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Groundbreaker Garrett Morris on Battling Racism on ‘SNL,’ Overcoming Addiction and Why Dave Chappelle Is a “Comic Genius”

He faced lots of resistance as part of the original cast of ‘Saturday Night Live,’ but he credits producer Lorne Michaels for having his back, praises Richard Pryor and, when it comes to comedy, thinks everyone just needs to relax.

Garrett Morris was a 37-year-old playwright and singer performing on Broadway in Porgy and Bess when he took a long-shot meeting in 1975 with a 30-year-old Canadian producer looking for writers for a new late night NBC variety show. That producer was Lorne Michaels, and the meeting led to a coveted spot as a founding member of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players on the inaugural season of NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Over the next five years — alongside such legends as John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman and Chevy Chase — Morris would become a household name with characters like the Dominican Mets player Chico Esquela (“Baseball been berry, berry good to me!” was his catchphrase) and a “Weekend Update” segment “News for the Hard of Hearing.” That he was the first Black castmember on SNL is of no minor significance; Morris came out of the gate shattering barriers, confronting racism and busting taboos. Now 84, Morris, who lives in Los Angeles and since SNL has maintained a busy acting career — he was a series regular on CBS’ 2 Broke Girls and more recently appeared on NBC’s This Is Us and HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show — sat down with THR at La Piazza restaurant, his favorite terrace at The Grove, for a frank, fascinating and hilarious conversation about the business of comedy, then and now.

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How did you break in to show business?

I had graduated from Dillard University [in New Orleans]. I didn’t graduate summa cum laude or magna cum laude. I graduated “Thank you, lawd!” I left New Orleans in 1958 and came to New York City. My first month and a half in the city, I was homeless. I got picked up twice, once by a Black cop who was very empathetic. But the next time, his white sergeant caught me and sent me to jail. That’s when I saw something I didn’t think existed: I saw a Black judge. 1958. He sent me to his [chambers], comes in, ignores my crying, goes to the phone and calls the YMCA. The executive director of the YMCA agreed to let me stay there until I got a job.

A lucky twist of fate.

So I’m rehearsing in the YMCA, in the auditorium, and sure enough, a member of The Belafonte Folk Singers [an all-male folk group that sometimes backed Harry Belafonte] also rehearsed there. That led to an audition with them, and that’s how I got my first job in the business, as a singer-arranger for The Belafonte Folk Singers.

How did you go from singing to SNL?

By the time I got to Saturday Night Live, I had written two plays, one commissioned by the city of New York. New York asked playwrights from each borough to write a play for each borough, and I wrote a play for Brooklyn for schoolkids called Stagger Lee. It was about an ice cream demagogue. The other play was about a Black cop who infiltrates a Black Panther-like group. I wrote this in 1968 — way before Judas and the Black Messiah.

That second one doesn’t sound like a comedy.

It had a couple scenes that are funny. Lorne Michaels, bless his heart, wanted a Black person to be a part of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, and he also wanted a Black writer. A friend of mine says, “They’re looking for a Black writer. Bring your play.” I brought the cop play. He read the play and hired me as a writer. But it didn’t really work out.

How do you mean?

I had been writing plays that were a couple hours long. I didn’t know how to write for a three-minute sketch. So word was getting around that I wasn’t producing. There were people who didn’t want me as a part of anything, including [late writer] Anne Beatts and the second-in-command, a Harvard guy who stole a sketch idea from me and didn’t give me credit. They pissed me off. So I was heading to their office to give them a piece of my mind. I got in an elevator, and someone says to me, “Hey, Garrett, Lorne wants to see you in the green room.” I go to the green room, and you know what they were doing? They were looking at a movie I did called Cooley High. And John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Laraine, Jane, all of them said, “Garrett should be on camera. Check out his chops.” So Lorne said, “Garrett, I want you to audition for Not Ready for Prime Time Players.”

What did you do at the audition?

It was Gilda and me. Lorne assigned us a scene: I was a cab driver bringing in a visitor to the city. Gilda was the visitor, and I was the cab driver, and I cheated the shit out of her in the sketch. And they laughed. Now, I had done some improv, but it was different from The Groundlings. In the ‘hood, we dealt with subjects like teen pregnancy, drug abuse, what white cops were doing to Black people. My improv went from what I call “Hate whitey” to “Kill whitey.” Gilda’s range was just immense. I was counterpunching in this whole thing, but it got me over. After that, Lorne said, “You’re hired.”

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Garrett Morris Photographed by Lee Morgan

That must have really annoyed the writers who wanted you fired.

