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March 08, 2018

Up to His Neck

Battling depression after a harrowing accident, Tracy Morgan took a doctor’s advice and went looking for laughs. He found them in Key & Peele, the show that he says “saved my life.” Now, with Jordan Peele, Morgan is back in funny business with the new TBS comedy The Last O.G.

Bruce Fretts
  • Andrew Eccles /Wschupfer.Com
  • Andrew Eccles /Wschupfer.Com
  • Andrew Eccles /Wschupfer.Com
  • Andrew Eccles /Wschupfer.Com
  • Andrew Eccles /Wschupfer.Com
  • Andrew Eccles /Wschupfer.Com
  • Andrew Eccles /Wschupfer.Com
  • Andrew Eccles /Wschupfer.Com

Tracy Morgan is crying.

Not weeping with laughter, like he's made millions of fans do over the years on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, but shedding genuine tears. He's talking about the June 2014 traffic accident that nearly took his life, when he was returning from a stand-up gig in Delaware and his vehicle was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer on the Jersey Turnpike.

"I was FaceTiming with my wife," he says, meaning Megan Wollover, the mother of his daughter, Maven. "My daughter was 10 months old at the time, and they came to every show with me on that tour — except for that one, because the baby was teething and she had a fever."

He allows himself to think about what might have happened if his wife and daughter had been with him that night. "You know what you would've heard? 'Damn, Tracy just went off the side of the George Washington Bridge,'" he says, breaking down in sobs inside the office of his lavish suburban New Jersey home, not far from that crossing to Manhattan. "Because I'm not living this fucking life without my family."

Morgan takes a moment to compose himself. Such a raw display of vulnerability isn't what we're used to from the ebullient comedic actor, who found fame playing outrageous characters like SNL's fierce animal expert Brian Fellow and 30 Rock's man-child Tracy Jordan.

It's just this kind of emotional range he hopes to show on The Last O.G., his TBS comedy that debuts April 3. He's cast as Tray, a reformed drug dealer who returns to his Brooklyn turf and tries to turn his life around after a 15-year prison sentence — only to discover his old 'hood has been thoroughly gentrified and his ex-girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish) is raising the two kids he never knew he had.

"Tracy has this spirituality and poignancy that can take you from the biggest laughs you've ever had to tears," Jordan Peele says. Known for the Key & Peele sketch show and for writing and directing Get Out, Peele co-created The Last O.G. with Morgan (they are both executive producers, along with Eric Tannenbaum and Joel Zadak).

"There's a depth to him that I've never seen him be able to portray. We wanted to give him a platform where he could really embody a character who's closer to him. He's not just a jester."

The story of a man who gets a second chance at life resonates deeply with Morgan. "I ain't supposed to be sitting here talking to you!" he bellows, noting the Walmart truck that hit his limo bus was going 65 miles per hour and carrying 85,000 pounds of frozen food. "People look at me every day like they're looking at a ghost. When you look at that shit on YouTube and you see the accident, people say, 'How the fuck did you walk away from that?'"

He cues up a cable-news report about the horrific pile-up and views it again on his DVR, just as he did every day for weeks after coming home from the hospital. In it, his driver describes hearing Morgan's screams when he was trapped in the wreckage. "Watching this was part of my therapy," Morgan says. "It brought me back down to what happened. I don't even remember it."

The crash killed one of his oldest friends and mentors, comedian James "Jimmy Mack" McNair. Though Morgan struggles with survivor's guilt, he tries to remain philosophical about his fate. "You don't have to get hit by no truck. You can just lie down in your bed and go to sleep and not wake up," he figures. "When your room is ready, your room is ready. My room wasn't ready. My friend who died in the accident, his room was ready."

Morgan was comatose for two weeks. "You don't just wake up out of no motherfucking coma," he barks. "You have to fight."

While hospitalized, he had a vision of his heroes. "I'm in a club setting with Richard Pryor, Moms Mabley, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason and my dad," he recalls. His father, Jimmy Morgan, was famously funny in his family's Brooklyn neighborhood but returned from military service in Vietnam as a heroin addict. He died of AIDS at 39 in 1987.

"In the vision, I'm having such a good time, and I'm so happy to see my father alive. Then God says, 'Come on, it's time to go.' And I start crying and I look at my dad and he's smiling. Then I look at Richard Pryor and he says, 'Stay funny.' And now I'm here."

Through months of rehab, Morgan — whose femur had been shattered, among many other injuries — learned to walk again, but he says that his toughest challenge was forgiving the Walmart driver, who allegedly hadn't slept for more than 24 hours before the crash and nodded off behind the wheel.

"I had to forgive him, so I could move on — I would've been so bogged down in bitterness, it would've destroyed me," he says. "I know it was an accident. All of that's behind us. We're living now." (Morgan settled a lawsuit against Walmart for an undisclosed sum.)

As Morgan battled depression during his recovery, doctors suggested a healthy dose of laughter could be the best medicine. One of his three grown sons from his first marriage turned him on to Key & Peele. "It was some of the funniest stuff I'd seen since Chappelle's Show or me on SNL," he says with deadpan immodesty.

He asked his agent to arrange a meeting with Peele, who'd been a fan of Morgan's since seeing his breakout stand-up act on HBO's Def Comedy Jam in the mid-'90s.

"Tracy told me, 'I watched every single Key & Peele sketch, and that show saved my life,'" Peele says. "I just started crying right there. From then on, we were family."

Together, Morgan and Peele developed The Last O.G. and brought on board a number of other comedic heavy hitters, including Girls Trip scene-stealer Haddish, Cedric the Entertainer as the head of Tray's halfway house and former SNL writer-filmmaker Jorma Taccone (a member of the "Lonely Island" troupe with Andy Samberg), who directed the pilot.

