Actor and comedian Chris Tucker is like that sketchy cousin you only see once a year at the family reunion. He's the life of the party while he's there, but afterward you realize he drank all the good liquor, ate the best pieces of chicken in the bucket and talked you out of the last $27 you had in your wallet. And yet, you can't find it in yourself to be mad, because hey, he's cousin Chris.
It's that indolent, take-me-as-I-am charm that defines the actor in his movie roles and in his stage performances, and it was in full effect Saturday night at Time Warner Cable Arena. The show was nowhere near sold out -- the place was a little more than two-thirds full -- but one was left with the impression that Tucker would have put on the same show for a packed Madison Square crowd as he did for his appreciative Charlotte audience.
After a 30-minute opener from L.A. comedian London Brown (amusing, with decent Jay-Z and Denzel Washington impressions), Tucker appeared under the spotlights decked out in a black velvet suit with rhinestone-covered lapels and shoes with shiny black patent leather accents. He looked happy and fit, hair cut close to his head and slight stubble on his ever-youthful face. He kicked off his set with jokes about Southern weather. It was so hot, he said, he'd seen water drinking water. It was so hot, he'd seen the sun in the shade. It was so hot, birds didn't fly, they walked. You read this and probably think those jokes sound hackneyed and tired, but to see Tucker limping across the stage, hand at his lower back like a broke down, heat exhausted bird, is hilarity incarnate.
And that's the thing: It's all in his delivery. Tucker's set, which lasted about an hour and 15 minutes, broke no new comedic ground. He talked about topics often covered by black comedians -- his drunk stepfather, iron-willed mother, meddling church ladies. His impersonations also mined well-known territory: Michael Jackson, Prince, President Barack Obama. But it's that face that can draw guffaws with bugged eyes, exaggerated frown or flash of a blindingly white smile. That body that can curl into a lame, needy uncle, burst with the energy of a desperate 5-year-old or glide with the smoothness of the King of Pop. It's that voice that can go from deep to normal to that strident, octaves-higher whine that will have you clutching your laughter-sore stomach.
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Chris Tucker is not a particularly topical comedian. He mentioned working with Charlie Sheen on the movie "Money Talks," but only to reference that the troubled actor made his perpetually late self look good by sometimes not showing up at all. He mentioned "Rush Hour" co-star Jackie Chang calling at 3 a.m. to catch up, but only briefly touched on Japan's tsunami recovery. He mentioned Osama bin Laden's death during President Obama's tenure, but turned it into a joke about Michelle Obama discussing her husband's smoking addiction on "Oprah."
Still, he wasn't on autopilot; he called out audience members going on a beer run, shrieked "release the kraken!" when he spotted cameras in the crowd and quipped, "is someone smoking a joint backstage?" when plumes of manufactured smoke randomly appeared. Tucker also made light of his own financial woes, thanking the audience for helping him pay his tax bill (he owes millions in back taxes) and saying he'd never take financial advice from Wesley Snipes again (an actor in prison for failing to pay taxes).
He delivered the laughs, though. So the audience probably didn't mind contributing to cousin Chris's tax fund.