Interview: How Tracy Morgan Almost Blew It

The hard knocks and wild nights of TV's biggest superfreak

Tracy Morgan Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

TRACY MORGAN LIVES IN A LOFT THAT feels like a third-grade classroom's fantasy field trip sprung to life. Wander past the obligatory giant plasma TV and the plush leather sectional couch, and you arrive at the apartment's most eye-boggling feature: a $30,000 row of lavish, fluorescent-lit glass aquariums. There's a bandit shark, a nurse shark, a goldfish-eat­ing piranha, plus tarantulas and a moray eel that Morgan's girlfriend, Taneisha, has nick­named Squidward, after SpongeBob SquarePants' jerk-off neighbor.

"These animals live here on this Earth with us, and most people don't even know it," Morgan says softly, sounding a bit like Brian Fellow, the flamboyant street naturalist he played on Saturday Night Live. "When I don't want to watch the fucking idiot box, I just look at their world. Whole lot of shit going on in there."

Dressed in sweatpants and a faded New York Giants T-shirt, Morgan, 41, sounds less impressed with the rest of his 3,000-square-foot Soho apartment. "This is nothing," Morgan says dismissively. "I'm quite sure Dane Cook got more than me."

Morgan doesn't leave the house much these days. Despite a hit TV show, 30 Rock, and a forthcoming buddy movie with Bruce Willis, Cop Out, it's often just him, Taneisha, his fish and that fucking idiot box. "I've got a thing now for Donnie Brasco," he says. "I'm watching The Great White Hope, with James Earl Jones, and studying technique. Robin Williams in Insomnia." Regular TV enrages him. "ESPN used to be my sanctuary," he says, flailing his arms. "But now I got mother­fuckers pulling guns on each other in the locker room!"

Not long ago, when Morgan was bored, he'd go to a nightclub. After a handful of drinks, he would stop being Tracy Morgan and transform into a wild alter ago he calls Chico Divine. Chico would drink, maybe smoke some weed and, if the DJ played just the right Biggie Smalls song, take off his shirt and jiggle his belly for the ladies. A pajamas-wearing Prince once booted Chico out of his house after a pre-Grammy party. At 7 a.m., Chico told Prince his father loved "When Doves Cry." "Mother­fucker, get out," Prince said.

"I love Chico," Morgan says, wistfully. "He is the coolest dude, he would never hurt anybody. Chico never shot at the cops. Chico never fought. The most Chico ever did was throw up in Club Suede."

Still, Chico was a headache. The barf at Suede made the New York Post. A cou­ple of times, Chico got behind the wheel of a car, and Morgan got arrested for DUIs. By 2007, Chico had gotten Morgan into so much trouble the police made him wear an ankle bracelet that monitored his al­cohol intake. "That embarrassed me," he says. "My oldest son looked at me like I was a jerk."

Chico was sabotaging Morgan just as his career was taking off. An underappre­ciated SNL-er who had never come close to Will Ferrell-level adulation, Morgan was cast in 2006 by his old SNL friend Tina Fey in the cafl'einated show-within-a-show spoof 30 Rock. He plays what is widely assumed to be an outsize version of himself — a truculent urban comic named Tracy Jordan who utters off-the-wall mus­ings like, "I love this corn bread so much I want to take it behind a middle school and get it pregnant." The character is a sendup of every hip-hop cliché, but what defines him is Morgan's ingrained weirdness, the way he innocently delivers every ludicrous line — "There's no link between diabetes and diet. That's a white myth.... like Larry Bird or Colorado" — with a flat obliviousness, as if he were reading letters at an eye exam.

"No one else could play that part," says Fey. "Our scripts are the salt and pepper, but Tracy is the meat — the meat that you bought out of the trunk of a dude's car. But there's nothing without the meat."

Tracy Jordan made Morgan comedy's favorite space oddity. But thanks to Chico Divine, his home life was crumbling. His marriage fell apart, his battle with diabetes was taking its toll, and a wound on his leg — caused, ironically, by the ankle mon­itor — became infected and almost forced doctors to amputate his foot. "I thought I was winning," Morgan says. "I didn't know I was losing. Taking my shirt off, parties, Saturday Night Live, antics." Morgan sud­denly turns deadly serious, an emotion he's not especially known for.

"I didn't know which way was up," he says. "I lost a 21-year marriage. Who does that? I was a real dick."

