Tracy Morgan Just Keeps Climbing
Life is sweet for Tracy Morgan.
The comedian perches on his black leather sofa as his 3-month-old Cane Corso puppy, Sugar, nuzzles and licks a pricey Tod's handbag left on the couch.
"She's a black dog. She's going for the pocketbook," cracks Morgan, 40.
He has plenty to smile about. Here, on the third floor of an unflashy Soho building, Morgan lives in a spacious loft surrounded by his companions. By the front door is a tank housing a tarantula and a scorpion. Near the far wall, a shark and eel swim in their cozy home. A boa and a python reside on the upper level of the apartment. Sugar and her fellow pup, a male Corso named Max, sit by the front door, greeting visitors with copious kisses. The space is lived-in and comfortable: Yes, there's a requisite flat-screen TV, but there's also a plastic tub full of dog food.
Morgan looks around his home with pride. Everything you see, he says, is the "result of my hard work and my best thinking. My life? I'm just following through. I was already selected to win. I have a Plan A and a Plan B. You know what my Plan B is? There is no Plan B. I had to make it. Three kids and a wife on welfare when I first started? I had to make it. Things are not bad. I have a long way to go."
Morgan is on his way. Last week he received his first Emmy nomination for playing loopy, rich, emotionally unstable comedian Tracy Jordan on NBC's critically beloved but viewer-challenged sitcom 30 Rock. This Friday, he's starring in his first animated movie, Disney's G-Force, as Blaster, a member of an elite squad of heroic guinea pigs. He's spending his summer shooting Kevin Smith's A Couple of Dicks, a buddy comedy co-starring Morgan and Bruce Willis as two cops. His memoir, I'm the New Black, arrives Oct. 20. And on Nov. 6, he performs at Carnegie Hall as part of the New York Comedy Festival.
"You won't find anyone who's more eager, willing and ready to step into the spotlight. He's spent the last 10 to 12 years ready for this moment, for his close-up," Smith says. "Everything is coming up Tracy. He brings such an insane enthusiasm. He's one of the most brilliant ad-libbers on the planet. Tracy is this amazing comedic weapon that you turn on and step away and turn the camera on."
Not bad for a guy who used to make headlines for drunken-driving arrests instead of awards nominations.
Ask Morgan about his suddenly hot and seemingly stable career, and he vacillates between wonder and bravado.
"You want to know what happiness is? It's having something to look forward to, and I have all that stuff to look forward to," Morgan. "Right now, I'm just basking in the glory. I'm just enjoying my time in the spotlight."
In fact, now that he has cash in the bank, Morgan jokes that he has plans beyond the silver screen.
"I might buy Coney Island," he cracks. "That's the hardest part: to get the money to catch up with the funny."
It's the latter word that people who know Morgan use to describe him. In person, he easily rattles off jokes. Tell him about a well-worn pickup line heard on the streets of New York, and he suggests the guilty party join the dating site eHarmony.
"He's hysterical. He's the funniest human going. Whatever comes out of his mouth is brilliant," says G-Force producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
"You want someone in animation who can take what is on the written page and embellish it. He's got a really quick mind. He's really clever. His humor comes from reality. It's human observation. He's brilliant at capturing what's around him."
TV success overshadowed
Before 30 Rock, Morgan was best known for his work on Saturday Night Live. After joining the show in 1996, he broke out as fey talk-show host Brian Fellow, frontman of Safari Planet, and futuristic gabber Astronaut Jones. He segued to his own series, The Tracy Morgan Show, in 2003, but it was canceled after one season. Morgan returned to SNL until 2006 before joining 30 Rock the same year.
30 Rock creator, producer and star Tina Fey, who worked with Morgan on SNL, hired him for the show because he had a "quality that you can't learn and you can't buy, and that is that when he enters a scene, you're just happy to see him," she says. "You could feel that back at SNL. He'd come out to do a feature on Weekend Update, and the audience was on his side before he even opened his mouth. Other comics would kill to have that."
But his achievements on the small screen were almost overshadowed by his personal troubles. He was twice arrested on suspicion of drunken driving, in 2006 and 2005. In 2007, he wore an alcohol-monitoring bracelet because of the arrests. Morgan - who is divorced from his high school sweetheart, with whom he has three sons, Tracy Jr., 17, Malcolm, 21, and Gitrid, 23 - says he quit drinking more than a year ago, partially because of a talk from Fey.
"She told me to fly right," Morgan says. "Tina Fey is down like four flat tires. I love her. That's my girl, Tina Fey-Fey. She's the coolest. That's my sister from another mother with a different color."
Fey downplays her influence: "I don't know that I've ever 'straightened him out,' but we've had some interesting talks," she demurs.
Morgan understands that given his past, it's easy to confuse him with the lovably insane character Fey created for him.
"Tracy Jordan is a part of Tracy Morgan. Tracy Morgan isn't a part of Tracy Jordan. Tracy Jordan is just a figment of somebody's imagination," Morgan says. "Tracy Morgan isn't as unstable as Tracy Jordan. This is weird for me to talk in third person. Tracy Morgan doesn't run down the street in his underwear. I don't party no more."
His sense of humor is off the wall. "It's out there," Smith says. "His jokes are not the standard jokes. He does pitch-perfect renditions of dialogue from all the Planet of the Apes movies. The wackiness is not gone completely, but man, he comes to work. This dude knows this is his shot. "
Morgan says he still goes out but stays away from alcohol.
"I get my party on. The alcohol is dead now," he says. "But I still like to have a good time. I'm more professional now. I'm more mature now. When I'm filming a movie, it's like a boxer: no sex, no partying, no none of that. I like to focus on what I'm doing. As you start getting nominated for Emmys and start doing movies with people, the expectations start to go up a little more. I'm not going to falter to that. I'm just going to stay funny, stay regular."
'30 Rock' is his 'escape'
When he's not at work, Morgan says, he's home with his animals or hanging out with his sons or girlfriend, Tanisha.
"When I'm not acting, I like to be normal. I like to go get my own hair cut, I like to pump my own gas. Despite what people might think, I'm chillin'."
Fey says Morgan's bad-boy attitude is mostly just show. "Tracy likes to talk a good game because he knows it will give us story ideas for the show, but he's a pretty regular dude," she says.
Part of the reason for his clean and sober attitude, Morgan says, is his day job.
Playing a character as wacky as Tracy Jordan, who runs down the street in his underwear wielding a light saber, is cathartic. 30 Rock "is my family away from my family," Morgan says. "For me to have that escape, I don't have to go into alcohol or drugs or anything. I have a venue. I have a vehicle. "
Morgan, who was born and raised in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood with a single mother and lost his father at 17, says he's ambitious. He just hides it well.
"I'm going to direct a movie. I'm going to do Broadway one day. I want to produce one day," he says. "I hope to win (the Emmy), but you know, as far as I'm concerned, I'm a winner already, because of all the obstacles it took just for me to be here."