TBS launched nine new live-action comedies between 2010 and 2015. Most were low-cost multicamera efforts devoid of star power or creative pedigree. Only the Ice Cube-produced “Are We There Yet?” lasted more than two seasons. But under president Kevin Reilly, TBS has sought to reinvent its original-programming brand around polished single-camera series such as “Search Party,” “People of Earth” and the upcoming “The Last O.G.”
Shot in New York, “The Last O.G.” marks Tracy Morgan’s long-anticipated return to series television. A 2014 traffic accident in which a Walmart semi struck his limousine put Morgan in a coma, killed his friend James McNair and left Morgan with a traumatic brain injury. Doctors did not know if Morgan would ever be able to walk and talk normally again, much less star in a TV show.
Inspired loosely by Morgan’s life as a young man in Brooklyn, “The Last O.G.” teams the comic with executive producer Jordan Peele, whose sketch series “Key & Peele” became a favorite of Morgan’s, post-accident. Morgan plays Tray Barker, who leaves prison after serving 15 years for selling crack and finds that his girlfriend and his Brooklyn neighborhood have both moved on.
Where did the idea for Tray Barker come from?
Morgan: You gotta understand, I know those people. That character, Tray Barker, is based on my friend that was murdered. He’s my friend that I sold crack with before show business to survive in the streets. All those things were taken from bits and pieces of my life. So it’s very near and dear to me, this show.
Peele: Tracy and I first met at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. He was in town because he was going to make an appearance on the Emmys [in 2015]. He reached out, and I went and met him in that restaurant, and we just got to know each other. We talked. We instantly bonded. I’ve been a fan of Tracy since …
Morgan: Yeah, but I seen his wheels turning. I seen the wheels turning, Jordan. I said, “This guy’s cooking up something right now.”
Peele: He immediately started telling me about his childhood, his upbringing. One of the lines that I feel is classic Tracy is “I was a drug dealer with a heart of gold.” We took that notion, and we came back to Tracy and said, “Look, let’s be real to you. Let’s be real to your experience.”
Tracy, why did you want to meet with Jordan?
Morgan: Because when I came home from the hospital, my son turned me on to “Key & Peele,” and I laughed so hard. I called my agent one day, I said, “You gotta get that guy Jordan. I wanna be a part of that magic.” I came out to L.A. We met; we started kicking it. We have the same comedic sensibilities. Not everybody makes me laugh. This dude is funny. I told him my story. He came up with this. It was incredible. I feel blessed to know this man in my life.
Peele: Likewise. You know, Tracy’s shown us many sides of him before. But the person I met at the Four Seasons, there was a richer spectrum than I’ve ever seen in one show. So we wanted to put a show together where we get to meet the full spectrum of Tracy. He’s a spiritual man. He’s a mischievous thinker. He’s a very intelligent, very strategic man.
Morgan: Sometimes I can be catastrophic. Sometimes I can be a catastrophic thinker. I think catastrophically.
Peele: He can be catastrophic.
Morgan: I tell you, a lot of people are excited that I’m coming back to TV. But I’m glad it’s with my boy J.P.
“I think onstage and on set I’m more aware. Maybe it’s the fact that we got hit from behind. I’m aware of everything going on. I feel like my comedy speed is faster.”
What does it feel like to be coming back?
Morgan: I never left. LL Cool J said, “Don’t call it a comeback. I been here for years.” [Laughs] “Mama said knock you out.” Ain’t no Walmart truck gonna stop me.
Peele: That’s right.
Morgan: I ain’t been nowhere. I’m right here.
The show’s so grounded. It feels different from “30 Rock” or things you did on “SNL.”
Morgan: That’s what I love about Jordan. He kept the storyline grounded because it’s real. The comedy’s organic. It’s going to be there with me, Tiffany [Haddish], Cedric [the Entertainer]. We got some funny people on the show. But what’s important is that we keep the storyline grounded.
Peele: Tracy was coming to me and was coming to this show with a fresh perspective, because of the personal tragedy in his life. He came looking at the world with a great optimism and a positivity. Not a lot of people come out of a situation like that looking at the world as a beautiful place. So we wanted the show to be an acknowledgment of things that have gone wrong in this person’s past, but we also wanted it to be a celebration of life.
Jordan, how do you write for someone whose comedic voice is as unique as Tracy’s?
Peele: Tracy is one of these guys who is about as crystal clear as anyone in the industry, has his comedic voice and comedic tone established in the world. He’s irreverent and persistent and playful. He’s also a prophet, you know what I mean? There’s a deep wisdom. So there’s this really paradoxical tone. There are times when I feel like if you can hear him saying it in your head, you know it works.
Tracy, do you feel like the accident changed your comedy?
Morgan: I think onstage and on set I’m more aware. Maybe it’s the fact that we got hit from behind. I’m aware of everything going on. I feel like my comedy speed is faster. I see things clearer. So when I’m reading something Jordan writes, I can see it. I don’t just call Jordan Peele “Jordan Peele.” Do you really want to know what I call him?
Yes, I do.
Morgan: I call him Captain James P. Kirk. And you better pronounce that goddamn “P.” Piberius!
Peele: There’s one moment that always makes me laugh. I was on the phone with Tracy, and he started coughing. He was eating something and just started coughing, probably for about 30 seconds. I said, “Tray, are you all right?” He says [slips into Morgan impression], “Yeah, gonna get some water.” After about five more seconds he goes, “Well, survived getting hit by a truck, get killed by a Ding Dong.”
Morgan: [Laughs] Those goddamn Ding Dongs! I didn’t know you remembered that. Yo, can I tell you something? My most important thing in my life other than my kids is my sense of humor. I put that in Jordan’s hands. And he’s taken damn good care of it. That’s what God gave me to get through all the dark times in my life.