Mo'Nique is no stranger to tough crowds. Her standup career has outlasted sitcom gigs, talk shows, and an Academy Award winning performance in Precious, and her continued visibility on showcases like Showtime at the Apollo suggests she is continually performing and resting on no laurels. But can she still make everybody laugh with an audience of inmates during a rainy afternoon at the Ohio Reformatory for Women? That's the premise of I Coulda Been Your Cellmate, and the short answer is yes. Sort of.
The "live from prison" device has life beyond Johnny Cash. Comics like Jeff Ross and Kathy Griffin have also performed for inmates, and Mo'Nique's bold, brash persona makes I Coulda Been Your Cellmate an innovative experiment that succeeds, for the most part. The special opens with Mo'Nique touring the prison and interviewing a few inmates. This is not played for laughs. Sincere exchanges take place. When asked by an inmate why Mo'Nique is visiting, she responds, "We live in a society that threw you away. They said you weren't worthy, that you were trash. I don't believe that."
As the special transitions from the prison visit to the performance, the screen reads "Sometimes laughter is the only freedom that one needs." But after this brief, depressing tour of a maximum security prison, I'm not sure the audience at home is primed for guffaws.
Mo'Nique takes the stage in a bejeweled version of a prison jumpsuit, and her set is a glamorous version of a prison cell, complete with a queen sized bed, framed picture of herself, and bidet which, she confides, can be sexually pleasurable. The audience of prisoners goes wild. Mo'Nique whips them into a fervor with similarly ribald riffs on sex and sexuality, all in language too explicit to repeat. But this is not simply a Friday night comedy show Mo'Nique transfers to a Wednesday afternoon. There is material specific to her audience, even here.
"Every person on this Earth has done some bad shit," Mo'Nique says. "They just didn't get caught." She offers genuine empathy for her audience, remarking throughout the special that she, indeed, could have been among them. She encourages them to be kind and respectful to each other, to dream the impossible, to not define themselves by the limitations of their sentences. At the close of her special, she invites an audience member to come onstage and sing, and is visibly moved by the performance. The special closes with more clips of Mo'Nique interacting with the prisoners. It's all very affirming and conscientious. But it's not so funny.
The problem with I Coulda Been Your Cellmate is the motivational, empathetic messages throughout contrast far too sharply with riffs about blowjobs. It may suit the inmates of Ohio Reformatory for Women, but will leave John and Jane Netflix with a case of subject matter whiplash. Mo'Nique should be commended for her innovative concept, giant stage presence, and way around a dirty joke, all of which are on full display here. But the funny and serious don't effectively blend, and the resulting special falls short.
Exclaim! is reviewing every standup comedy special currently available on Netflix Canada, including this one. You can find a complete list of reviews so far here.