10:19pm PT by Scott Feinberg
'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Tracy Morgan ('Saturday Night Live')
"Since the accident, I've tapped into something different," says Tracy Morgan, the beloved TV comedy actor who nearly lost his life in a car wreck in June 2014, as we sit down to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. We're talking because, remarkably, Morgan recovered enough from his broken bones and traumatic brain injury to host NBC's Saturday Night Live, the show on which he first became famous, on Oct. 17, 2015 — and this summer, for his efforts, received an Emmy nomination for best guest actor in a comedy series. "I went to the other side and came back," he continues. "I was on stage 16 months later. I was at SNL. That don't happen for most people. Most people that suffer the injuries that I suffered aren't hosting no f—ing TV show; they're in vegetative states. I thank God. I'm fortunate."
(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Amy Schumer, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, Jane Fonda and Michael Moore.)
Over the course of a very emotional conversation, Morgan talks not only about his miraculous recovery since his accident, but also the incredible journey that preceded it. Born in 1968, he grew up in projects around New York City. "I learned to be really funny to keep the bullies off my ass," he says, noting that his older brother was stricken with cerebral palsy, his mother wasn't always around and his father returned from Vietnam with PTSD and contracted AIDS through drug use. "I was just angry," he confesses, particularly after he left high school, just a few credits short of getting his diploma, in order to care for his father during his dying days. "It was a bit much for a kid that was 17, 18 years old. And when he was gone, I just didn't care about nothing no more."
Morgan, who already was a young father himself, began dealing drugs, including crack — "to my community," he admits with deep regret — to pay the bills. Then, one day, his lifelong best friend and drug partner, who long had urged Morgan to pursue comedy, was murdered. Thereafter, Morgan says, "Something came over me and I would just do comedy everywhere." He headed to the Uptown Comedy Club in the Bronx, where he was denied entry because he couldn't pay the $15 cover charge — but was urged by the bouncer to come back for a comedy workshop. When he did, his life changed. "The first person I ever met [there] was Jimmy Mack," he says of comedian James McNair, who died in the same accident that Morgan survived. Four months later, Morgan was appearing on HBO's Def Comedy Jam, where he crossed paths with fellow comedian Martin Lawrence, who became a friend and mentor. "He's still my inspiration to this day," Morgan says. Lawrence cast Morgan on his show Martin, and it was that which helped to bring him to the attention of Saturday Night Live.
Morgan's manager got him an initial audition for SNL. That was followed by a second audition, to which SNL creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels showed up. And then came a third, at 30 Rock's Studio 8H. Morgan learned he'd gotten the job at a subsequent meeting with Michaels, right after Marc Maron came out learning he had not. "Out of hundreds of people — brothers — at the audition, I got it," he marvels. When he deposited his first paycheck for the show in 1996, it was a big moment for not only him but his loved ones, too. "I moved my family up out of the hood, up out of the ghetto," he says. "I built my ark and I put my family on there." He adds, "I always wanted my kids to have a better life than I did."
Even so, it took some time before Morgan embraced SNL. Coming "from a world of black," he felt out of place at a show that had employed only a handful of people of color before him — most famously Garrett Morris, Eddie Murphy and Tim Meadows. He recalls when that changed: "I said, 'Lorne, I don't think anyone's writing for me because I'm black.' He said, 'You're not here because you're black. You're here because you're funny.' That night, when he said that to me, my fangs came down and I began to feed."
Morgan "couldn't deal with rejection," so he didn't write many sketches for himself, but people like Tina Fey stepped up and wrote some for him, such as Judge Judy and Star Jones, and then he began to collaborate with them. "That's when things took off." He created instantly iconic characters like Brian Fellow and Astronaut Jones. And, for him, SNL soon became a happy place — except, that is, during the period leading up to the first show after 9/11. "I remember everyone in the studio crying," he says somberly. "I remember hugging a fireman and patting him on the back and seeing dust, and I broke down, I lost it, I just cried."
After seven seasons at SNL, Morgan was offered an NBC primetime comedy series of his own, The Tracy Morgan Show, which he wrote and starred — initially while he still was on SNL, before the workload forced him to make a choice. "I wanted to go from late night to primetime," he recalls. The Tracy Morgan Show ran only from 2003 to 2004, but he soon was back at work on the Peacock Network, thanks to Fey's invitation to play a key supporting part, Tracy Jordan, on her new sitcom 30 Rock, which he did from 2006 to 2013, earning a best supporting actor in a comedy series Emmy nom in 2009.
