This interview was originally broadcast on Oct. 22, 2009.
You'd be forgiven for confusing Tracy Morgan with his character on 30 Rock — which has its series finale on January 31 — Tracy Jordan. Jordan stars in a sketch comedy show on NBC; Morgan starred on Saturday Night Live for seven seasons. In 30 Rock's pilot, Jordan is filmed running down a crowded street in his underwear, wielding a plastic light saber; Morgan has appeared on a local talk show reclining on top of a desk with his shirt pulled up over his belly.
Morgan grew up in the Bronx and the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant (which he calls Ghetto, USA), and says that even as a child he knew he wanted a better life. He fled a troubled relationship with his mother, but life with his father, who served in Vietnam and recovered from a heroin addiction, didn't make him happier.
"I was like any other inner-city kid with a chip on his shoulder because his daddy and his mommy wasn't together," Morgan tells Terry Gross. Morgan says his father, a musician, took him fishing and encouraged him to play football, but his battles with addiction and then AIDS — a result of his heroin use — put a strain on the relationship.
After his father's death, Morgan turned to dealing crack. As he tells it, he was a bust as a drug dealer, but the experience haunts him. "It still bothers me today," Morgan says, "but it's something that I did. It was survival."
Morgan didn't turn to comedy until after his best friend was murdered.
"He would say to me, 'Yo, Tracy, man, you should be doing comedy,' " Morgan says. "A week later, he was murdered. And that for me, that was like my Vietnam. I had my survival guilt when I started to achieve success. Why I made it out and some guys didn't."
When he arrived at Saturday Night Live in 1996, Morgan turned his attention to standing out in a cast full of future stars. He decided to be the funniest thing in any sketch — no mean feat given that Morgan's tenure on SNL coincided with Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey.
"Saturday Night Live was like a university for funny," he says. "I had to let my guard down to let the writers see my flaws."
30 Rock creator Tina Fey was the first writer to see that "he was funny, but you had to let him be him," Morgan says. "And it worked."
Fey invented the Tracy Jordan character specifically for Morgan, and has imported elements of his over-the-top personality and real-life exploits — like the time he had to wear an alcohol-sensing bracelet after a DUI conviction — into 30 Rock. Morgan says he trusts Fey's writing because she always spikes the self-referential plotlines with real laughs. Plus, Tracy Jordan's on-screen antics give Morgan a release: "I love 30 Rock because Tina Fey allows me to fly over the cuckoo nest once a week."
Morgan says the anger that ruled his life as a teenager has mellowed: "That little 17-year-old boy — he's grown up. He's a man now. And when I was angry, when I was younger, I was in a cocoon. Now I'm a beautiful, black butterfly."
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross back with more of our salute to NBC's "30 Rock," which concludes its seven-year run next week.
Next, we'd like to visit with Tracy Morgan, one of the cast members of "30 Rock" - and like Tina Fey, a former regular on "Saturday Night Live." "30 Rock" is a sitcom about the making of a TV variety show. Morgan plays Tracy Jordan, the star of that show within a show. In this classic clip from "30 Rock," Tracy Jordan's erratic behavior leads to him being sent to NBC therapist accompanied by his boss network executive Jack Donaghy played by Alec Baldwin.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK")
ALEC BALDWIN: (as Jack Donaghy) Hey, Tracy, this is Suzanne Hocker, the NBC therapist.
TRACY MORGAN: (as Tracy Jordan) Who's crazier? Me or Ann Curry?
JEAN VILLEPIQUE: (as Suzanne Hocker) Hello, Tracy. Jack informed me the talk you had earlier. And if you don't mind I'd like to hop right in and start with some role play.
MORGAN: (as Tracy Jordan) Like my wife and I do? Cool. You be the maid, I want you to scream. Donaghy, you play the matador.
VILLEPIQUE: (as Suzanne Hocker) Uh, no, Tracy. What I want you to do is talk to that empty chair as if your father were sitting there, OK?
MORGAN: (as Tracy Jordan) Man, this is stupid.
BALDWIN: (as Jack Donaghy) Come on, Tracy. We're here to help you.
VILLEPIQUE: (as Suzanne Hocker) Tracy, maybe it will help if Jack sits in the chair and pretends to be your father.
