Not only is Tiffany Haddish’s just-released Netflix special like none that’s ever come before it, Black Mitzvah is unique in at least three ways.
There’s the packaging of Black Mitzvah as Haddish’s Judaism coming-out party, which is signaled by the title that’s projected on stage and flanked by twin dreidels bearing her initials, and also by the fact that she arrives onstage to “Hava Nagila,” the Israeli folk song mostly reserved for Bar Mitzvah chair-dancing. Another thing that makes this special original is that after the DJ drops a beat over “Hava Nagila” (!!!), Haddish raps about what she intends to do. I don’t just mean she’s full of bluster over how she’s about to kill it, either: she literally rhymes about every joke in the set to come.
But the main thing that separates Black Mitzvah from its vast and sundry forebears is that it is ultimately a PR offensive in the form of a comedy special and, incredibly, it gets the job done.
It was with great curiosity and trepidation that I, an extremely secular Jew, embarked on my viewing of Black Mitzvah. Just how much of this show would be about Tiffany Haddish’s commitment to the Hebraic faith? Would she perform a whimsical Torah portion? Well, beyond the “Hava Nagila” entrance, the comedian quickly discards the Jewish trappings of her title like a yarmulke after a high holidays service. Once she reveals that her father is a Jew from Eritrea, answering the big Why of it all, Haddish frames the special as a celebration not of her (half-)Judaism but of coming into full-grown womanhood at age 40, a tardy Bat Mitzvah.
It’s a bit of a conceptual stretch, but so few comedy specials even attempt a concept that it still counts as refreshing. What the comic is actually celebrating, however, is not so much her womanhood as her arrival as a successful comedian, movie star, and cultural force—haters be damned.
She makes a great case for it, too.
Tiffany Haddish’s career doesn’t have an arc so much as a long, steady slope that suddenly spikes skyward. She spent the decade between 2005 and 2015 doing standup mostly under the radar and racking up guest appearances on TV shows. After getting cast on NBC’s The Carmichael Show and costarring in Keanu, aka “the Key and Peele movie,” she gained a bit more prominence. Then came Girls Trip in 2017, a late summer hit with an unexpected comedic juggernaut turn from Haddish.
It’s difficult to overstate just how much the rising star popped from this one supporting role. It catapulted her overnight onto the A-list. You’d have to go back to Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids or Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover for a comparison. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be in the Tiffany Haddish business. She starred in at least nine movies over the next two years, along with the TV series The Last O.G. and the beloved but canceled Tuca and Bertie. The newly minted star was everywhere, even if she never quite generated another cultural earthquake on the level of her role as the feisty Dina in Girls Trip.
It was at this moment of ubiquity that Haddish performed a disastrous New Year’s Eve set in 2018, which went mega-viral. Her all-purpose catchphrase, “She Ready,” was now being used against her, with the word “ain’t” in the middle. Every comedian has bad sets sometimes but seldom so publicly and even more seldom while on the brink of superstardom. It was a critical blow.
Black Mitzvah is Haddish’s unambiguous—and successful—attempt to reclaim her own narrative.
One way to prove that the Miami set was just a fluke would be to put out a killer comedy special whose high quality is its own implicit refutation. That’s just not Haddish’s style, however. Don’t get me wrong, Black Mitzvah is indeed funny enough to silence anyone who dares trot out her viral moment as proof she doesn’t have the goods. But one of the things that’s most endearing about the comedian (and many of the characters she inhabits) is her directness. She’s an earnest open book, and it’s part of her charm. It’s the reason that telegraphing her entire set during her opening rap is more endearing than odd. Thus the show becomes a vehicle for Haddish to un-humblebrag her way out of being defined by anyone else’s interpretation of her.
The show is rife with funny stories clearly intended to illustrate the station she now occupies—a throwaway mention of her famous swamp-boating-with-Will-Smith anecdote, the time she made news headlines with a tweet about depression, a story about receiving an outfit from Beyoncé.
But the centerpiece of the show—and her most blatant brand-management moment—is her recounting of the Miami incident.
Since this part of the show is too damn funny to give away, I’ll only address the parts that illustrate my point. Haddish explains that the reason her Miami show went so poorly is because she was profoundly hungover. But what could make a comedian party so hard the night before a big show? It’s the way her good friend convinced her to go out: by reiterating the many accomplishments Haddish should be celebrating. This friend proceeds to more or less recite the most notable late-breaking entries on the comic’s Wikipedia page, which are indeed impressive. (I watched Haddish host Saturday Night Live a while back but had no idea she’d won an Emmy for it.)
As if this part of the story weren’t enough to underline Haddish’s star status, she eventually lists the celebrities who called to check in on her after the set went viral, and these are legitimate marquee names. The call that resonates the most, though, comes from the comedian Sinbad. He consoles her with the point this entire special is intended to punctuate: the very fact that anyone decided it was such a big deal that Tiffany Haddish had a bad night is irrefutable proof that she’s a star.
If this story and those name-drops were all that filled the runtime of the special, the effort would have backfired. However, these moments are couched between plenty of self-deprecating stories, one insanely funny bit of physical comedy at the end, and an overall exuberance that is undeniable. Haddish is a consummate entertainer, and at 40 years old, she may just be warming up.
Tiffany Haddish made Black Mitzvah to prove her star is earned and still ascending. And by the grace of Yahweh, you will be convinced.