How Tracy Morgan's Near-Death Accident Made Him Funnier - Rolling Stone
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How Tracy Morgan’s Near-Death Accident Made Him Funnier

The comedian talks about returning to the road stronger than ever: “Maybe when I was in heaven, Richard Pryor said something to me”


Not for the first time, Tracy Morgan is getting a glimpse of heaven. “Look at this,” he says, pointing to a city-size mass of white clouds, framed against a marble-blue horizon, outside the window of his leased private jet. “Ain’t no war up here. Ain’t nothing going on up here. This is the friendly skies. This is calm. Ain’t no room up here for none of that bullshit from Earth.” He leans back in his tan leather seat, takes a breath, checks the color touchscreen of the high-end new insulin pump he just got yesterday. (“It’s basically my whole pancreas,” he explains. “It’s kind of complicated.”)

On a Friday afternoon in early March, Morgan is headed to a Michigan casino for a date on his first stand-up tour since the car crash that nearly killed him, capping a dramatic and hard-fought recovery. “We’re going to do comedy,” he says, then repeats the word with incantatory reverence. “Comedy.” A black do-rag is on his head, covering scars near his temples; he’s wearing a green hoodie, gray sweatpants and green suede sneakers.

Just 21 months ago, he was in a coma. “A doctor said, ‘The two biggest accidents in the world was yours and Princess Diana,’ ” says Morgan. “Think about it. That’s heavy shit.” In the early-morning hours of June 7th, 2014, near Exit 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike, a Walmart truck driver who hadn’t slept in 28 hours plowed his 18-wheeler into the rear of a chauffeured limo-van taking Morgan home from a gig in Delaware. Morgan’s longtime friend James “Jimmy Mack” McNair died in the crash; three of Morgan’s fellow passengers were also hurt and have also since recovered.

Morgan suffered a traumatic brain injury; his coma lasted eight days. His left femur was shattered, his ribs were cracked and, he says, every bone in his face was broken. At first, doctors weren’t sure he’d live, much less get back to any semblance of his old self. “We really kind of thought he wasn’t going to make it,” says his then-fiancee, now-wife, Megan Wollover, 29, who would’ve been left alone to raise their now-two-year-old daughter, Maven. “We were praying and being hopeful, but we didn’t know what to say to the public.” The prognosis quickly improved. But then, Wollover adds, “everyone was more concerned with the brain injury – is he gonna be the same?”

When Morgan woke up, he was blind for six days. (“Where I come from, you don’t wanna be blind for a second,” he says onstage, referring to his childhood in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.) He doesn’t really remember any of it: not the Delaware show, not the accident, not the initial recovery. But he’s convinced that he paid a visit to the afterlife during his coma, where he encountered his father, Jimmy Morgan, a gifted musician who died of AIDS from contaminated-needle use when Tracy was 19. Though Tracy jokes that he turned away from heaven’s white light because he “thought it was the police,” he’s pretty sure that it was his dad who sent him back to Earth.

“He was the one who said, ‘Go home, son. I ain’t ready for you yet,’ ” says Morgan. “I don’t think I cheated death. I think this was the plan. My room wasn’t ready.” He would have left behind Megan, Maven and his three kids from his first marriage, who range in age from 24 to 30. “I still have shit here to do,” Morgan says. “It’s gonna take more than 18 wheels for me to get out of here. I have to raise my girl, raise my wife, raise my family.” Exotic pets, too. “Gotta keep my octopus alive. Gotta keep my sharks alive. Those are God’s creatures! I’m needed!”

“I don’t think I cheated death. I think this was the plan. My room wasn’t ready.”

Other than the occasional headache and memory lapse – he sometimes consults a printed outline of his routine onstage – Morgan seems fully recovered from his brain injury. But he’s still walking with a limp, still grieving his friend, still grappling with what happened to him. His extensive roster of doctors includes a psychiatrist.

Morgan is convinced, though, that he returned from the afterworld “bearing gifts” from the comedy gods. “Maybe when I was in heaven, Richard Pryor said something to me,” he muses. “I feel funnier than I ever felt.” His friend Jimmy Kimmel thinks Morgan’s experience opened up the door for deeper work. “A great hour of comedy could come from it,” Kimmel says, “something that really moves you in a way that 99 percent of comedy specials don’t.”