They shot the first 10-episode season in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, only blocks from the Tompkins housing project, where Morgan grew up.

"It's an honor to bring back this success and prominence to these people who have none," he says. "We bring all these cameras and trailers, but we bring more than that to this neighborhood. We bring hope. Because little kids see me, Cedric and Tiffany standing with them and they know, 'I can do it.' You never know — maybe we can spark the next Denzel Washington or Halle Berry here."

It was on these streets that Morgan sold drugs in the '80s, and those experiences inform The Last O.G. as well. "I'm shooting for The Wire of comedy. This is my life, my words and my world. Where I came from, I just wanted to eat," he says matter-of-factly. "You were smoking crack or you were selling it. Either way you got swept up in it. I was just trying to get in the game."

But he soon learned the cost of losing that game. "One day I was chopping up crack with my best friend from childhood — I used to always make him laugh, and he said, 'Man, why are you doing this? Take your ass to the Apollo!' And I said, 'Shut the fuck up and cut the crack,'" Morgan recalls.

"Four months later he got murdered, going across the street we had been going across our whole lives. Four months after his death, I was on Def Comedy Jam, and I never looked back."

The big laughs he scored as a stand-up brought him a recurring role as huckster Hustle Man on Martin Lawrence's sitcom Martin — and the attention of Lorne Michaels, who added him to SNL's cast in 1996. He became a favorite of fans, and of the tabloids, which documented his booze-fueled off-screen exploits.

"I got hooked on alcohol," Morgan confesses of the go-go, round-the-clock lifestyle he led at the time. "Those late-night parties at SNL, they're too late, man! You're getting shot out of a cannon every fucking week. And then you go get a drink."

He paid a heavy price for those choices. "I lost my first family," he says of his sons and ex-wife Sabina, his high-school sweetheart. Morgan had cleaned up his act in rehab long before their 2009 divorce, but the damage had been done. "Thank God, I was strong enough to get away from that shit," he says. "But I know what I lost."

Morgan took the hard-partying persona of his SNL days and channeled it into the character of 30 Rock's Tracy Jordan, a role that in 2009 brought him his first Emmy nomination. "I was playing my alter ego, Chico Divine," he explains. Fellow SNL alum Tina Fey "knew Chico. She had partied with him. I had stopped drinking for five or six years by then, so I was able to play him. It was easier to play him than to be him."

Fey was among the friends Morgan saw in the audience when he made his top-secret on-stage comeback at the 2015 Emmys, just 14 months after his accident.

"When I came out, they let me know, 'Welcome home,'" he says, tearfully remembering the sustained standing ovation. Once he started telling jokes, "I saw Tina laughing, because her brother's funny was still there. I know she was worried about me. She came to visit me before that, when I was in a wheelchair, and I didn't know who she was."

A month after the Emmys, he returned to Studio 8H to host SNL, and it was an equally emotional experience.

"In between dress rehearsal and airtime, I said to Lorne, 'I don't know if I can do this, man,'" Morgan recalls. "Lorne's like a dad to me. He said, 'Tracy, they don't care about you being funny. They're just happy you're here.' I went into the bathroom and cried and had my moment, and everything turned out all right. I gave 150 percent. I was happy, and it was so overwhelming." For his tour de force, Morgan earned his second Emmy nomination.

As the lead in a single-camera show, Morgan's role on The Last O.G. demands even more of him, but he and his colleagues say he's up to the task.

Peele marvels: "Before I saw him in action, I was thinking, 'We're asking a guy who has just recovered from a major accident to do work that would make me curl into a ball,' but he does it. Every day on set, he starts with a prayer and a message of positivity. I've worked with few people who are as full and demonstrative of love. Those are the kinds of people you want in the trenches with you."

Indeed, Morgan insists his new show is "a labor of love. I love it, so it isn't hard work." It certainly doesn't compare to what he endured after the accident. "I fought so hard with all of my might to survive, and God gave me The Last O.G."

Doing the show can be a physical and mental strain; Morgan still occasionally loses his train of thought and has to sit down for a few minutes and collect himself. Still, he's driven to perform. "The man loves bringing people joy," Peele says. "It's in his DNA."

Morgan adds: "Somebody's got to make us laugh. There's a reason I'm here."

Like Tray, Morgan wants to share the lessons he's learned from the rough times in his life. "I've been through hell, but I ain't come back empty-handed," he says. "I've got a lot of knowledge, understanding, wisdom and love." And he's communicating it in the language he knows best.

"Laughter is my way of spreading love. I'm going to knock on each and every door, open up my heart, and see if I can have a friend there. You can turn me away — I don't care." If viewers are willing to open themselves up to the new Morgan, they're in for a sincere surprise. "You're going to see my chops and my roots," he promises. "I want to stretch all kinds of muscles."

Taccone observes: "Tracy can be serious, emotional, sweet and gentle. He wants to make something special. This is a new chapter of his life." To Morgan, it's simply a matter of survival. "You've got to grow, you've got to evolve," he says. "That's why the dinosaurs ain't here no more. They didn't evolve quick enough. This show is about redemption. I don't care what color, race or creed you are, you can identify with that."

Just when you start to think Morgan may have sacrificed a bit of his antic unpredictability for sincerity's sake, he sings the praises of growing pains with an infectiously silly rendition of another sitcom's theme song: "You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have, the facts of life! The facts of life!"

Only this time, the world finally seems to be living up to Tracy Morgan's dreams. "When it's my time to go meet God, I want him to say, 'You did a damn good job, and you left everything out on the field,'" he says, launching into a divinely inspired comic riff. "I want him to slap me on the ass and say, 'Your Pop's in the back there with Jesus. Jesus, turn that music down! I'm not going to tell you again!'"

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2018

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