When Chris Tucker picks up the phone, I expect the high-pitched, high-energy voice from movies such as The Fifth Element, Jackie Brown, and all three Rush Hour installments. Instead of a shrill soprano, I get a chill tenor. For all I know, he’s an impostor. But he knows his stuff, so I go with it.
Tucker, once the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, has moved back home to Georgia and embraced the Lord. The films aren’t coming as fast and furiously as they once did, but he was in Silver Linings Playbook in 2012 and is set to star in Second Honeymoon next year.
He’s always got standup to fall back on. That comes as a surprise to some, who only know him from the big screen, but the 41-year-old got his start doing standup at a high-school talent show, continued in some local dance clubs and bars, and soon was a regular on Def Comedy Jam, the HBO standup showcase that launched the career of many an African-American comic.
Tucker took a few years off from performing live when his movie work was at full throttle, but he’s been back at it for about eight years. And loving it.
“I’m so happy to be back doing it now because this is where it all started,” he says from his home in Atlanta. “This got me to the movies, standup comedy. That’s something.”
Something, indeed. Tucker reportedly got a cool US$25 million for appearing in Rush Hour 3. Still, it’s the original he counts as his personal favourite.
“It was the first Rush Hour, because I had to transition into, I guess, a man,” he says. “It was kind of like I had to create another character that would appeal to everybody. I always wanted to do a movie like Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop that captured a big audience. And it was really successful around the world. So I think that was one of my most rewarding characters.”
He brings his act to Vancouver—for the first time—on Saturday (July 26), when he’ll be at the Orpheum along with opening acts Terry Hodges and his older brother Dexter Tucker.
Tucker looks back fondly on his salad days before he could afford the Waldorf. Sure, success is nice and all, but there’s nothing like being hungry and on the rise.
“It was more exciting,” he says. “Because it was just a dream then. Living with that dream was exciting and fun, and the possibilities of what could happen were so much fun. Just to go on-stage and get five minutes meant a big deal because it was so hard to get on-stage. There were so many comics jockeying for time.”
He didn’t struggle as many young comics do. As you might guess from his fast-paced patter in the movies, Tucker’s mind works a mile a minute. “I sort of had an instinct for comedy,” he says. “Being the youngest of six kids, there was always something going on in our house. I was kind of quick-witted. I took that to high school and I was quick-witted there. So yeah, I kinda took to it pretty easy and knew I could do it. And it was something I would have fun doing because my imagination was all over the place then.”
He says he talks about everything on-stage now, from current events to his life. “I talk about so much stuff that you wouldn’t know about me unless you came to the show,” he says. “It’s real cool because there’s no limits. Nothing I can’t talk about.”
Well, except cursing. One of Tucker’s early influences was Robin Harris, best known for his role as Sweet Dick Willie in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Then there were Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. They all made their mark on Tucker early, but unlike those notoriously blue comics, Tucker tries to keep it clean these days.
In the old days, he used to be more liberal in his language. “I never was a raunchy, raunchy comic but I didn’t think about what I was saying because I was young,” he says. “Being a Christian helps me in comedy. I have to talk about other stuff. Normally, most comics talk about stuff that’s easy—maybe cussing or saying something raunchy. I have to dig deeper to find something that’s still funny and not raunchy. It’s harder. I like the challenge.”
While it adheres to his personal sense of morality, he feels that being clean also sets him apart. “Everybody’s doing raunchy comedy,” Tucker says. “I go to comedy clubs and it’s like, ‘All right, how raunchy can you get?’ And it’s really not that funny to me. What’s funny to me is being creative and talking about stuff that I wouldn’t have thought about.”
Chris Tucker’s Payback Tour plays the Orpheum on Saturday (July 26).