BALDWIN: (as Jack Donaghy) I want to talk to you, son.
MORGAN: (as Tracy Jordan) You sound nothing like my dad.
BALDWIN: (as Jack Donaghy) Well, where is he from?
MORGAN: (as Tracy Jordan) All I know is he's from funky North Philly. He worked in a Campbell's Soup factory. And he had a droopy lip due to an unattended root canal.
BALDWIN: (as Jack Donaghy) I think I can do this. OK, go.
MORGAN: (as Tracy Jordan) I 'm mad at you, dad.
BALDWIN: (as Jack Donaghy) Hey, dummy. I'm mad at you too. Why are you got to act out that way?
VILLEPIQUE: (as Suzanne Hocker) That's not exactly what I had in...
MORGAN: (as Tracy Jordan) 'Cause you left me, dad.
BALDWIN: (as Jack Donaghy) I was young and confused and your moms didn't want me around no more. Now, pass me them damn collard greens.
MORGAN: (as Tracy Jordan) Is this true, mom?
BALDWIN: (as Jack Donaghy) He gambled away my welfare check. Woman, I got a mind to smack you upside the head.
VILLEPIQUE: (as Suzanne Hocker) This is not helpful.
MORGAN: (as Tracy Jordan) Be me now.
BALDWIN: (as Jack Donaghy) I only act out because I want your love. Dyn-o-mite.
VILLEPIQUE: (as Suzanne Hocker) I think we're just doing "Good Times" now.
BIANCULLI: Tracy Morgan recently identified that as his favorite scene from "30 Rock." In 2009, Morgan wrote an autobiography called "I Am the New Black," which recounts his actual childhood memories growing up in a tough family situation. Terry Gross spoke with him when the book was first published.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Tracy Morgan, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've worked closely with Tina Fey on "Saturday Night Live" and on "30 Rock." How did you start working together as - did you work together as a collaborative team on "Saturday Night Live" before "30 Rock"?
MORGAN: No, on "Saturday Night Live," I never really wrote. You know, I would just - I would let the writers cast me into the show. So my strength -and I put all my energies into performance. I just couldn't deal with the rejection, you know, getting your sketches cut, and it was hard for me. So I said you know what? I'm going to focus all my energies on performance. I'll let them cast me in stuff, and when they cast me in stuff, I'll be the funniest thing in it.
GROSS: So I want to quote something from the book. You say, I'm real life ghetto and that's probably why they brought me into "Saturday Night Live." But "Saturday Night Live" wasn't ready for that, not at first. I had my finger on the pulse urban comedy. But when I brought my act to "Saturday Night Live," they just felt bad for me.
I want to play an excerpt of a sketch from "Saturday Night Live" that kind of satirized the differences between you and other members of the staff. So this is a sketch with Rachel Dratch and before - you're co-hosting a talk show and she describes it as a show inspired by actual conversations and interactions between Rachel Dratch and Tracy Morgan. So here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
RACHEL DRATCH: Hello and welcome to the show. I'm Rachel.
MORGAN: I'm Tracy.
DRATCH: And today we'll be talking to a funny man and talk show host in own right, Jon Stewart. But first, a segment called "Catching Up" where Tracy and I catch up with what's going on in each other's lives. So Tracy, what'd you do last night?
MORGAN: Yeah, I just chilled out with the homeboys, you know what I'm saying? Busting out a couple bottles of Cristal at the club, drove around my baby blue Jaguar. Typical bad boy stuff.
DRATCH: Cool. Cool.
MORGAN: What about you, Dratch? What you did last night?
DRATCH: I went to this Brazilian restaurant on the Upper West Side with a couple Dartmouth friends. You should go. They have really good flan.
MORGAN: Yeah. I don't know what that is.
GROSS: So that's Rachel Dratch and my guest Tracy Morgan on "Saturday Night Live." So does that - was there like a culture gap similar to the one that we just heard in that sketch between you and Rachel Dratch or you and other members of the show?
