To me, one of the saddest departures in recent TV history was Tracy Morgan from Saturday Night Live. The seven-year member was my longstanding favorite. From his lounge lizard, sexually obnoxious Astronaut Jones to his poignant homeless romantic Woodrow to the hilariously self absorbed, flamboyant "Safari Planet" host Brian Fellow, Morgan always nailed it with a unique sense of timing and delivery that's incomparable to other funny-men. The frequently genius Will Ferrell is deservedly, the bust out star of the show, but Morgan’s characters were as consistently funny, as perfectly weird and as wonderfully timeless. And, as much as I love Dave Chappelle, I still think “I’m Brian Fellow” is funnier than “I’m Rick James, Bitch!”
Here to discuss the DVD release of Are We There Yet?, in which he voices Ice Cube’s advise-giving bobble head Satchel Paige and his newest film, The Longest Yard where he dons drag as a prison transvestite, the Brooklyn native took time out to talk with me on the phone. Funny, but often very serious (why is that not surprising?), Morgan is an ingratiating, thoughtful guy who's proud of his profession ("the most noble"). After discussing our similar last names (no, shockingly, we're not related) and a brief chat with his wife (Tracy passed the phone over so I could talk to her), Morgan covers his films, his days at SNL, his new career path, growing up in poverty and his old pal, Mike Tyson.
T. MORGAN: Kim! How ya doing?
K. MORGAN: I’m good.
T. MORGAN: I’m sitting here with my wife watching The Godfather—one of my favorite movies.
K. MORGAN: Which part are you at?
T. MORGAN: Right now is when Michael Corleone after he kills the cop and the gangster and he meets his first girlfriend—they’ve just met that’s what I’m watching right now…
K. MORGAN: Oh she’s going to die soon…that part’s so sad.
T. MORGAN: I know…but I’m totally into this interview so shoot!
K. MORGAN: I know this is an oft asked question, but I’m always curious about people’s influences, especially comedians—because they’re not always who people think. And how that shapes your humor.
T. MORGAN: Well, I had a lot of funny people in my life—my uncles, my father—all funny. And then there are legends like Carol Burnett, Jackie Gleason and Eddie Murphy—all those people. But you know, there’s also my natural ability that I was born with. It’s just a feeling I get. Comedy is a feeling—you feel funny. Some people are funny when they open their mouth and then some people are funny when the walk into a room.
K. MORGAN: I think you fall into both of those categories.
T. MORGAN: Thank You!
K. MORGAN: It was especially apparent on SNL where you could really just stare at the camera in say, Brian Fellow mode, and be funny. Just the way you moved your head would make me laugh. You were so damn good on that show.
T. MORGAN: Thank you! Wow, that’s nice; I don’t really know what to say. [But SNL] that was a learning time for me. Like, being on SNL prepares you to do a voice over of Satchel Paige [in Are We There Yet?] — that’s where I learned to do voice-overs.
K. MORGAN: I like that the film and really, Ice Cube who made the final decision, chose Satchel Paige as Cube’s sport’s hero, not someone more current or obvious.
T. MORGAN: I hope I did Satchel Paige some justice. He’s a great American hero. Also for me it was great being a big fan of the Negro league. A lot of people forgot about that league.
K. MORGAN: What else attracted you to this film?
T. MORGAN: It was working with the kids, it was working with Ice Cube, it was a culmination. I really wanted to do a movie like that. I thought it was good for the young people.
K. MORGAN: You just had your premiere for The Longest Yard—how was it received?
T. MORGAN: I’m excited about this movie. I don’t know if its career defining or anything like that and I don’t set out to have a career defining movie or anything…I just hope that people enjoy the movie and enjoy the role that I play. And, if I was a football player or one of the guards I wouldn’t have stuck out. I hope people enjoy it and have fun with it
K. MORGAN: You’ve played in drag before, but were there any extra challenges in doing drag in this case?
T. MORGAN: Yeah! This is a guy’s guy movie; it takes place in a prison, and you all know the nature of a transvestite in prison. I mean, and there so much testosterone on the set ,so many guys and like, 3000 extras so my character sticks out as pretty controversial. But you know, I’m committed to the character and so probably made people uncomfortable. No guy wants to get caught smiling and laughing with a transvestite
K. MORGAN: How was it working with the cast?
T. MORGAN: It was the coolest working on that set. Chris Rock and Burt Reynolds. And Adam Sandler is one of the coolest, most down to earth guys so we all had fun. And Burt’s an icon— he’s the coolest dude in the world. AND the thing about this movie is that this generation will now be familiar with the first movie and Burt. He’s back on top again. He’s got a whole new fan base of kids who weren’t even born 30 something years ago. The first one came out over 30 years ago! I hope I achieve that level of longevity and success in this business.