The thing was, up until that time, Lorne had been told by a whole lot of people, “Get rid of him. He’s not talented.” And, to his credit, he would not do that. But the deal was, after that, I could no longer be called a writer, which pissed me off. Because after that, I did write.

Was it a raise? Do you remember what you made the first season?

Oh yeah, big raise. But I wouldn’t quote it. It was a lot of money. But I would go a couple months on SNL without anything being written for me. Then I put up a fuss. Something would be written. Thank God for Alan Zweibel [who went on to write for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm]. He wrote for me. And Chevy Chase wrote for me.

What about [National Lampoon co-founder] Michael O’Donoghue?

I was a little disappointed in Michael O’Donoghue. Because he was associated with National Lampoon, I made some progressive assumptions I shouldn’t have made. He was a racist motherfucker. I suggested I could play in this skit, a doctor. He had the nerve to tell me, “Garrett, people would be thrown by a Black doctor.” Mind you, this is 1975. I was raised in New Orleans, where not only did I see loads of Black medical doctors but loads of Black Ph.D.s. I was thoroughly disappointed that a man who was associated with the Lampoon should be this way. So once or twice, he and I did some stuff together, but I always knew what he really was.

Was Lorne aware that kind of stuff was going on?

I don’t think he was aware. I never told him.

What was Lorne like back then? You were all pretty young.

I was not an angel, OK? I used a lot of drugs then. So a whole lot of things I was doing, you’re not supposed to. Lorne did have reason to fire me on more than one occasion. He never did. I see him as not at all racist. But I do see him as a genius who, if he hires you, he’ll be the one to fire you. And in those five years, he dealt with all of us that way. A couple times, he verbally abused me. But look, when they told him to get rid of me, he didn’t do that. He allowed me to audition for something else. It wasn’t just writers who wanted me gone; it was some NBC executives, too. Lorne didn’t do that. So how can you do anything but thank him for that? Because without Saturday Night Live, I certainly would not have been nationally known.

Why do you call him a genius?

Damn, you’ve seen 45 years of SNL, and you don’t call that a genius?

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Garrett Morris Photographed by Lee Morgan

Someone on the outside can’t see what he does. He’s just a name. So I’m curious: What was he doing that you consider genius?

The show itself. That was a very radical idea in ’75. Let’s face it, with racism as it was at that time, you wouldn’t have thought a show like that would do what it did. Not just racism, but the kind of right/left politics that were going on. He came out stinging everybody. You know? The president, everybody. It was a show in which everybody was made to understand that anybody can be the butt of the joke, even him. Talking about stuff like that, did you see Dave Chappelle’s latest show?

Yes, I did.

That was brilliant.

You thought so?

Oh. You didn’t think so.

I appreciate him, I respect him. But by the end, it upset me.

Really? Why?

Because I felt he was really going after trans people in a way that —

They were going after him. That was a response to something.

Well, yeah. I guess I don’t see what people say to him. I’ve only seen what’s in these specials.

I got from that: Relax, everybody, this is comedy. Everybody can be the butt of a joke. And why should it be that if we joke about you, it’s sacrilege? You sit in the audience and laugh at jokes about everybody else. If we make a joke about trans [people] or gays, suddenly it’s sacrilege. And that’s what I got from that. I don’t see what’s wrong with that, with all due respect. I see it as nothing but a man saying publicly, “This is what I do.” And if you can’t understand that this is comedy coming at you, then don’t live in a society that’s multicultural.

The reason he cited for walking away from Comedy Central is that he did a blackface sketch, and there was a white guy laughing at it too hard. And it made him uncomfortable. He was like, “People are not understanding what I mean.” Now it seems he’s not understanding what trans people mean.

Everybody should be able to understand — if you’re a mature human being — everybody can and might be the butt of a joke in a democracy.

And he was very preoccupied with the plumbing, you know? The genitalia, the this and the that. Does it really matter?

That’s why Miss [J.K.] Rowling is now in trouble because she said it’s a fact. Gender is a fact. Is it not? I’m asking you. Is it not? Gender is not a fact?

You can’t choose the body you end up with.

I like to think that he didn’t hold back, that he talked the way he felt. And, basically, he was saying that everybody should be what they are. You know? Look, I was raised partly by a gay uncle, OK? I was raised by a Baptist minister. So by the time I was 12, 13, I knew there was a difference between what was called “the ministers of music” and other people. Live and let’s just live. That’s it. I mean, you might’ve never heard the part he talked about where the trans person who he had as his lead-in committed suicide. And that’s why I think he was angry about what happened to her from her own community. They’re talking about how you can’t be whatever. To me, that makes no sense. I think Dave is a genius, to be honest. He’s a comic genius. I put him on the same level as I put Richard Pryor. But Richard — the laughs were different. He had the ability to make you laugh at something and later on realize he was making a political point. Dave doesn’t do that. Dave has substance going on as he makes you laugh. You are hearing what he’s talking about right in your face. Maybe a bad choice, but that’s a level up anyway. And for me, Richard Pryor is the greatest monologist I’ve ever heard in my life, period.

