Tracy Morgan’s potential star power was immediately apparent to comedy kingmaker (and soon to become one of Morgan’s closest collaborators) Lorne Michaels back in 1996 when the comedian first auditioned for “Saturday Night Live.”
“You’re looking for something that on a certain level you haven’t seen before, and also at the same time something you have seen before,” says Michaels, who has countless times before and since gone through the process of sussing out just who might one day fit within the stellar firmament of comedic giants “SNL” has launched. “You could just tell on the most fundamental level that he was funny.”
Morgan is now set to receive his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame April 10, two decades after he rose to fame on the NBC sketch comedy series.
For Morgan, whose television experience was largely limited to appearances on the stand-up stage and a recurring role on the sitcom “Martin” before “SNL,” there was no game plan when he stepped in front the “SNL” team at age 28 except the most basic. “This don’t come with no instructions. I didn’t have to do nothing but be funny,” says Morgan. “But more than that, I just had to be me — show them my personality. I knew where I was from, and I did it, and Lorne Michaels saw the funny.”
Michaels saw a possible future, as well. “He was raw, and certainly very, very far from polished, but he was enormously likable and — it’s a word you don’t normally think — very charming,” Michaels recalls. “You go, ‘He’s funny, and now how do you put him into our system where it’s about writers and topicality and what’s going on in the world and a big organization?’ Just from the beginning we knew he had what it takes.”
Gifted with an affable yet wickedly sharp sense of humor, Morgan had an an unexpected epiphany while watching his future co-star Martin Lawrence perform on stage: He realized he could use his ability provoke big laughs to transcend his impoverished, rough-hewn Bedford-Stuyvesant beginnings. One of five kids, Morgan dropped out of high school to tend to his dying absentee father, then briefly supported his own young family by selling crack cocaine. A friend who interned for Russell Simmons gave him tickets to a “Def Comedy Jam” show, where he saw Lawrence perform.
“He looked like me, sounded like me, talked about the same things — we were in the same world,” remembers Morgan. “And something came over me. I said, ‘I think I could do this.’”
He’d found his calling — and a career that was quickly more profitable than dealing drugs — graduating from playing local venues from the Rucker Park basketball court (“I made the basketball teams laugh”) to high-profile gigs at the Uptown Comedy Club.
“When I first got on stage, I knew this was it,” says Morgan. “Stand-up is straight up me and them. I’m in touch — that’s the connection. There’s only one thing in between us, and that’s the microphone. Stand-up comedy will let you know if you are funny or not in 30 seconds.”
After his ballooning reputation brought him to the attention of “SNL,” Michaels set about helping Morgan hone his previously uncensored style for TV and integrating him into a fresh cast that included Will Ferrell, Molly Shannon, Chris Kattan, Cheri Oteri and Ana Gasteyer.
“You can’t help but root for the guy. He’s always been brilliantly funny and always will be.”
“He was going to have to become normalized on some level, comfortable being in this system,” Michaels recalls. “There were an enormous number of late-night talks. Right away, by the way, the audience liked him. There was never a moment where they went, ‘Who’s this guy and why is he there?’ It was just a question of watching him and letting him grow — which he did kind of quickly, as it turned out.”
“You want to be part of that magic,” says Morgan, who revelled in the show’s camaraderie. “Being a part of something that was bigger than you — you hear your name [announced], that it sends chills up your spine! Every Saturday, it’s like being shot out of a cannon — live television! When you were there, you thought you were funny, but you were at a university now: a university for funny.
“Being there taught me how to be fearless. You got to be fearless to be on ‘Saturday Night Live.’”
Over seven seasons, through characters like Brian Fellows and Astronaut Jones, Morgan became one of the show’s most popular players, serving a series of versatile comedic functions.