Morgan does intend to turn his tour into a special – he might call it “Stayin’ Alive” – but his instincts don’t lead him toward dark-night-of-the-soul stuff. Instead, as his audiences get more reverent, he’s only getting filthier, riskier: He’s working on bits that verbally defile everyone from Caitlyn Jenner (“I’ll fuck the shit out of her – I’ll get her pregnant! She gonna have a baby out her butthole!”) to E.T. (he imagines the extraterrestrial touching down in an urban area and falling prey to a pimp).

He had to learn to talk again, to walk (it helped, he notes, that his physical therapist resembled “a young Raquel Welch”). But last October, shortly before his 47th birthday, he returned to host Saturday Night Live, where he’d been a beloved cast member from 1996 to 2003. “People don’t come through something like this and do that,” Morgan says. “When I was going to come back, it was going to be a train wreck or it was going to be a miracle. I decided to give you a miracle.”

“Watching Tracy host SNL was like a miracle to me,” says his friend and former 30 Rock boss Tina Fey. “He was in better shape than the first time he did it” – in 2009, the year before he had a diabetes-related kidney transplant. “He’s like the Bionic Man now – better than he was before.”

In the dress rehearsal, Morgan had the disconcerting thought that the audience was feeling sorry for him. “They think I’m impotent or whatever,” he told SNL creator-producer Lorne Michaels. “They think something is wrong with me.”

“No,” Michaels replied. “They’re just happy you’re alive. We’re just happy you’re here.” That night, Morgan began his monologue by slurring the words “thank you so much,” his face frozen like Jack Nicholson’s at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Then he smiled. “Nah, I’m just playin’,” he said, as the crowd roared with relief. “I’m back!”

Tracy Morgan; Long Road Back

Now, Morgan is playing some of the biggest shows of his career, getting standing ovations before he says a word. “You motherfuckers make me feel like the Desmond Tutu of show business,” he’ll say, before comparing himself to Michael Clarke Duncan’s character in The Green Mile. “I feel like I’m a magical nigga! Put my hands on a white motherfucker and cure syphilis!” It’s still painful for him to stand on his left leg, so he ends up sitting for a good chunk of some shows. No one minds. Offstage, nearly everyone he meets tells him how happy they are that he’s OK.

Morgan has no assistant, no entourage; besides the crew, the only other passengers aboard the plane are me and Marc Theobald, Morgan’s friend, opening act and writer – a sharp comedian with a toothy smile and an easy laugh. The two of them can riff for five minutes and come away with something stage-ready: It happens in Michigan with a joke about differences between white and black comedy clubs (white peers are supportive if you bomb; black comics say, “Kill yourself, motherfucker!”). “Ain’t this what you always wanted?” Morgan asks Theobald. “Ever since I saw Eddie Murphy fly in a private jet in Delirious, I wanted to do that.”

Now, Morgan is playing some of the biggest shows of his career, getting standing ovations before he says a word. “You motherfuckers make me feel like the Desmond Tutu of show business.”

And do the economics work out, given that Morgan is mostly playing 5,000-seat venues? “Uh, yeah,” Morgan says. “I think.” (Kimmel is amused by his friend’s extravagance: “He’s probably losing $12,000 a show because of the plane.”) Morgan’s other opening act, the very funny Tracey Ashley, meets us in Michigan and flies on the jet to the next date in Wisconsin. Morgan spends much of the travel time cajoling her to tell dirtier jokes and peppering her with Tracy-isms like, “Comedy is who you are, where you’re from, and perfection.”

Morgan turns his attention to a screenplay he carried on board. “I gotta read this script,” he says, and does so, for maybe four minutes. He puts it down and sends a text using the plane’s Wi-Fi: “I told my agent it’s funny and I want to do it.” The sole determining factor is a line where a character calls him “a dirty motherfucker.” This is not an atypical decision-making process for Morgan – he admits to never reading the script for one of his biggest movie roles (which he asks me not to name) before signing on. “It’s not about the material,” he likes to say. “It’s about the funny.”

Lorne Michaels calls Morgan “one of the most naturally funny people I’ve ever known,” a compliment that’s all the more meaningful when you consider the source. Morgan stakes his entire identity on that trait. Before he began doing stand-up in his early twenties, he was a high school dropout who sold crack before becoming a Wendy’s employee and a concessions vendor at Yankee Stadium. His comedy saved his young family from poverty. Losing what he calls “my funny” meant losing everything – he was having nightmares about that prospect around the time 30 Rock ended, 18 months before the accident.