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Left: The original Not Ready for Prime Time Players (clockwise from top left) John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Laraine Newman, Morris, Jane Curtin and Gilda Radner. Right: Morris at the “Weekend Update” desk. SNL cast: NBC/Everett Collection. SNL Morris: Alan Singer/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images.

Do you remember him rehearsing the “Racist Word Association Interview” sketch with Chevy Chase?

Great sketch, yes. Although I said what I just said, Richard didn’t treat me right then. Because when he came to Saturday Night Live, as I just told you, I’d been in New York since 1958. I’d written two plays. I taught not only in high school but in prison. I had paid my dues. But behind the scenes at SNL, I was “Lorne Michaels’ n—r.” So when he came, Richard brought his own group [of writers]. Now, if you noticed that show, I never do anything with him because Richard chose that. But later on, when he did a movie called Critical Condition, he invited me to be in the movie with him. I assume that was his way of [apologizing]. You know?

What was your relationship with John Belushi like?

Belushi and I got along well until about the fourth year. Then, for some other reason, I don’t know what happened. I know both of us were on cocaine a lot. So I know what cocaine does. I’m not trying to make any excuses, but he dealt with me like I was his enemy.

Probably paranoid from the drugs?

Yeah. I didn’t know about him shooting up because that’s something I would never do. I did smoke [cocaine]. Again, I take credit for creating a lot of enemies on the set, legitimately, who had legitimate reasons to hate my guts. I’m a Buddhist, so I take responsibility for my actions. My actions were not good actions through that time and what I did. The response was deserved.

What about Bill Murray?

Bill and I get along great, got along great then, get along great now. Bill and I have never had one bad thing between us.

Do you ever go to New York to watch new episodes of SNL being taped?

Why?

I don’t know, just to walk around 8-H and feel the energy. And also, you’d be treated like a king.

No. When they have reunions, I’ve gone every time. Last time I went, I caught up with Keith Richards. Because back when I was on cocaine, whenever the Rolling Stones came to the show — knock, knock, knock, “Garrett?” I’d say, “Yes, Keith, come on in.” I never should say this. Oh my God. Forgive me, Keith, because I don’t do cocaine anymore. Matter of fact, I went to AA, Alcoholics Anonymous, and through their help in 2005, I stopped and haven’t done it since.

Where did your “News for the Hard of Hearing” bit come from?

That’s Chevy Chase.

Did you ever get a hard time from deaf people about that?

Matter of fact, no, I didn’t. If you’re a certain kind of a deaf person, you’ll be offended. But another kind might see it as effing hilarious.

I remember Fred Armisen used to do the blind governor of New York [David Paterson] on “Weekend Update.” And he got a lot of heat for that.

Sure did. But was there a blind governor of New York? Yes, there was! So, shouldn’t he play the governor blind, then?

But now everyone gets offended about everything. It’s just the way we are.

I think we’re in a time where that’s overboard.

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From left: Kat Dennings, Beth Behrs, Jonathan Kite, Matthew Moy and Morris on the set of ‘2 Broke Girls,’ which ran for six seasons on CBS. Darren Michaels CBS /Courtesy: Everett Collection

So what have you been up to lately?

My last steady gig was six years on 2 Broke Girls with two beautiful ladies, Beth Behrs, who’s now in The Neighborhood, and Kat Dennings. Matthew Moy, an Asian gentleman I met there, beautiful man, and [another] very talented man, Jonathan Kite. And the diva herself, Jennifer Coolidge. Hey man, you’ve got to meet Jennifer, OK? She’s every bit as beautiful as what you see. Beautiful lady. I’m so glad and lucky that I got to work with her. Because I’d heard about her before because she was in Pootie Tang. You know what I mean? This white bitch was in Pootie Tang. OK? She has the best get-togethers. On Halloween, she has a mansion she lives at in New Orleans. She has a Halloween thing, everyone comes dressed up.

They’re saying she’s going to win the Emmy next year for The White Lotus.

She’d better. She’d better. I’ve seen it.

Well, Garrett, it’s an honor to meet you. You’re a comedy legend.

With sincerity, I give the moniker of comedy genius to people like Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle. I am just an actor. Prior to Saturday Night Live, I was an actor. And I got on a comedy show years ago, and I have been suffering ever since.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.