MORGAN: Absolutely. We celebrated the differences and the places that we came from. "Saturday Night Live" was like a university for funny. And at that point, I realized that in order for me to do it, I had to put my guards down and let the writers see my flaws - to make fun of them. And I learned how to do it, and I - that was my process. That became my process. OK, what I'm doing, it may be too urban for this mainstream audience so I let the young guys - the mainstream writers - do it. But I'll give them the stuff.
GROSS: What do you me
MORGAN: If I didn't give you - if I didn't give "30 Rock" writers stuff to write about, I mean what - I'm a 40-year-old black man from the ghetto, you know what I mean? What does a young writer know, a white writer know about that?
GROSS: So what did you give them, to help?
MORGAN: So it's all collaboration. I just started to collaborate and I realized the gift of collaboration is more than the gift of competition.
GROSS: How did you start collaborating with Tina Fey on "Saturday Night Live?"
MORGAN: Just being funny. Just being funny around her and she'll - Tina Fey was basically the first one to go wait a minute, this dude is funny but you got to let him be him. You can't be afraid. Yeah, he's edgy. He's from the ghetto. But let's let him be him. And it worked.
GROSS: So what did she write for you that you thought really worked?
MORGAN: She wrote me in "The View."
GROSS: Oh. Oh.
MORGAN: She wrote me in "Judge Judy."
GROSS: As Star Jones?
MORGAN: All of these things.
MORGAN: Yes. Star Jones, she wrote all of that stuff.
GROSS: One of the characters you did on "Saturday Night Live" was Maya Angelou, the poet and memoirist, and so I just want to play an excerpt of that sketch. It's on "Weekend Update" with Tina Fey at the desk and you're wearing this like, you know, graying wig with like large red glasses, and lipstick, and gold earrings, and a...
GROSS: ...a kind of almost tie-dye orange-red top.
MORGAN: Yeah. I remember.
GROSS: OK. So here you as Maya Angelou introducing your Hallmark cards.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
TINA FEY: This month Hallmark Cards will release a series of greeting cards written by poet Maya Angelou. Here now with a preview of her work is Maya Angelou.
MORGAN: (as Maya Angelou) Thanks, Tina. As always, you effervesce the sweet aroma of woman in full bloom.
FEY: Thank you. That's good, right?
MORGAN: (as Maya Angelou) Oh yes.
(as Maya Angelou) And now, I shall read some of my Hallmark cards. I will begin with this one here.
(as Maya Angelou) It's my favorite.
(as Maya Angelou) I lay down in my grave and watch my children grow. Proud blooms above the weeds of death, I lay down in my grave, my grave, to die.
(as Maya Angelou) Happy 5th Birthday, Grandson.
FEY: Wow. That was moving, a very moving sentiment.
MORGAN: (as Maya Angelou) It made my grandson cry for days.
(as Maya Angelou) And look, there's a little slot to put money in.
FEY: Oh, so that's perfect. Yeah.
MORGAN: (as Maya Angelou) This next one is my favorite.
(as Maya Angelou) I see you brown skin, neat afro, full lips, a little goatee.
(as Maya Angelou) A Malcolm, a Martin, Du Bois. Sunday service becomes sweeter when you're black - black like the night. Happy bar mitzvah to you, little bubelah.
BIANCULLI: Tracy Morgan in a "Saturday Night Live" skit written by Tina Fey. We'll hear more of his interview with Terry Gross after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's conversation with Tracy Morgan, recorded in 2009. Morgan is one of the stars of the NBC sitcom "30 Rock," which presents its final episode next week.
GROSS: Some of the stories in "30 Rock" do connect to your life.
GROSS: Most famously, the ankle bracelet that you had to wear after getting arrested for driving under the influence and it's a bracelet that basically sends an alarm to like some kind of headquarters. If you drink, it can sense the fumes. So it's to prevent you from drinking for the...
MORGAN: Yeah. But it was hard for me, Terry. People always want to look into things, you know what I mean? They want to read into things more than what it is. So, you know, the thing I liked about Tina was that she didn't just, I had an ankle bracelet, let's make fun of it. No. The ankle bracelet had been off for like a year. It had been off already.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
MORGAN: So she waited until the scars healed to make fun of it. She didn't do it while I was still hurting because she knew and she was sensitive to know that that bracelet was hurting me and my family, my kids didn't - it was painful for me wearing that thing, you know? So she didn't just make fun of it right there. She would wait until the scar healed.
