Cedric The Entertainer’s first stand-up special since 2006’s Taking You Higher arrives at a time when black issues, and black comedy, are in a precarious position. The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore has been canceled and The Daily Show With Trevor Noah isn’t doing so hot. Today’s most popular black comedians are Kevin Hart and Hannibal Buress—the former ably mimics 1990s Jim Carrey; the latter, while funny, is best known for shedding new light on the sexual abuse allegations against Bill Cosby. Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle are playing it low-key on the stand-up circuit, and are known to make white people uncomfortable. As for the three comedians who starred alongside Cedric The Entertainer on the Original Kings Of Comedy tour (and in its spin-off concert film): Steve Harvey has inherited Cosby’s “non-threatening black father” mantle, D.L. Hughley disappeared within the bowels of CNN, and Bernie Mac died in 2008. Can Cedric return to stand-up with fresh, relative, and relevant material?
It’s tough to say. Live From The Ville bounces between “get off my lawn”-type jokes, lighthearted jabs at current issues, weird asides involving anthropomorphic animals, and personal stories. The set goes all over the place, but give credit to Cedric—and the slightly funky editing—for keeping it entertaining and funny throughout. At 51 years old, he exhibits an energy and effortless style, taking the stage at the top of the special to dance alongside members of the Tennessee State University marching band.
In some ways, Cedric’s inability to focus is a disappointment. His social commentary in Live From The Ville lacks bite—at best, he mentions, in vague terms, how “angry people are” these days, but nothing juicy comes of it. He calls Donald Trump an “ignorant ass motherfucker,” but his riff on how easily Mexicans would go over the presidential candidate’s preposterous border wall—by pole-vaulting—is hacky. Of Hillary Clinton, he says she only wants to get into the White House to show up her husband—the kind of joke everyone was making when she ran back in 2008. On Black Lives Matter, he points out the bizarre, deeply uncomfortable dissonance of corrupt cops who are willing to shoot black kids but would sacrifice themselves to save a dog, but other than telling his son to “take a puppy with him wherever he goes,” there’s no further exploration or introspection.
Cedric’s stronger material comes out during his stranger riffs and personal anecdotes, particularly when the latter flow out of the other. He’s always been a gifted storyteller, which he demonstrates during a great, almost Louis C.K.-esque bit about his eldest daughter demanding a car. Soon after, he discusses a tricky question posed by his youngest daughter—“Do animals commit suicide?”—which in itself is a dark, weird question, but is taken into darker, weirder territory when Cedric imagines different animals taking their own lives.
But there are also tired, dated takes on the differences between black people and white people, the way young people dress these days, how only gay people say certain things (“bye-bye” on the phone), and how only asexual people wear certain outfits (long shirts, skinny jeans). It feels like he’s conceding to audience expectations here. He jokes about getting angry at a curse word his son says in school (“shit-damn”), and it has a certain old-school flair to it: How could one of the Original Kings Of Comedy have a son who uses a curse word he clearly learned from white people? But then he smartly undercuts it when he proclaims his anger suggests his parenting skills are “off a little bit” here.
That’s the thing: Cedric The Entertainer is himself, through and through. He’s proud of himself and his accomplishments, which may come off arrogant to some. The marching band calls out his name repeatedly during their routine, and he often calls attention to his name and how he deserves respect, especially from his children. He’s not as self-deprecating or angry as other comedians, and that’s fine—it’s okay to be content, proud, and amusing. He often parodies and/or ridicules various songs, in which actual music plays and the stage lighting changes, and he’s clearly having a ball while doing so. Live From The Ville ends on a moment like this, and that’s a weak point. But he doesn’t care. Cedric The Entertainer is enjoying life, and his comedy, for all its flaws, reflects that. And even if he’s being boastful, he knows how to channel it through stories that undercut that pride. He tells a fantastic story involving misunderstanding his southern friend’s nickname—a story that involves regional difference, hilarious humility, and pure, classic, comic delivery. Bits like this are why he’s still working, and why he’s earned the right to call himself “The Entertainer.”