A CONVERSATION WITH TRACY MORGAN does not adhere to an orthodox flow. Over the course of two hours, he leapfrogs from talking about Star Wars ("Darth Vader went against the Rebel Alliance for a chick? Give me a fuck­ing break") to his short-lived NBC sitcom, The Tracy Morgan Show ("People say, 'We love that show!' Maybe you should have watched it, motherfucker") to gleefully singing the theme to The Facts of Life. He claims triumphantly several times that he is the "black Bon Jovi," but he doesn't offer any concrete explanation as to why.

Morgan gets away with the scattershot outrageousness because he's hopelessly dis­arming; everything comes with a childlike wink. "There's a tenderness, a sweetness to him," says Alec Baldwin, his co-star on 30 Rock. But Morgan has seen plenty of life's hard edges. In his oddly riveting 2009 au­tobiography, I Am the New Black, Morgan describes a fractured, traumatic childhood — a heroin-addict father, an overworked mother who made ends meet working in an illegal casino, an older brother para­lyzed by spinal meningitis. When Morgan was 13, he left his mother in Brooklyn and moved in with his father, who had relocat­ed to the Bronx. Not long after, he sent for his younger brother and sister, sparking an ugly custody battle. Morgan and his moth­er have long been estranged, though Mor­gan says they recently spoke on the phone.

"We don't hate each other," he says. "My mother anil my father both made mistakes. They were young. My mother had me when she was 18. That's all the fuck she knew."

In his late teens, Morgan dropped out of high school and started selling drugs. But he was no 50 Cent. "I was the worst drug dealer you could imagine," he admits. "I would throw meetings with the fucking crackheads. I'd tell them, 'Listen, I'm tired of all your bullshit. You've got to get your shit together.'"Clients paid him in pennies. Morgan believes he was the only crack-era dealer who had to work at Wendy's.

Though the drug war would claim sever­al of his friends — "Half my crew got washed out," he says — Morgan always could make people laugh. He got that from his father, Jimmy, a Vietnam vet who played key­boards in a string of R&B bands and who shared his son's taste for night life. One afternoon during Tracy's senior year of high school, Jimmy pulled him aside and told him he'd been diagnosed with AIDS. Morgan was horrified. "We didn't know what AIDS was," he says. "I was a kid, un­able to understand that my father was about to leave me. I didn't want to hear that shit." But Morgan helped care for his dying father to the end, carrying his emaci­ated body up the stairs of his building and bringing him cash to buy medicine. The an­guish was scarring. "I have some bottled-up resentment and anger," Morgan says.

Morgan channeled that anger into com­edy. He met his future wife, Sabina, one night when he was selling souvenirs at Yankee Stadium. She already had two children and, with Morgan, a third was soon on the way. "She saved my life," Morgan says. "She took my dick off the corner." Sabina pushed him to focus on his stand-up. "It was just me and her and the roaches and the kids," he says. "Sabina knew I was funny and she knew my hustler mentality. She saw fucking potential."

He started grabbing gigs atthe Uptown Comedy Club — the influential nightspot that helped inspire Def Comedy Jam. His act included a running bit about a slow, propeller-hat-wearing project kid named Biscuit and a destitute Michael Jackson who moonwalked with a dirty sock on his hand. "The crowd knew Tracy was something special," recalls the club's co-founder, Kevin Brown, better known these days as Tracy Jordan's assistant, Dot Com, on 30 Rock. "He was one of the guys who really made me laugh. And it was hard to make me laugh."

A break arrived when Martin Lawrence cast Morgan as a character named Hustle Man on Lawrence's sitcom Martin. Satur­day Night Live came calling next, in 1996. Soon after he got his first check from SNL — he was paid $9,000 an episode — Morgan moved his family to leafy Riverdale, New York. "I don't liken myself to Noah, but I felt like I was building my ark," he says. "I moved my family out of poverty."

Morgan struggled initially on SNL. His comedy act, honed before African-Amer­ican audiences, didn't translate to the show's white-bread Ivy League environ­ment. While many of his castmates were crashing on office couches, Morgan had kids with earaches and parent-teacher conferences. He was on the verge of quitting when Lorne Michaels, the show's cre­ator, took him aside. "I wasn't getting on any skits, and I didn't feel a part of the show," Morgan says. "I was basically the only black dude there besides Tim Mead­ows. And Lorne Michaels brought me back into his office one night at about four in the morning, and he said, 'Tracy, you're not here because you're black. You're here because you're funny.'"

Morgan's voice cracks. He runs his hands along his sweatpants, puts his head down and starts to tear up. "I never for­got that. I'm here because I'm funny." He pauses, trying to compose himself. "Don't give up hope! You can make it. No mat­ter how many mistakes you make, get up. Falling down is not a sin."