GROSS: You describe in your book that you kind of turned your demons into a persona that you named. You called him or it Chico Divine?
MORGAN: Chico Divine. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. So who is Chico Divine?
MORGAN: Chico Divine is Tracy Jordan. Now I don't do it real life. Now I do it on TV. I exorcise my demons.
GROSS: So, but you're obviously like really comfortable with putting your kind of wild side and what you consider to be your demons out there on television.
MORGAN: Baby, I was in the papers every week.
MORGAN: I was in the papers every week.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
MORGAN: I was taking my shirt off in clubs. I was dancing with the devil, mama.
MORGAN: Holler at me.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Do you feel like you got him out of your system?
MORGAN: Other than that - huh?
GROSS: You got him out of your system?
MORGAN: I love Chico. I had some of the good - best times of my life with Chico, but he don't run things no more. He don't. Tracy Morgan is here and he only comes out when I let him - that's on TV.
MORGAN: He's knows - it's like Jack Nicholson. You know, I love "30 Rock" because Tina Fey allows me to fly over the cuckoo nest once a week.
GROSS: So does she talk with you before? Like the bracelet scene. Actually, let me just play a real short excerpt of the bracelet episode. And in this part of the episode - it's the Christmas episode so like the staff of the show is going to the Christmas party, which they call the Ludachristmas party, and as they're on the way to the party, they see you in the hallway. And, of course, you're wearing your ankle bracelet which prevents you from drinking. So this scene starts with one of the writers talking to you.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Hey dude, I thought you left.
MORGAN: (as Tracy Jordan) Yeah. I mean what are you guys doing? Going to Ludachristmas?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Yup. We heard you can't drink. You still coming?
MORGAN: (as Tracy Jordan) No. No. I can't go because of the ankle bracelet. Or maybe I could go and just not drink? Hey, maybe I'll compromise: I'll go to the party, cut off my foot and drink all I want.
I love that scene. The thing is, what Tina does is she'll take some of the things that I've mentioned and gone through and ripped stuff out of the headlines and put a twist, just a comedic twist on it. And she's a part of the healing process to me. I love T because she's a part of the healing process. You know it was like...
GROSS: Now will she say to you, are you okay with this?
GROSS: Will she write it and then take it to you?
MORGAN: No. No.
GROSS: It's just in the script.
MORGAN: She doesn't leave the funny on the table. No. She'll wait to see, maybe hear me talk about it, then it's good. That's me and her signal.
GROSS: You describe when you got your first check from "Saturday Night Live," you know, you said you were still living in the ghetto and...
GROSS: ...after you got the check you had enough money to move the family...
GROSS: ...and you moved in the middle of the night.
MORGAN: I felt like Noah. I felt like Noah who had built his ark and the first thing I wanted to do was get my family to higher grounds because I knew the floods was going to come.
GROSS: What were the floods?
MORGAN: More gunfire. More violence. And I'm on TV now too. Where I come from, people see you on TV, they think you stashed a million dollars in your house. And you don't want anybody knowing when you're leaving. You don't want nobody looking at your stuff as you put it into the truck. You don't want anyone following you to your new pad where you rest your head. And that was it. I just wanted a fresh start with my family and I wanted to leave my past in my past, so we quietly moved. We quietly moved up to Riverdale.
And that was an adjustment then. That was an adjustment because I wanted to - I had where I came from and where I was at, I could compare it. Like, why is there garbage on the streets where I come from? This is the, I am the new black. Why is there garbage on the streets where I come from and where I'm living now, there's no garbage? So that means we have to keep our own clean. We can't blame nobody. We can't use nobody as a crutch. We have to take care of your own. Period.
GROSS: Now the title of your new book is "I Am the New Black" and that is an allusion in part to a sketch that you did on "Weekend Update" in 2007 during the presidential campaign.
GROSS: And I want to play that. This was in response - Geraldine Ferraro during that campaign had said about Obama, if he was a white man or a woman he wouldn't be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is, implying that he was like really lucky to be black because it's making him more popular.
