"OK, listen, I gotta play you something." Tracy Morgan gestures to a young man, one of a gaggle of publicists and assistants and network reps hovering around the periphery of an Austin conference room. Some of them are checking their phones, or pretending to. Others are simply staring nervously at the man at the center of the room. The 49-year-old comedian is here with The Last O.G., the TBS comedy that will mark his long-awaited, somewhat delayed post-accident return to TV and is premiering at SXSW later that day. (It hits the airwaves on April 3rd.) We're waiting for his co-star, red-hot actor and Girls Trip breakout and God-willing-in-a-perfect-world co-host of next year's Oscars, Tiffany Haddish, to return from the bathroom. To kill time, the former 30 Rock-er has started singing a loud, impromptu rendition of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time." (It's really impressive, even if he makes it sound a little like the "Astronaut Jones" theme.) After one verse, he begins to hold court on why most people screw the song up: Everyone always sings it too fast. This is the reason that a lot of folks can't sing Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" properly, he adds. It's a you-gotta-take-it-slow jam.
But when asked what he's been listening to lately, the star breaks into a huge smile and pulls out his phone. The twentysomething that he'd summoned to the large, round table – where he and Jorma Taccone, one-third of the Lonely Island and the director of the show's pilot, are sitting – has magically produced a cylindrical portable speaker. Morgan, brow furrowed, scrolls intensely through his playlist.
"Tracy, if this is just a recording of you singing a different Cyndi Lauper tune . . ." Taccone says, mock-menacingly.
"No, man, this is the shit. Check this out." Morgan hits play and a massive orchestral swell fills the room. If you had to carbon-date it, you'd probably say early Fifties, back when Nelson Riddle was producing swooning arrangements just like this for Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. It's "I Worry About You," by Arthur Prysock, he tells us; Morgan says his friend Gerry Cooney, the former boxer, turned him on to the R&B singer's work and he can't get enough of it. "I worrrrrry about yoooouuu," Morgan croons along. "When you're gone, I get bluuue."
Meanwhile, Taccone starts setting up a Snapchat video he wants to shoot before the interview starts, which will involve a hapless journalist trying to ask the three of them questions while they dance around. (He will actually film this.) Haddish re-enters the room, a look that says "this song again?" on her face. She introduces herself and starts checking out the fabric of my flannel shirt. "You write for Rolling Stone?" she asks, smiling. "I just thought you were from, like, Lumberjack Weekly or some shit."
"Man, I love this song!" Morgan exclaims, before shutting the speaker down. "Nothing against the new stuff, but, you know . . . I just love the old shit."
It's the "old shit" – not early-1960s vocalists, mind you, but the things you grew up with, things that came before everything strange and unfamiliar took its place – that haunts Morgan's Last O.G. character Tray. He's just a Brooklyn hustler settling in to watch the Season One finale of American Idol with his special lady friend Shay (Haddish) when he hits the corner to do some less-than-legal business. He gets busted and is given a 15-year bid. After serving his sentence, Tray just wants to go back, take a shower by himself ("I never want to see another penis in my life, not even my own") and do some good for the old 'hood. Ghostface Killah's "The Battlefield" plays over the soundtrack as the Last of the Original Gangsters steps off the bus in slow-mo, ready to scare all the young players straight.
And then he runs right into a lady with a stroller. A guy walks by, yelling into a cellphone. People are feeding their kids seaweed ("It's alkalizing!") and hanging out in front of some très chic café. Welcome to brunch time in Gentrified Outer-Borough Hipsterville circa 2018. "What the fuck happened to Brooklyn?!" Tray screams in existential agony. And then two teenage girls shriek "Brooklyn!" and take a selfie.
"I've been thinking about this show for eight years," Morgan says. "I've been talking about this to my wife for at least that long." The comedian had been wanting to do something related to where he came from – a housing project in Bedford-Stuyvesant – and regarding the guys he knew growing up, some of whom ended up incarcerated for doing desperate things. He liked the idea of someone returning from prison and feeling like everything, the good and the bad and the ugly, had been sort of paved over. Then, in 2014, Morgan was involved in a much-publicized car accident, which laid him up for a long while. It was during this rehabilitation period, he says, that he discovered a new obsession.