Eventually Morgan hit his SNL stride, and over seven seasons, he developed a niche with characters like Astronaut Jones, a randy spaceman who once barked at guest host Britney Spears, "Why don't you drop out of that green jumpsuit and show me that phat ass!"

Morgan also found a co-conspirator in Fey, who would become SNL's head writer. On paper, the pair couldn't be more differ­ent — Fey is a nerdy college-educated Sec­ond City alum; Morgan likes to joke that his penis is inscribed with the tattoo STOVE TOP. But the two somehow connected, and Fey created 30 Rock's Tracy Jor­dan as an homage. "We could have writ­ten a character based on him, but who would play it?" Fey says. "1 don't think anyone else would get away with that mix of sweet-arrogant-childish-idiot-genius. People can tell he comes by it honestly."

THESE DAYS, WHEN HE'S RESTLESS, Morgan steps into his Jaguar (he also owns a BMW and a "blood burgundy" Lamborghini) and drives across the Brook­lyn Bridge to one of his old neighborhoods: the Tompkins housing project in Bedford-Stuyvesant. "That's my therapy," he says. "Whenever I feel stressed out, I get in one of my cars and go back to my neighbor­hood." Morgan claims he feels more com­fortable back there than he is in his current ZIP code, with its Prada flagship and $3 chocolate croissants. "I'm afraid to walk around here," he says. "I'm not from here."

Friends of Morgan know where he's from, which is one of the reasons they stood by him even when Chico Divine was behaving like a jackass. You can say this for Tracy Morgan: he is well liked, and has banked a lot of goodwill. Michaels al­ludes to a time a few years back when Mor­gan's behavior was "infuriating to Tina," but Fey, like Michaels, has remained loyal. After his DUI arrests, Morgan says, Fey offered him some simple advice. "She just told me, 'Yo — if you go out drinking, call a car!' There was no chastising or nothing.

"I'm a grown man," Morgan goes on. "They knew I was going through this shit. They know this shit ain't easy and doesn't come with instructions."

Morgan's health was even more dire. After he was diagnosed with Type 2 di­abetes in the mid-1990s, he blithely ig­nored medical advice to take better care of himself and continued to drink heavily. During the 2007 season of 30 Rock, Mor­gan would film his scenes during the day and spend nights at the hospital hooked up to an IV that managed his blood sugar. Faced with the possibility of losing his foot to infection, he was outfitted with a special boot that helped stimulate healing. Kevin Smith, who directed him in Cop Out, says Morgan's tenacity on the set resembled an athlete's. "You watch that movie and you'd never know the dude was in pain the whole time," Smith says. "He was work­ing like a hurt player — 'Tape it, I'm going to go back in.'"

Morgan says his health is vastly im­proved. "I just went and got an echocardiogram. Everything's fine. The kidneys, the liver, blood work." He offers his own, Tracy Jordan-like diagnosis: "I'm losing a little hearing, but I'm still passionate."

What hurts him most, he says, is the dis­integration of his marriage. "My wife was just tired. I let her down. I still feel fucked up about that to this day. That was the real reason I stopped drinking and partying and all of that."

With the partying behind him, Morgan is in a professional groove. After Cop Out — easily the biggest movie of his career — comes Death at a Funeral, co-starring Morgan and his idols Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence. "You get a second act if you're good," says Smith. "And Tracy is good enough to get that second act."

Lorne Michaels agrees. "Tracy's lived out loud at times and been very exces­sive," he says. "But he's really coining into the happiest period of his life. It's enough just to be Tracy Morgan. He doesn't have to live like him." Nowadays, if Morgan is at a club, he sticks to seltzer. This afternoon, he's got a yoga instructor coming over to help him breathe and meditate. "There's a lot of overstimulation out there," he says. "I'm pretty much a homebody now."

Still, sitting next to Morgan in his multi­million-dollar loft with his tarantulas and piranha, you get the sense that part of him misses the late-night extremes. "Life is a struggle," he says. "You don't want it if it's easy. It's like those sharks" — he looks over at his fish tanks. "Natural fucking preda­tors. They don't want to be fed. I have to put food in there so they can chase it — so they don't lose their natural instinct.

"I don't run down the street in my tighty-whities with a light saber," he goes on. "I'm a little more stable than that. I'm a man. I make better choices, and I stick by them. I tell my sons, 'Make your decisions and make them tough. You see everyone go left? Go right, motherfucker.' I know it's hard. I see the girls, I see the temptation."

The temptation. You can almost see him recalling a million blurry afterparties, the life he lived with his alter ego. Then, for the first time all day, Tracy Morgan laughs exactly like you expect Tracy Morgan to laugh. "Do you know how much fun Chico Divine had?"