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.'”