“You can bring Tracy in at the end of something, and he can say something, and it’ll get a laugh, and you’re out of the scene,” Michaels says. “Then there was that other moment where you see he’s incredibly comfortable up there, and the audience likes him and he can go much longer. Then there’s the moment where you go, ‘Oh, he’s completely in charge,’ and he’s connected with the audience in a way that you’ve never seen before quite like that.”
When Tina Fey joined the show’s writing staff two seasons into Morgan’s stint and discovered a muse in him, they became, in his words, “Luke Skywalker and his sister Princess Leia.”
Fey’s ability to mine Morgan’s comedic strengths were further served when she created the Tracy Jordan character — a heightened version of Morgan’s own over-the-top public persona — for her acclaimed NBC sitcom “30 Rock,” which Michaels executive produced.
“He was playing a version of who we all knew from backstage at ‘SNL,” says Michaels, but “you got to see the warmth of the character, as opposed to just the broad comedy stuff.
“He became just better and better as an actor. His bond with the audience was substantial. Once they like you, they will go almost anywhere with you. That’s what began to happen with Tracy. The writers knew that they could take those kind of chances, because he already owned the audience. They were on his side,” Michaels adds.
Seven seasons on “30 Rock” allowed Morgan to test the trippiest limits of whacked-out stardom — earning an Emmy nomination along the way — while the comic himself was making an effort to put booze, drugs and partying in his past.
Along the way there would be films (“Cop Out,” “Death at a Funeral,” “Rio”) and TV specials and unexpected sidebars (“Crank Yankers, “Scare Tactics”), plus controversies (stand-up bits and on-camera comments that sparked outcry), struggles (alcohol, diabetes and a life-saving kidney transplant) and a devastating tragedy: In 2014, limo was struck by a tractor trailer on the New Jersey Turnpike. His longtime friend, mentor and fellow comic James “Jimmy Mack” McNair was killed; Morgan himself faced a long, hard road of physical rehabilitation.
|Tracy Morgan returns to a life he no longer recognizes in “The Last O.G.” on TBS.
“The accident was when everybody realized how much they care about him,” says Michaels. “It was somebody we didn’t want to lose. When he came back [to host ‘Saturday Night Live’] after, if he hadn’t stopped it, the audience would have just kept on applauding when he walked out. They were just happy he was back.”
A new side of Morgan is now being unveiled in his TBS sitcom “The Last O.G.” He proves surprisingly effective and even poignant in the show’s more dramatic moments, playing Tray, newly released from prison after serving 15 years for dealing drugs, and desperate to reconnect with his ex-wife (Tiffany Haddish), who’s now married a white man with two kids he suspects may be his own.
“It’s my world, it’s my life. It’s an ode to the people who I sold crack to,” says Morgan, who developed the show with Jordan Peele.
He’s eager to dig deeper into rich emotional territory, hoping to stand proudly alongside his heroes Richard Pryor, Jackie Gleason and Charlie Chaplin. “The great ones make you laugh and cry,” he notes.
“You can’t help but root for the guy,” says “O.G.” executive producer Eric Tannenbaum. “He’s always been brilliantly funny, and always will be, but I think the whole experience that he came out of, how dark it was for a long time and obviously losing someone very close to him, the emotional level of that is very close to the surface now, and put a whole other level into him as an actor.”
Morgan intends to keep getting better — as a performer and as a man.
“I ain’t never gonna stop growing,” he says. “I listen to people, I learn, and I grow. Listen, I had to get hit by that truck. If I didn’t get hit by that truck, then I wouldn’t be making that positive impact that I’m making on the world today, so everything happens for a reason.”
Morgan’s certain his Walk of Fame ceremony will leave him visibly emotional, because he feels strongly about his legacy.
“When I first got into show business it wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about girls — it was about my legacy,” he says. “It’s what they’re gonna say about your ass when you’re laying in that funky-ass coffin, so that’s how you gotta live your life — you gotta live good. You gotta spread that love, man, and my comedy is my way of doing it. God gave me that vehicle, to make this world a better place to what it was when I got here.”