Tracy Morgan has never left the spotlight for very long over the last two decades, as an irreplaceable force on “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock.” Yet, it is especially difficult to read between the lines of his larger than life characters in search of his “real” personality, which has only peaked out at the most inconvenient times. For many, the only thing separating Morgan from his “30 Rock” alter ego Tracy Jordan is an anti-gay rant that sparked controversy during a stand-up set in 2011. A man who has released several stand-up specials and an autobiography was reduced in the public eye to a regrettable 30 seconds.
“Tracy Morgan: Bona Fide,” which premiered on Comedy Central April 20, is his first stand-up special since that incident; his last was “Black and Blue” in 2010. For those only acquainted with Morgan as a television star, “Bona Fide” has an unexpectedly high learning curve for a comedy set. Morgan maintains his trademark bumble as he speaks, exhibiting the undeniable energy that separates him so absolutely from comedians who have simply faded away after staring controversy in the face. His style juxtaposes with well-written, complex and even poetic jokes that are jarring considering the speed and tone with which they are delivered. Perhaps the most exciting element of “Bona Fide” is the reminder that among his other talents, Tracy Morgan is an incredibly clever writer.
While the delivery is strange, the topics Morgan dives into are par for the course. Elements of Morgan’s life such as his family, growing up in the inner city and his racial identity are heavily integrated into his character’s backstory on “30 Rock,” and unsurprisingly, are the subject of much of “Bona Fide.” This material, as well-worn as it might be, is easily the most effective of the set. Morgan is much less successful when the material is topical rather than personal. Given the rate at which topical humor comes in and out of relevance, much of the special’s topical humor has already gone rancid before it even aired. Those who lived under a rock for most of 2013 may find something to laugh about during a bit about Michael Douglas’s dubious theory about how he contracted throat cancer, but most will not.
“Bona Fide” jumps between brilliant and clueless so often that it is seems to parallel the persona Morgan has cultivated … but not necessarily in a good way. His set jumps from absurd to serious, pointed to amorphous, funny to informative, with very little organic transition. Lorne Michaels and Tina Fey have been able to take Morgan’s manic nature and channel it into something amazing. Morgan has been able to do the same in his previous stage work, but not so much here.
Fans of Tracy Morgan will have no problem eating up this hour of stand-up from one of comedy’s most dynamic and effortlessly talented performers. That being said, “Bona Fide” does not cohere in a way that makes it an easy watch for those not acutely aware of what they’re getting themselves into. It has plenty of hilarious moments, but what is sandwiched between them is either tedious or flat-out indecipherable, which is baffling considering that Morgan is a seasoned comedian who has demonstrated command of his craft. He has proven he is still as talented as ever, but it’s a shame there is not much more good to say.
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