In June 2014, Tracy Morgan was riding with a few fellow comics up the New Jersey Turnpike when a Walmart tractor trailer struck their Mercedes Sprinter limo from behind, killing Morgan’s friend and peer, 62-year-old comedian Jimmy Mack. Morgan broke several bones and entered a medically induced coma. He woke up eight days later. Morgan would go on to sue Walmart and eventually receive an undisclosed settlement. All the while, Morgan attended physical therapy and struggled with trauma and grief.
After all that, Tracy Morgan wrote a stand-up comedy hour about it.
Morgan is the latest in a series of famous stand-up comedians to take his talents to Netflix, recording his latest special, Staying Alive, during his Picking Up the Pieces tour last year. In his routine, Morgan opens with several boisterous jokes cracked at Walmart’s expense, and he goes on to show and tell how comedy has always been his one, indispensable tool for survival. Staying Alive is Morgan’s biggest bill since his recovery, but it comes in a year when the comedian is juggling a few projects. The 48-year-old SNL alumnus is back doing film comedies with Fist Fight, released in February, and The Clapper, which premiered in April at the Tribeca Film Festival. He’s also set to star in a new scripted TBS comedy series created by Jordan Peele about an ex-con who returns home to gentrified Brooklyn following 15 years of incarceration.
With his recovery behind him, Morgan is back to clocking overtime. We talked to him about his terrifying ride from comedy to tragedy and (thankfully) back.
You had black people worried. When you were touring, did you get a lot of people sincerely asking you if you’re OK? I know you joked about this impulse when you hosted SNL.
There’s a lot of good will out there, and I feel it. [People] want you to win. They want you to do well. They want you to be well. But on the other hand, I just want to let you know that I’m still funny. Some bones got broke, and there’s a little brain damage, but my sense of humor is still there. I want to let it be known. If you don’t joke about it, you’re going to cry about it. And I was just done crying.
I’ve taken every bad thing and every door slammed in my life, and I made it funny. That’s my way of dealing with hardship. If not, I would have jumped off the George Washington Bridge or killed somebody a long time ago.
In general, you have this big personality, and you’re always 10 steps ahead of everyone whenever you’re talking or joking about anything. But in Staying Alive, you’re pretty mortal.
That’s what makes you a superstar: personality. But my gift is my vulnerability. I open up. I let it be known. Nine times out of 10, everybody is going through the same thing I’m going through on some level. It’s just a lot of people are afraid to come out and talk about it. They don’t want to be vulnerable. They gotta have a tough exterior all of the time. I cried on stage before. Two tears in a bucket, fuck it.
I remember watching you talk to Matt Lauer after the settlement. That was a very real and dire moment, obviously, and it struck me then that I had just never seen you in that sort of shape, speaking so seriously before.
That wasn’t a Funny or Die moment. That was life and death, man. So that was me going past the fourth wall. That was me crying and being scared. I almost lost my life! I’ve never dealt with my pain in the open like that. I’ve always made you laugh.
But this special is a different level of vulnerability. We all saw you, your car, and the semi-truck that hit it. Does writing this material and talking about this stuff feel different?
I don’t call it material. I just call it the truth, man. I call it telling the truth.
I never in my life believed in Santa Claus. My father never told me about Santa Claus. “Ain’t no fat, jolly white dude coming down no chimney because we don’t even got a chimney; we live in the projects. You got that toy race track because your mom’s put it out. I wasn’t going to get it for your narrow ass.” That’s what my daddy told me. “You weren’t going to get that train track. I wasn’t even going to get it for your funky ass. But your mom convinced me.”
You feel the truth, man. You know the truth from a lie. You know fiction from reality, and I’ve always dealt with reality. I’m very much grounded regardless of what people might think.
Do most comics tell the truth?
Nah, they’re too worried about being funny. It ain’t for everybody.
You can’t compare me to other comedians. I don’t like that. I don’t know about other comedians and what their process is; I don’t know. I don’t study other comedians. I just worry about me. In America, you always gotta have a Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier. But I’m not in rivalry with no other comedians. I’m not going to speak on them.
Do you want to know what comedy is?
Knowing who you are, where you’re from, and perfection.
I grew up in the projects of Brooklyn. That’s the world I know, so I talk about it in the funny way. That’s what Richard Pryor taught me. When you look at Richard Pryor’s audience, you see everybody out there. Black, white; straight, gay; male, female. I’m going to turn all of you people into an audience. How about that!
When you come to my show, you gotta swallow your pride. But love is stronger than pride. I don’t care who are you are, where you’re from — I love you. I’m going to show my love for you by being funny on the stage. Acts of service, baby. That’s my interpretation of love. Acts of service.
What is it about Brooklyn that inspires unique storytellers? There’s a lot of y’all.
Every day, you see something different. If you’re from the projects, you’re a sage. It ain’t gotta be from Brooklyn. There’s projects all over the world. And all projects are the same, man, even in Germany! Poverty is poverty. I had to be funny to survive that. That’s why God gave me a sense of humor: to survive.
I just tell stories. I don’t tell jokes. No disrespect to one of the kings but: Rodney Dangerfield told jokes. I tell stories. Growing up in the projects, you’ve gotta observe everything. I just took it to the stage. But I don’t talk about that now because I ain’t been in the projects for 30 years. So I gotta talk about where I’m staying and what I’m doing now, but I still remember where I’m from.
Who was helping you work through your recovery?
Family members and people who’ve known me my whole life and are used to my sense of humor. If there’s one joke worth saving, they say, You’ve still got it, kid! That’s family. It’s not a room full of writers. You’ve gotta go to your family, where it all started first.
But you’re doing a lot more than just this one comedy special already. You’re in a few movies that are all out this year. You’re back to doing TV projects. What are you most excited to be doing now?
I’m just happy to be alive. When I look at that accident on YouTube, knowing that I walked away from it … Somebody died in that accident, and it wasn’t me. I got kids. I got a wife. I want to see them grow. I’m glad I’m here. Forty-seven years old is too young to die. So I’m not happy to be doing nothing else but living.
Sure — that said, if you’d taken your Walmart settlement and told us, “All right, y’all, I’m on vacation for the next 10 years,” no one would blame you. So why do all this work?
Comedy saved my life, and it’s brought me all of the wonderful things that I have in my world. My family, my wife, my daughter. My faith, my life. It literally saved my life. That’s how seriously I take it. A lot of people just do it to get girls. To get guys. To be famous. To make money. I literally love comedy. It makes me feel good when I make my wife, my daughter, and all y’all laugh. I know that’s the best thing I can do in my life. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, brother. But the comedian in me don’t make no mistakes. That’s a perfect part of me.
Growing up in the projects, you don’t know how many killers I’ve made laugh. So they revered me and protected me because I was a poor man’s Richard Pryor. I was a poor man’s Eddie Murphy. Ain’t nobody have $150 to spend on a ticket to go see Eddie Murphy at the Madison Square Garden. I learned how to do comedy so that I could go to the basketball court and do it there.
It’s another one of those things where your experience is something that not everyone will understand, even if you can make them laugh about it with you.
Whenever you don’t understand something, you want details. You want color. My stories ain’t just about the projects. It’s bigger than that! It’s always bigger than that. Most white people know nothing about the projects, but maybe they know about the struggle — about survival.