By Carly Petrone
Tracy Morgan considers Richard Pryor to be the Messiah of comedy but ask him who the greatest living comedian is and he’ll say it’s himself. That’s exactly why his fans love him. Because only Tracy Morgan could say that and make it funny.”
To Morgan, social media means “me standing on the corner.” He’d rather interact with his fans in person. The Emmy-nominated actor stopped by the 92nd Street Y on Wednesday night to talk with fellow comedian, Hannibal Buress, about growing up in the projects in Brooklyn, his life in the spotlight, as well as what’s next for him.
The 30 Rock and former SNL star walked out on stage like he knew every single person in the audience – waving and saying hello to the people in the front row. People love him because he tells it how it is. “I like playing where people feel uncomfortable…Stand up is about being free. Freedom. Let’s look at what we’re afraid of. We laugh at what’s uncomfortable.”
Morgan went to P.S. 59 across from the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn up until the eighth grade. He grew up with other budding stars Jay Z and Lil’ Kim but his main priority back then was helping out at home. He was held back in first grade in order to take time off to care for his disabled brother. “My funny came because my older brother was born crippled. It was a defense mechanism. Normally, your big brother’s got your back. I didn’t have that. I had to be funny to keep bullies away. To protect myself,” said Morgan.
Eventually, Morgan made it to SNL, performing for seven seasons, from 1996-2003. During that time he created such memorable characters as Brian Fellows and Astronaut Jones. When asked about his relationship with Lorne Michaels, he said they initially bonded over the fact that they both had sons – they had a father-to-father relationship. He left SNL to star in Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, where he played Tracy Jordan for another seven seasons. Morgan joked with Buress that he unsuccessfully tried to hang out with him on the set once (Buress was a writer on 30 Rock). Buress had no recollection of this interaction.
When asked by Buress if he missed 30 Rock, Morgan said, “I had a great time and it’s the people I miss. It ain’t like an aunt died but I miss the people I used to see everyday like the gaffers and craft services people. Happiness is having something to look forward to, getting in touch with my standup audience. I appreciate what the show did for me and my family. Then we move on.”
You can tell Morgan was born to make people laugh. He analyzes comedies the way a professional comedian should. “When I’m looking at movies, I’m studying,” says Morgan. “I look at reactions. Because it’s not always about the star of the film…I learned how to do facial expressions from Carol Burnett, from Lucille Ball eating a bunch of chocolates.”
If the audience learned anything that night, it’s just how much Tracy Morgan loves sipping water from a mug – because that’s what people did on talk shows when he was growing up. “One day I’ll be on TV drinking water,” Morgan said. Hannibal Buress chimed in to ask about his thoughts on David Letterman’s retirement and if he would have liked to fill in. “I put my hat in the ring. I wanted that job. Shake late night up. Jimmy Fallon needs some competition!”
Buress immediately asked him what his show would be like.
“I would have had Drake on one night and then Crosby, Stills & Nash. My questions would be outrageous. I probably would have been run out of business,” Morgan said laughing.
“You’d be asking questions. Then you’d be answering your own questions,” replied Buress.
“That’s when you know you’re funny, man,” announced Morgan.
Morgan mentioned his approach to going on talk shows today. “We’ll do a pre-interview where they’ll ask me questions. I’ll do something different once we get on the air because you never know what can happen from backstage to the chair. You gotta keep your mind open.”
The same goes for his stand up routine. His latest special, Bona Fide, airs on Comedy Central this Sunday at 10 p.m., with an uncensored encore at 1 a.m. Nothing is off limits when it comes to his material because this hour special is all about his journey, his family. You get to hear his voice again – without any help from a writing team. He talks about everything from drug use to promiscuity because he’s lived it. “When you paint your picture, paint it in detail. Because you ain’t the only one. I tell the truth. But when I lie, I tell the truth,” he said.
He also mentioned the importance of moving around on stage. He compared it to watching tennis – staying unpredictable with your legs. It entertains people and keeps their attention. He wasn’t always that confident, however. He talked about his first standup experience and how he’s evolved as a comedian. “The first time I touched a mic, I got the chuckles because I didn’t know what I was doing. I was used to making my friends laugh. Once I made a few people laugh hard I knew I got this. Now I know what to do. You become obsessed with it but you mature and become professional with it. I approach it with the same enthusiasm now as I did then. If there’s only two people in the audience, I’ll work harder to make you laugh.”
Who is Tracy Morgan dying to partner up with? Bill Hader and Johnny Knoxville (and Jackie Chan if he can get a sequel out of it). But the most important thing when it comes to collaborating is having chemistry with the other person. “You know it at the first table read. That’s where the chemistry is. If you’re gonna pay me $5 million, we’re gonna have some chemistry! That s**t’s gonna come about whether he likes it or not,” he joked.
Tracy Morgan is still as humble as ever. When a fan asked him when he knew he had “made it,” he quickly said, “Being nominated for an Emmy. Being here. Walking down the street and having someone stop me and want my autograph. Knowing I’ve touched somebody with my comedy. That’s when you know you’ve made it.”
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Carly Petrone is a freelance writer living in New York City.