On both shows, Morgan pushed to play characters that shared his first name because Murphy once had shared with him a lesson he had learned from Chevy Chase: "You want to be a household name? Say your name." It's important to Morgan that people know that he wasn't, however, playing himself, despite the shared names and occasional references to his own life, such as a kidney transplant and a court-mandated ankle bracelet. Like Biscuit, a character he played early in his comedy career ("me as a child with a chip on my shoulder because my dad wasn't there"), these characters were alter-egos.
After 30 Rock ended, Morgan happily returned to standup, and it was just such a gig that lured him and McNair away from their families and to the state of Delaware on that fateful night two summers ago. "That night I told my wife, 'Baby, stay home with the baby,'" he recalls through tears. After the performance ended, he and McNair were headed back home in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter when a Walmart truck driver who hadn't slept in 28 hours slammed into them. McNair was killed and Morgan was in a coma for the next 10 days. "I had visions," he says. "I got to see my daddy again." With his voice cracking, he adds, "If it took for that truck to hit me to see my daddy one more time, I'm glad ... He just said, 'I'm not ready.'"
When Morgan left the hospital and went home, he didn't leave his bedroom for two weeks and "didn't start remembering [things] until six or seven months into being home." On his Apple TV, he would watch footage of the wreck he had survived "every day," he says. He recalls, "I wanted to walk again. I wanted to talk again. I wanted to hold my daughter — I didn't even see her on her first birthday, man. I wanted to see my daughter walk. I wanted to walk my wife down the aisle. Just basic things." Did his mind ever wander to SNL? "Yeah, I thought about it," he acknowledges. "Lorne called a few times. Tina came to the house once or twice. David Letterman called. Don Rickles called me all the time."
While hosting the Emmys in September 2014, Jimmy Kimmel sent Morgan his best wishes and said he'd see him at the Emmys a year later. And, sure enough, in September 2015, just before the presentation of the final award of the night, Morgan stepped onto the stage — his first public appearance since the accident — to a massive standing ovation. "That moment just transcended show business," he says now. "The only thing I felt on that stage at that moment? Straight love." Shortly thereafter, Morgan recalls, he set his next goal. "I was in the city, and we rode past NBC and I called Lorne Michaels and I got really emotional when we was talking," he says. "I said, 'Lorne, I want to come.' And he just said, 'Door's open.' A little ways later I got the call: 'You gonna be doing Oct. 17. You're gonna host.' I just broke down." He adds, "Happiness is simply having something to look forward to."
"I was so happy to go back," Morgan says, "but when I got there it was a different story." He explains, "I was scared to death. It was like the first day." What scared him? "Performing. Not being able to perform. I got in my own head. Then I talked to Lorne and Lorne set me straight again, like it was the first day." He adds, "I remember being backstage before I came out and I said, 'This one is for you, Daddy; this one is for you, Jimmy. Then I went out." Morgan came out of the famous prop door at the top of the show and, at Michaels' suggestion, opened his monologue with jokes about his condition. ("People are wondering, 'Can he speak? Does he have 100 percent mental capacity?' But the truth is, I never did! I might actually be a few points higher now.") "That was me letting them know, 'I'm okay,'" he says.
Morgan confesses that "what I was concerned about the most in the hospital" was whether or not he could be funny again. "How would I approach it?" he remembers thinking. "I forgot how I did it the first time. Then it came to me as I started doing it again. 'Okay, I do love this.'" Today, he looks great, cracks jokes like used to and is trying his best to get on with his life. (One of his favorite places to go still is Benihana because he can eat with a "built-in audience," something he loves because, as he says, "I just love people.") But the accident never is far from his mind. His heart aches for McNair and his family. His body aches from the accident. (He still sees a physical therapist regularly — "We did a workout in the swimming pool yesterday," he tells me.) And he constantly is reminded of how blessed he is to still be here: "To this day, right now, when I walk down the street, sometimes people look like they saw a ghost, because I was almost gone. I was knocking on the door."