In the wake of Morgan’s injuries, it felt like his worst fears were coming true. “I said, ‘If my funny ever went away, I’d die,'” he says on a Monday evening in his New Jersey home, a few days before the Michigan show. “And I thought I was going to die for a long time. My thoughts – I was in a very dark place. I was sitting right here, contemplating suicide. I couldn’t walk.” He’s in an easy chair facing a TV in his living room, near a cylindrical tank where his giant Pacific octopus lurks, waiting for its next meal of lobster.

Morgan insisted on leaving the hospital early and continuing his rehabilitation at home. “You go to hospitals to fucking die,” he says. “If I got to go, I wanted to be in the house with my family.” For the first couple of weeks, he stayed in the second-floor bedroom, unable to navigate the stairs. “My wife heard all the screaming,” he says, calling Megan over from the kitchen, where she and her mother are playing with Maven, who is dressed head-to-toe in Disney gear. “She changed all the bedsheets when I shit on myself. She knows.”

Once Morgan made it downstairs, he started watching TV reports of his accident, over and over, like a living ghost. He plays one now via his Apple TV. His features stay impassive as the twisted metal of his van appears on the screen and a newscaster says, “Actor-comedian Tracy Morgan is in critical condition after a deadly car crash on the turnpike over the weekend.” Morgan calmly watches the whole thing yet again, interjecting the occasional factual correction.

Tracy Morgan; Megan; Accident; Crash

The death of Jimmy Mack, who mentored Morgan early in his career, hit him hard. He felt responsible, had trouble understanding why he survived and his friend didn’t. He made tearful phone calls to friends. “He was very, very emotional,” says Michaels. “He wanted to tell all the people he loved that he loved them.”

Morgan struggled with feelings of guilt, reminding himself that everyone in the car was there because of him. “Emotionally, it’s hard for me to deal with,” he says. “I asked everybody to be there that night. I have to live with that. But I had to forgive myself. I know Jimmy would want it like that.”

He cues up a song he’d play to soothe himself in his dark moments – which happens to be the smooth-jazz theme from Taxi – and begins to weep. “I remember the days,” he murmurs. “I remember them days. Jesus.”

Morgan has zero desire to recover his memories of that night. “The past is nothing but a forest filled with horrors,” he says, gravely. Because it is Tracy Morgan saying these words, I can’t help but laugh. He grins a little, and starts repeating the phrase, putting some spin on it, pushing it fully around the corner to comedy. “Nothing but a forest full of horrors,” he intones. 

In May 2015, Morgan reached a settlement with Walmart, which took responsibility for the crash. The amount is confidential, but Morgan isn’t exactly taking pains to hide the fact that it was a whole lot of money. On the afternoon I stopped by his house, he had just brought home a new Ferrari, which joins a fleet including a new Lamborghini, a Rolls-Royce and a high-end Range Rover. He also bought a mansion near his current house, which his family will move into after a gut renovation. He has both gold and platinum models of a chain that says #1 dad; he owns more than one $150,000 watch.

In the car to the airport after the Michigan show, en route to Wisconsin, Morgan takes a break from singing along to the Force M.D.’s “Love Is a House” in an impressive falsetto, and begins riffing on his settlement. “I don’t need to do this shit,” he says. “I have my Walmart truck, motherfucker! It wasn’t Doritos, nigga! It wasn’t a Snapples truck! You could make a quiet $5 million off a Snapples truck!”

The bit emboldens the evening’s Suge Knight-size chauffeur to mention a rumor spread by Damon Wayans in a radio interview: that Morgan’s settlement totaled $90 million. “Damon Wayans, how the fuck he knows what’s in my pocket?” says Morgan, bristling. “Only my wife knows that.” He begins talking to Wayans as if he’s in the car. “I don’t even know you, homey. Why are you endangering my family? Pick some fucking number out of the air?”

Morgan is planning to take his daughter to the circus when he gets back to New York, and the discussion has, understandably, turned his mind to issues of safety. Within minutes, he’s on the phone: “I want my own security at the circus,” he says. “Someone with a gun.”

When he drove his Lambo through Manhattan last summer, shortly after a tearful TV interview about the crash, an “old-ass white man” confronted him at a light. “This is bullshit,” the guy yelled. “You were just on Matt Lauer a week ago, crying, and now you’re driving this fucking fancy car.”

