues: “Well I’m going back into this coma, mother f*cker!”
On the one hand, Morgan’s ability to saunter around the stage at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey is a testament to the health professionals who helped him recover from the devastating effects of the accident. (He recognizes them several times in Staying Alive, just as he did on the Picking Up the Pieces tour.) On the other hand, this renewed — if not revitalized — version of Morgan embodies the same crazed spirit that surprised Tina Fey and everyone else watching the 2015 Emmy Awards telecast, and those who tuned in for his subsequent hosting gig on SNL. In other words, the same sheer force of will that first helped him standout on the long-running variety program and the sitcom that satirized its inner workings.
Morgan’s onstage presence is so significant, audiences may almost forget about the accident entirely. Or at least I did during extended portions of the special that weren’t concerned with laughing about his hospital stay, memorializing his dead friend, or forgiving the truck driver. For after his brief turn in the chair, Morgan immediately launches into a characteristically filthy bit about what his sex life presumably would have become had his preferred male appendage been rendered useless. That is to say, the comic literally launches himself out of the chair and back onto the stage, miming various inappropriate gestures to better illustrate his punchlines.
As wonderful as it is to see Morgan back on his feet, however, the bluntness of his humor — be it God telling him to tell his grandmother to “shut the f*ck up,” or his apparently racist (and white) neighbors — may seem quite crude, especially to viewers familiar with his work on SNL and 30 Rock, but unaware of stand-up bits like a Bona Fide routine about not being able to understand fat people who talk while sitting down. Yet physically descriptive, sexually charged jokes like these are strewn throughout Staying Alive, and for good reason. Tracy Morgan has always been this kind of funny, which is why the access this special grants us is all the more beautiful — not even a near-death experience, and the loss of a close friend, can take away his particular sense of humor.
Tracy Morgan: Staying Alive is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.