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The biggest surprise of Emmy night was not any of the winners but rather the evening’s final presenter. Appearing onstage to hand out the outstanding drama statuette to a standing ovation was the still-recovering comic and onetime 30 Rock nominee Tracy Morgan.
It marked Morgan’s first appearance at a Hollywood event since his devastating highway accident in June 2014, which left him severely injured and claimed the life of his friend and fellow passenger, comedian James “Jimmy Mack” McNair. In June, he told Today‘s Matt Lauer that once he came out of his coma, he would regularly watch footage from the crash on the Internet. At that time, he said he was “not 100 percent yet,” and would need to focus on healing before he could get back to work.
By late August, news broke that Morgan’s return would come Oct. 17, when he will host one of the early episodes of Saturday Night Live‘s 41st season. It will be familiar turf for the Morgan, who spent nearly a decade on the NBC sketch show. Prior to the accident, Morgan was prepping an untitled comedy series for FXX, which was created by It’s Always Sunny‘s Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton and Luvh Rakhe. It’s been on hold since the accident.
The newly married Morgan, who flew to Los Angeles privately Saturday to avoid being spotted and spoiling the Emmy night surprise, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his emotional return.
How did this idea come together?
This is was my publicist Lewis Kay‘s idea. He said, “What you want to do is let Hollywood welcome you home.” And I loved that idea. I loved the idea of getting back with my community, the show business community. I loved it.
What does being on this stage mean to you?
It means I’m home. The love and support that I’ve been shown by many of the people [in the Microsoft Theater] helped get me through the tough times. Speaking to people like Steve Martin and Lorne Michaels, people who were there, that meant a lot to me. It meant a lot to me.
Were there any nerves heading into today?
I’ve been really, really excited about to doing this. I wasn’t nervous. Words take on meaning, so rather than say “nervous,” I’d say I was excited. Nervous is for people who can’t wait until it’s over; excited is for people who can’t wait for it to start. I couldn’t wait for it to start.
From here, you’re going to host Saturday Night Live. What did that decision entail, and what’s the significance of getting back to Studio 8H for you?
It means everything. A month, month and a half ago, I was speaking to Lorne Michaels. I love Lorne Michaels like I love my dad. I’m very close to him. The conversation got kind of emotional, and I said, “Lorne, I want to come home.” And he said, “The door’s open.” So I’m hosting.
Have you given any thought to what you want to do on that stage?
Not yet. One thing at time, one thing at a time. I don’t want to be overwhelmed with things. I’ve had a long year, and I don’t want to be overwhelmed.
You look and sound great. How are you feeling?
Right now, I’m feeling good. But I have my good days and I have my bad days. Sometimes on my bad days, I get really frustrated. Sometimes, I lock myself away in a room until I calm down. Overall though, I feel blessed that I’m alive, and that’s the bottom line.
You’ve said that getting back to comedy is very important to you. Why is that?
When I came out of the hospital, I saw a lot of the reports and the love and support. Now I just want to show my comedy because that’s my way of giving back. I was really happy to do Matt Lauer, it was my time to say thank you and I love you to those on the road that night — the police, the ambulance drivers, the helicopters, the firemen, the nurses, the doctors. I sat on that for a year, and I finally got to say thank you. And now with my community, this is my way of saying, “Thank you for your support, and I love you.” And then we can get back to business, and we get back to making the world laugh. That’s what I learned from Lorne Michaels.
When 9/11 happened, I was a castmember on Saturday Night Live, and we all wondered how we were going to be funny after this great tragedy had happened. And the genius Lorne Michaels said, “Let’s bring [Rudolph] Giuliani” — who was the mayor of New York City at the time — “on the show and have him tell the world that it’s time to laugh again.” And I take on that same doctrine right now. I learned that from Lorne Michaels, who is my Obi-Wan Kenobi. [Interviewer laughs.] I just made you laugh really hard just now. So, it’s going to take more than 18 wheels. It’s going to take more than that to stop me from making you all laugh. I’m going to do that until I die.
I know you just said that you’re taking one thing at a time, but before the accident you had an FXX series in the works. Is that still something you think you’ll do?
We will do it. As long as I got a breath in my body, we will do it. I will conspire to make [people] laugh forever.
To have everyone in this theater see you back onstage is very emotional …
You’re going to make me emotional. [Morgan begins crying.] I don’t want to be there [crying] right now. I’m just emotional. I’m sorry. I’m on my way back, and it’s starting to hit me. I want you to see me smiling, not crying. But this is a big step for me. And I’m just thankful, I’m really thankful. People have loved me, and I’m really thankful for it. Excuse me, I’m trying not to do this. [Morgan cries harder.] For me and for the people who have helped me and been around me, it’s been a long year. And I’ve waited for a long time to get back on this stage.
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