This week on Fresh Air, we're marking the year's end by revisiting some of the most memorable conversations we've had in 2009.
You'd be forgiven for confusing Tracy Morgan with his character on 30 Rock, Tracy Jordan. Jordan stars in a sketch comedy show on NBC; Morgan starred on Saturday Night Live for seven seasons. In 30 Rock's pilot, Jordan is filmed running down a crowded street in his underwear, wielding a plastic light saber; Morgan has appeared on a local talk show reclining on top of a desk with his shirt pulled up to expose his belly.
Morgan shows his belly on the cover of his new memoir, too, but the book, called I Am the New Black, reveals a surprising side to the seemingly manic comedian.
Morgan grew up in the Bronx and the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant (which he calls Ghetto, USA), and says that even as a child he knew he wanted a better life. He fled a troubled relationship with his mother, but life with his father, who served in Vietnam and recovered from a heroin addiction, didn't make him happier.
"I was like any other inner-city kid with a chip on his shoulder because his daddy and his mommy wasn't together," Morgan tells Terry Gross. Morgan says his father, a musician, took him fishing and encouraged him to play football, but the man's battles with addiction and then AIDS — a result of his heroin use — put a strain on the relationship.
After his father's death, Morgan turned to dealing crack. As he tells it, he was a bust as a drug dealer, but the experience haunts him. "It still bothers me today," Morgan says, "but it's something that I did. It was survival."
Morgan didn't turn to comedy until after his best friend was murdered.
"He would say to me, 'Yo, Tracy, man, you should be doing comedy,' " Morgan says. "A week later, he was murdered. And that for me, that was like my Vietnam. I had my survival guilt when I started to achieve success. Why I made it out and some guys didn't."
When he arrived at Saturday Night Live in 1996, Morgan turned his attention to standing out in a cast full of future stars. He decided to be the funniest thing in any sketch — no mean feat, given that Morgan's tenure on SNL coincided with Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey.
"Saturday Night Live was like a university for funny," he says. And it was a test: "I had to let my guard down to let the writers see my flaws."
30 Rock creator Tina Fey was the first writer to see that Morgan "was funny, but you had to let him be him," Morgan says. "And it worked."
Fey invented the Tracy Jordan character specifically for Morgan, and has imported elements of his over-the-top personality and real-life exploits — like the time he had to wear an alcohol-sensing bracelet after a DUI conviction — into 30 Rock.
Morgan says he trusts Fey's writing because she always spikes the self-referential plotlines with real laughs. Plus, Tracy Jordan's on-screen antics give Morgan a release: "I love 30 Rock because Tina Fey allows me to fly over the cuckoo nest once a week."
Morgan says the anger that ruled his life as a teenager has mellowed: "That little 17-year-old boy — he's grown up. He's a man now. And when I was angry, when I was younger, I was in a cocoon. Now I'm a beautiful, black butterfly."
This interview was first broadcast on Oct. 22, 2009.