MORGAN: You know that reminds me of what Lorne Michaels said to me when I first got to "Saturday Night Live" and I thought people was like - I thought people was like isolating me and all of that stuff. And Lorne Michaels called me in the room and he simply said to me, Tracy - and this is coming from Lorne and this is why I love that man like he's my father. He said Tracy, you're not here because you're black. You're here because you're funny. And that's all he had to say to me. My fangs came down and I begin to feed.
GROSS: So, how did that change you at "Saturday Night Live" when Lorne Michaels said to you, you're not here because you're black, you're here because you're funny?
MORGAN: They let me know that I was there not because I was black and let me know I'm here with Will Ferrell because I'm just as funny as him.
GROSS: So did that...
MORGAN: Now, go to work. I don't want hear no excuses. I was looking for an excuse and Lorne said, no...
GROSS: An excuse for what?
MORGAN: ...I'm not giving you that.
GROSS: An excuse for what?
MORGAN: To fail, to bail out, to run. Again, like I did when I was a young kid with my mother, to run, and I got to stop running. I'd stop running away and I dealt with it.
GROSS: Were you considering leaving the show? Did you feel like you were failing?
MORGAN: Yeah. Yeah, there were times that you weren't in, yeah.
GROSS: Oh, like...
MORGAN: But I thought it was because I was black they wasn't putting me in the sketches. No, because I wasn't being funny. But I was making my adjustments. I was coming from a different world. I was coming from a world of black people and knowing how to make them laugh. And a lot of black entertainers, sometimes they search for the perfect audience.
They stay in their comfort zone. And I was out of my comfort zone. And he said, make yourself comfortable. You're going to be here for a while, my man. You're very talented. And I believed him. Lorne Michaels is my Cus D'Amato like Cus was with Mike Tyson.
Cus D'Amato would come in Mike Tyson's room every night and tell him, and Mike knew - he was like what is this guy talking about? But Cus was building his confidence up and his confidence up. And that's what Lorne used to always do to me. He wouldn't talk to me but sometime he would give me a wink.
GROSS: He wouldn't talk to you?
MORGAN: And it would build my confidence up. And I'd do - yeah, I would go out there and I'll do anything to make Lorne Michaels laugh. And it was a confidence builder for me and I love Lorne for that.
GROSS: You just said that he wouldn't talk to you, is that because he's not a talkative guy?
MORGAN: No, he was like - he was like Vince Lombardi but he'd give you a wink. He'd give you a wink. Pat you on the butt, yeah, good job, good - funny sketch. Give you a wink. He won't come over to you if he don't know you, if you're a new cast member, go: You were great, you were great.
Because it might go to your head. But if he'd give you a wink, then you know you did your thing. But you still got Monday, brother, and you got to come even harder now.
GROSS: OK. So we have to hear that sketch that I was talking about before, the black is the new president. So here's my guest Tracy Morgan at the Weekend Update desk.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
MORGAN: Why is it that every time a black man in this country gets too good at something, there's always someone to come around and remind us that he's black. First Tiger, then Donovan McNabb, then me. Now Barack. I got a theory about that. It's a little complicated but basically it goes like this: We are a racist country. The end.
Maybe not the people in this room, but if we're not a racist country how did Hillary convince everybody in Texas and Ohio that Barack didn't know how to answer the phone at three in the morning? Let me tell you something, Barack knows how to answer that phone. He's not going to answer it like, hello, I'm scared. What's going on? He's going to answer like I would get a phone call at three in the morning, yeah, who is this? This better be good. I'll come down there and put somebody in the wheelchair. Some things just never change, Seth.
SETH MEYERS: OK.
MORGAN: People are saying he's not a fighter. Let me tell you something. He's a gangster. He's from Chicago. Barack is not just winning because he's a black man. If that was the case, I would be winning and I'm way blacker than him. I used to smoke Newports and drink Old English. I grew up on government cheese. I prefer it.
BIANCULLI: Tracy Morgan, one of the stars of NBC's "30 Rock" in another clip from "Saturday Night Live." He spoke to Terry Gross in 2009. And to conclude our salute to "30 Rock," we'll return with another Terry Gross interview with Tina Fey, this one from 2011. Back after a break. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.