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?”