"Key and Peele!" Morgan yells out. "I was just sitting there in my wheelchair at home, and I would watch their shows all day. I just kept thinking, 'Man, what they're writing, it's so smart.' It's the funniest shit – that sketch they do with the stand-up comic and the burn victim? That's my comic sensibility!" He mentioned his fandom to his agent, who happens to know Jordan Peele; the afternoon before Morgan made his first post-accident prime-time appearance, at the 2015 Emmys, the two comedians had lunch together. "I pitched him the show," Morgan says, "and you could just see the wheels turning."
Peele and showrunner John Carcieri, a writer-producer who'd worked with Danny McBride on Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals, signed on to develop the show at FX; the project later moved to TBS and started looking to fill out its cast. (Amid a number of delays regarding the show's premiere date, Carcieri would end up leaving the series after the first season wrapped.) Specifically, there was the question of who would play Shay, Tray's girlfriend. During his stay in the pen, she's become a fundraising coordinator who now goes by "Shannon"; she's also married a white guy and is raising twin teens – kids the ex-con didn't even know he had – in a highly bougie-Brooklyn manner. This person had to be able to hold their own with folks like Morgan and Cedric the Entertainer, who'd come on board as a halfway-house manager. Enter Haddish.
"I'd done Keanu with Jordan," she says, "and he'd told me about this thing he was putting together. I kept telling people on my team, 'Get me an audition, get me an audition.' Then I got in front of them and I just brought it. My slogan is 'She ready' – if I wanna do something, I am ready to do it." As The Last O.G. crew were getting ready to start production, Haddish was finishing work on another project, a comedy about four old friends reuniting in New Orleans. She was in the middle of filming the TV show when Girls Trip hit theaters and, along with a few gone-viral holy-shit talk-show appearances, suddenly blew up big-time.
"Yeah, but Tiffany was grounded," Morgan says. "She never came on no brand-new shit. She wasn't like that. There was no ego there."
"Same old Tiffany – I still ain't on no brand-new shit. When's my brand-new shit showing up?" she says, laughing. "I mean, even if I had shown up like that, it wasn't that kind of set, you know? We were filming in real Brooklyn housing projects. Tracy and I, we know those types of places. And you had people coming out, being so cool, so happy to see us – it was just welcoming. You felt like you weren't just bringing trailers and lights to their neighborhood, you were bringing a party. Tracy threw barbeques. Doug E. Fresh brought his grandkids!"
"Everyone was on our set," Morgan agrees. "[Former Prince lawyer] Londell McMillan, Doug Fresh, Rakim, Nas. Everybody dropped by."
"You knew when Tracy showed up, too," Haddish says. "You'd just hear music blasting out of his car!"
"I'd be singing! 'I worry about yoooooouuuu,'" Morgan croons.
"I should have written you a theme song," Taccone says. "'Here/Comes/Traaaaacy/Mor-gan!' I could have got Lorne Michaels to sing it. Just Lorne freestyling about you. It'll be huge." Morgan is now laughing so hard he's practically wheezing.
As for the former SNL writer and current Lonely Island-er, Taccone got involved because he knows Peele, and knew that the Oscar-winning Get Out filmmaker had also wanted to direct the pilot – "which, can you imagine, would have been amazing" – but was expecting his first child. When he sent Taccone the first episode's script to read over, "I knew every place it was talking about. I live in Brooklyn. That café in the first episode where we filmed? That's my local coffee place. I know those kinds of folks walking down the street on their phones. I see them every day.
"The only thing that made me nervous," he continues, "was that it was a big deal – Tracy Morgan's back on TV! – and that you needed to balance the right tone. Because Tracy had a very specific thing in mind. He'd start telling me some really serious, really personal stuff about his life right before we were going to set up a shot. People love the Tracy Jordan character from 30 Rock, but this is not what he's trying to do here."
Yes, The Last O.G. does have a lot of the surreal, silly humor of Morgan's past TV gigs – there's a character named Poo Cat that, per Morgan, is known for "sneaking Skittles into prison in her love pocket"; Haddish shows up in a T-Boz wig in a flashback; and you will see the star hit himself in the nuts with a pair of nunchucks. But it's also his self-admitted attempt to channel some pain about both the accident and his own past. Ex-cons talk about adjusting to life on the outside. The specter of drugs and bad decisions hovers over the Brooklynites not benefitting from there being $4 million brownstones and an artisanal coffee roaster on every corner. The combination has confused some critics, but it's also made the sitcom a little deeper, darker and more interesting as well.