As Morgan tells it, he got out and faced the man, as traffic backed up. “Now he’s scared,” he says. “Because he thought he was talking to Brian Fellows. He thought he was talking to Tracy Jordan. I said, ‘Yo, you woulda took that fuckin’ hit for me? You’d have jumped in front of a Walmart truck doing 65 miles per hour? You’d have lost your best friend for me? Motherfucker, you would’ve took that for me?’

“He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘A man died. And you’re worried about a fucking car?'” He’s shouting now. “ ’I almost lost my life, you jealous, cocksucking motherfucker. If you ever say something to me again, I’m gonna fucking choke you out … That fuckin’ accident was very personal to me. You don’t say shit to me.'” He sighs. “It just goes to show that it isn’t all good.”

Tracy Morgan

Morgan is, for the most part, extraordinarily patient with the public. (The only other person he’s threatened with death lately is a guy at a car dealership who thought it was smart to invite Morgan’s daughter to sit on his lap.) At the casinos, he’ll plop himself down on lobby couches, which invariably means conducting an impromptu meet-and-greet. Fans are awed and slightly confused when Morgan ends up giving them five-minute-long personal comedy shows. “You can’t find no material in your room,” he says. “You got to be in the world.”

After the show in Michigan, he is kind even to a profoundly intoxicated woman with damaged teeth who compliments him on his “music.” She points her phone at him, its light blazing, while insisting she’s not shooting video.

When some Beavis-y teenagers wander over, inexplicably unsupervised in a casino past midnight, Morgan gives them advice, at great length: “Always do the right thing,” he says. “When everyone’s going left, go right… Stay focused. Become a doctor. Become a lawyer.”

A blond woman in her early forties sidles next to him on the couch and asks Morgan if “he’s gonna come hang out.”

His expression hardens. “No,” he says. “My wife don’t allow that bullshit.” She starts backtracking – “You’re taking this the wrong way!” – but he plunges on. “I’m 47 years old. I don’t hang out. My oldest son is 30! I rock for my fans, I go home.”

We head out to the car, where Morgan is still ruminating over that encounter. “I’m not playing her fucking game,” he says. “I’m not letting you suck my dick tonight! I know why you sitting down over there with your big-ass titties! Bitch, you should kill yourself!”

“I look forward to my wife getting pregnant again. I look forward to my daughter going to nursery school. I’m here. I get to see all of that.”

There was a time when the woman might’ve had a shot. He blames the demise of his first marriage, in 2009, on his infidelity and alcoholism. He’s been sober for almost a decade, and is intent on keeping his new family together. “I don’t give a fuck about pussy,” he says. “You think I want my wife to leave me?”

He also wants to stick around for his family. In the wake of his accident, he’s carefully managing the diabetes he once ignored – even if that means dialing up the right amount of insulin to counteract a Big Mac and fries. “I got a second chance,” he says. “I just got to do it right this time.”

He often places Facetime calls to Megan right after gigs (or in one case, before a gig, yelling detailed shark-feeding instructions). Security cameras in and around his house feed to his phone – he loads the app again and again, looking in on his family.

After the show in Wisconsin, we ride to the airport in a hotel shuttle bus, gliding along an inky-black highway bordered by snowbanks. Morgan’s thoughts go to a familiar place. “You know, we were traveling in a van this size,” he says. He reflexively turns and looks through the rear window. “For the rest of my life, it’s behind me.”

But happiness, Morgan likes to say, is having something to look forward to. “I look forward to my wife getting pregnant again,” he says. “I look forward to my daughter going to nursery school. I’m here. I get to see all of that.”

He wants his career to progress, too. He has a new show coming to FX; he’s going to play Redd Foxx in Lee Daniels’ upcoming Richard Pryor biopic. He would still like to be a real movie star: “Where’s Tracy Morgan’s movie?” he says at one point, out of nowhere. He wouldn’t mind doing something dramatic, would love to play Louis Armstrong. But he doesn’t see drama as a step up. “Nobody wants to take the pie in the face no more,” Morgan says. “Everybody too cool. I’m willing to do that.”

And then there’s tonight, another plane ride, where he’ll play DJ on a Bluetooth boombox, blasting Outkast, Nas, Sinatra. His chauffeured Rolls will be waiting for him at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, ready to whisk him where he’s badly needed. “I gotta get home,” says Morgan, “and feed my sharks.”


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