After his best friend was murdered, Morgan used his own brand of survivor’s guilt to drive his ambition to be the funniest man in any room. The “SNL” alum is perhaps even better known for his starring role in the Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning “30 Rock” TV series, where he played the unpredictable star of a hit variety show alongside Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin. Now Morgan is taking his headlining standup tour around the U.S. and then on to Australia. In this interview, Morgan talks about how the “politically correct” agenda is ruining comedy, the enduring and endearing use of the N-word, and the dark side of running around in his underwear wielding a lightsaber.
IJ: Who were your influences in comedy and how did you know you were destined for this work?
TM: I don’t think I was born into comedy, I think comedy was born into me. My father was funny. He made everyone in the neighborhood mad he was so funny. First and foremost he is my most important influence. My other influences are Richard Pryor, Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball … All the comedic heroes … Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, that is who pretty much inspired me. I went to Def Jam and saw Martin Lawrence and I was like, ‘Wow!’ I have that type of funny. He looks like me. He comes from where I come from, so maybe I can sell my story and do this as a professional.
IJ: Standup versus television, what’s the difference for you?
TM: There is no comparison. They are two different genres. With TV there is a camera in front of you. When we’re doing standup and we decide to go out in front a live crowd for 45 minutes it’s a gut check because your relationship with the audience is established right away. You know in the first 30 seconds if they are going to like you. I like to keep that energy the whole night. When you’re doing standup it’s your voice. No one is writing for you. I like to keep that experience.
IJ: Do you think conditions for blacks in Hollywood are improving?
TM: I’ve never burdened myself with that. I can’t speak for everyone who is black in Hollywood because frankly some of them ain’t good at acting. I can’t defend that. I’m not saying it’s fair or not fair. I’d like to see more me on the screen … Show business is just a microcosm of the world and America.
IJ: Let’s talk about “30 Rock.” Does it seem odd to you that people seem to have a hard time separating fact from fiction, Tracy Jordan, the character you play, from Tracy Morgan?
TM: Tina Fey has never been asked that question. Alec Baldwin has never been asked that question. “30 Rock” was fun. I got to fly over the cuckoo’s nest every week. But that is not Tracy Morgan. The only thing I had in common is the name Tracy. I’m more subdued than that. I’m a father, a husband. I’m all those things. I don’t walk down the street in my underwear swinging a lightsaber. That’s fun, but that’s the character. That stayed on the set.
IJ: How do you think that PC-ness has changed the game?
TM: I think it’s ruining comedy. Richard Pryor broke all these barriers now people can’t handle talking about sex or race. If you can’t take it, stay home and make it a Blockbuster night. You can’t hold comedians to the same standard as the president or a schoolteacher. Comedy is the place where we can talk about all of those things and the foolishness that comes with it. We wouldn’t have had “Diff’rent Strokes” and Archie Bunker and “The Jeffersons” if everything was PC back then. I don’t have a political bone in my body but I call it like I see it. People don’t wanna talk about fears or anything like that. PC is killing comedy.
IJ: When you’re performing for a mostly white audience do you filter?
TM: I don’t see black and white. Richard Pryor didn’t put a color on comedy. Funny is funny. I’m not splitting my market. If you wanna laugh, come see me. If you wanna hear the truth, come see me. I don’t care what color you are. Richard Pryor didn’t care what color you are. I’m quite sure Bruce Lee didn’t care what color you are. I’m quite sure Gandhi didn’t care what color you are.
IJ: What about the N-word?
TM: I use it. I’ve been using it for 44 years now. I use it as a term of endearment. I’ve used it all my life why would I stop now? … It’s there. I didn’t invent it. I use it. So does everyone around me. What’s funny is white dudes use it now, too. That’s the ironic thing about it. They use it as term of endearment ….
IJ: What other projects are you working on?
TM: I’m superstitious about mentioning anything I’m working on. I leave it in God’s hands.
IJ: Let’s talk about the indie film you did with Al Pacino and Channing Tatum, “The Son of No One.” What was it like for you to play a serious role?
TM: It was stretching a different muscle. As a comedian, we’re associated with funny. Rarely do you get the chance to do dramatic roles. I look at Richard Pryor as one of the greatest actors of all time. Great comedians make you wanna laugh and cry. When I worked with Pacino and (Ray) Liotta and Channing Tatum, it was awesome to see the emotional content and learn how to use it.
IJ: How did working on “Saturday Night Live” help to shape your career?
TM: “SNL” was great. That changed everything for everyone. It changes your career in 60 seconds. It’s important to me then and now. The kids on the show now are incredibly talented. I enjoyed my time with those people. They were great to work with and it was a great time for me.