"I still don't feel like I’ve blown up yet, you know? Well . . . OK, my name is in a Beyoncé song, and she's talking shit, so – I know I made it." —Tiffany Haddish
"Yeah, this is a different side of my life" Morgan says. "I was the walking, talking authenticity on that set. I lived that shit. Because, look, Tiffany knows that world, but only two people on that set had sold crack in real life, and I was one of them."
"But, Tracy," Haddish replies, "you don't know what I sold! Anyone who's read my book [The Last Black Unicorn] knows that I sold other things to survive."
"I know, Tiff, I know," he says. "And you dealt with dope dealers. But you know about seeing it; you don't know about selling it to your relatives. The show is funny, but there were stories I wanted to tell with this. Shit people have got to know."
Morgan brings up a scene that occurs in the latter half of the season, which involves Tray going back to his old criminal ways to help out some homeless folks. He remembers getting ready to film his character dealing in a public park, and noticing everyone hanging out by the video monitors, everyone standing by the hair and makeup tables, some cops guarding the set – and then a school across the street. "The writers didn't know this," Morgan says, "but the fact that was a school suddenly in the mix – that means it's a federal case versus a state case. You can't sell drugs across the street from a fucking school. State case means 10 to 15. Federal – if you get 40 fucking years, you’re doing every fucking day of that sentence.
"So when they called, 'Action,'" he says, "I just start yelling as loud as I can, in the middle of the park: 'If I get caught, I’m. Not. Coming. Home.' Everybody stops what they're doing and starts looking at me. Because I wanted them to know what that feeling of motherfucking danger felt like. I wanted everyone on the set to know what I felt like back in the day, when I had to do shit like that. This is a funny show, we've got Cedric and Tiffany and me. But I have a chance to keep making stuff after what happened, and some of the shit I wanna say here . . . it ain't a joke."
Morgan hopes people are OK with this. He wants to make people laugh; he's always going to want to do that. Later that night, when he walks onstage in Austin after the first two episodes were shown, he'll mention that the sound of the crowd's laughter is exactly why he and Tiffany wanted to do this. But he also wants to make the most of this; if the accident taught him anything, it's that the time to get things off your chest is now. And since Haddish is already fast-tracking her way to movie stardom as we speak, it may be the last chance they get to do a show like this before schedules get crazy.
"Yeah, but I still don't feel like I’ve blown up yet, you know," she says. "Well . . . OK, my name is in a Beyoncé song, and she's talking shit, so – I know I made it." She's referring to the singer's verse on DJ Khaled's "Top Off," in which Beyoncé declares, "If they're tryin' to party with the queen/They gonna have to sign a nondisclosure," which is widely assumed to be about an encounter between the two of them – even by Haddish. (The GQ cover story that gets into the behind-the-scenes account of said meeting will not drop for another week or so.) "That means I'm famous. I motherfuckin' made it!"
"I mean, Diana Ross has said some shit about her too," Morgan jokes. "Barbra Streisand talked some shit. . . ."
"When I end up in everybody’s song, then it's on, you know?" Haddish adds. "If Barbra writes a song about me now . . . "
"So who does it need to be?" Taccone asks. "Does Kendrick need to drop it?"
"If I can get in a Maroon 5 song," Haddish claims, "not the video, but, you know, like they talk shit and say my name in the song . . ."
"Ain't nobody gonna fuck with you, Tiffany," Morgan says with a cackle. "I'm the big brother. I'm overprotective of her."
"Yeah, but when you gonna find me a husband?" Haddish jokes, drawing out the first syllable. "So I can be happy like you and your wife are?"
"Just stay in your lane, Tiff," Morgan says. "All that good shit will come to you."
"You're good like that, Tracy," Haddish says, beaming at him.
"I worrrrrrrry about you," Morgan sings, and with a herd of publicists in tow, the trio head straight to the elevators, laughing with one another the entire way down.