Chris Tucker makes quite an impression. He’s been in far fewer movies than you would think, no more than a dozen, but it feels like more because each of his roles is so distinctive. By far the biggest role was as fast-talking Detective Carter in the Rush Hour trilogy, the series that made his name, not to mention his fortune – the third instalment made him the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. Thanks to this success, Tucker now works only when he wants to, as in David O. Russell’s eccentric indie flick Silver Linings Playbook. All of this spare time has given him the opportunity to get back to his first love – stand-up comedy.
“School was a scary place for me,” he says. “Trying to get my homework done was hard, and I would daydream a lot and get into trouble. I used to host talent shows, and I guess you’d say I had an epiphany when I got my first laugh. I was the last person to figure out that I was funny, but once I knew I could make my friends and teachers laugh, I knew I was in a good place, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
At that young age, Tucker idolised comedians like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. “Those guys took the path from stand-up to acting in movies,” he says, “and I decided I wanted to do that as well, but the path eventually led back to stand-up, back where I started out.”
Tucker’s earliest comedy memories involve watching scratchy bootleg recordings of Eddie Murphy stand-up specials. “When we first got cable down on my street, we didn’t have it, but my good friend up the street did,” he says. “He recorded Eddie Murphy’s Delirious from HBO and brought it down on a VHS tape and let us watch it, which we did, over and over again. When we finally got cable, I used to watch Delirious and Rocky 3 over and over again. I got into Richard Pryor a bit later in life, but Eddie Murphy was my first comedy love.”
In the early stages of his career, Tucker was something of a loose cannon, making his name with profane and hilarious performances on shows like HBO’s Def Comedy Jam. While time hasn’t exactly mellowed him, he is definitely older and wiser these days. “My goal is for everybody at the show to have a good time,” he says. “If I do cross any lines, well, I don’t think it’s going to be too much. I mean, I talk about my own experiences in the show, and I get a bit of stuff off my chest, but it’s not really about that so much. I tell a lot of stories in the show, I do a lot of characters, and I talk about the state of the world. It’s just about jokes and being funny.”
Many stand-up comedians say that they are constantly switched on, always trying out new jokes and bits, but Tucker doesn’t concern himself too much with this. “If I’m not on stage, I’m living my life,” he says. “Something might cross my mind and I’ll try to remember it in some kind of way, and when I get to the comedy club that night, I’ll try and bring it up. I’m not on all day long. I mean, I’m observant and quiet most of the time, and I only turn it on when I get on stage.” It’s important, however, to put as many new jokes as possible in each night’s show. “If it’s fresh to me, I deliver it better,” he says. “I don’t like to do the same routine over and over – I want to feel what I’m saying and believe what I’m saying, because if I feel that way, the audience will believe it too.”
One of Tucker’s earliest and funniest Def Comedy Jam bits was based around the idea that America would never, ever have a black president – I’ll spare you a transcript of the whole thing, but look it up, because it’s funny as hell. I ask Tucker if he still reflects on that joke in the Obama era, and he lights up. “Yeah, I do!” he says. “I have a whole bit about President Obama – it’s really good stuff. Back then, the idea of a black president was really far-fetched, but now we have one. My comedy has evolved in that time, and so have I, and so has the world. It’s cool that I can talk and joke about that now, about how much things have changed.”
A few years ago, Chris Tucker travelled to Africa on a humanitarian mission, along with former president Bill Clinton. It was an eye-opening trip, as the pair took in the scope and beauty of the country and its people. All in all, the mission was a wild success…except for the time that Tucker started a riot in Ghana. “We were in a shopping mall, and a guy there gave me a drum,” he says with a nervous laugh. “I didn’t have anything to give him, except for a couple of hundred dollars in my pocket, so I gave him a hundred dollars, and when people saw, it turned ugly. I walked away with the drum, and as I did that, other people started to surround him and a big fight broke out.”
At that point, it was clear that everyone had to leave – the secret service stepped in and hustled Tucker to the car, where Clinton was waiting. Needless to say, it was awkward. “The secret service told him what I’d done, and he turned to me and said, ‘Tucker, why’d you do that? You could’ve asked me for change! You almost started a riot here – I wasn’t done shopping!’” If comedy is pain, then on the basis of experiences like this, Tucker has no shortage of A-grade material for his show.
From here, our conversation turns to the subject of Tucker’s film career. He appears in movies only intermittently – Silver Linings Playbook was his first non-Rush Hour role since the ‘90s. In the film, Tucker plays Danny, Bradley Cooper’s best buddy-slash-sidekick, who has a bad habit of constantly escaping from a mental institution. “I just thought he was a fun character, because he kept popping in and out of the movie, popping up,” Tucker says. “He had a serious side to him as well as a funny side, and I knew I could play both. The timing of the movie was perfect. A lot of people don’t know a lot about mental illness, so it was good to be able to come at that as well.”
When Tucker read the script, he approached director David O. Russell directly and asked for the part, and Russell hired him without so much as an audition. “He’s really creative,” Tucker says of his collaborator. “I love the way he works, because he’s so involved – he knows exactly what he wants. It’s great to work with someone like that.”
It seems that these days, Tucker is in the privileged position of only working when he really wants to. “I always look for something different to what I’ve done,” he says. “When Silver Linings Playbook came along, I was really interested, because it was a smaller role, but it was a really fun and important one. Something like that was great, because it showed a different side of me. I’m always looking and searching for roles that are different.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
Tucker performs at The Star Event Centre in Pyrmont on Monday, June 17.