K. MORGAN: I hope so too.
T. MORGAN: I don’t know…but God bless your soul Kim…
K. MORGAN: How did you get started in the business—I’ve never really known.
T. MORGAN: The answer to that is like this: I don’t know either. I really don’t. It’s been in me. What’s in us is our nature and we can’t really change our true nature. It’s just in my true nature to be funny. Whatever you see Kim is natural for me. Outside of me, people are going to say this or that about me, trying to define me. They like to psychoanalyze us comedians, but again, it’s in our nature! That’s what I believe.
K. MORGAN: So you’re basically saying it’s genetic for some people to be funny. What about your environment?
T. MORGAN: It’s genetic—but some of it was shaped by our environment. [In my case] Growing up in poverty, we had to entertain ourselves. Growing up in poverty you didn’t have the money to go to Disneyworld. So, it was like a sedative— the guys getting on the porch and Jones-ing on each other— that made us forget the pains of poverty. That’s what helped me along the way, not just SNL but all of that shaped me. Like when my Uncle would come out with mismatched socks on, he got jones’d on; snapped on (laughs), so all of that shaped me. And, in high school, in that social structure I was the class clown so I had a title.
K. MORGAN: And you started in and still do stand-up
T. MORGAN: Standup is my foundation; it’s my freedom. It’s the most noble thing in the world. Being a comedian is the most noble thing in the world. People may not agree but look at me in [The Longest Yard]; it takes a real man to put a dress on in prison. I could have got torn apart but I’m strong. And the women love that. My female fans love me, and I love them back. I identify. . I’m not just relying on my macho side…being in a room with women and studying them; the details…female fans go crazy: “Wow! He knows us!” That’s ‘cause I got a wife, I got a sister, I was hatched out of an egg. I’m not that self centered and self absorbed, I’m reflective. And women love men who are affectionate and open up. When they’re not afraid of showing that feminine side. And every man, I don’t care how muscle bound or macho you are—you came from a woman dude! Your mother used to kiss you dude. We grow up and egos flair up and machismo, I never let that define me, I’m a comedian. I’m not Nelly, I’m not Michael Irvin. What I do is funny, I don’t do the sexy. And women find that sexy. If you can make a woman laugh, they’ll love you forever.
K. MORGAN: Let’s talk about some of your SNL characters. I loved Woodrow...
T. MORGAN: He’s reality based—if you look at Woodrow, he’s a tragic figure. All in ten minutes you cry and you laugh.
K. MORGAN: And Brian Fellow…who was he based on?
T. MORGAN: Oh man! Me and my wife! My wife knew a flamboyant guy like that. But we all know a Brian Fellow— the outfit the glasses and the lip-gloss. And he doesn’t care about nothing but plugging his name. But you know what people love about Brian Fellow? His attitude, all those feminine characters I play have that attitude.
K. MORGAN: And Astronaut Jones…
T. MORGAN: He’s just a perv. He’s the sexual harassment charge of NASA. And with the music and introduction, I was thinking in terms of Sammie Davis Jr.
K. MORGAN: Do you have a favorite?
T. MORGAN: I don’t know if I have one favorite character but the one closest to me is Woodrow, because he was an underdog but he was passionate and caring.
K. MORGAN: You must have had some strange fans come up to you all the time.
T. MORGAN: (Laughs) They’re going to be even stranger when they see this movie!
K. MORGAN: What’s the weirdest thing that ever happened?
T. MORGAN: What’s the weirdest or the worst?
K. MORGAN: Either or both.
T. MORGAN: The freakiest is when female fans like to bare their breasts at me. I was on stage one time and a female fan threw her panties on stage—putting me in the range of Teddy Pendergrass! But I think the worst was…this white guy, a big fan, walked up to me and said “You’re a funny nigger” and I said “Thank you.” That’s America I guess, but then, I don’t judge a culture by one person, everybody’s not like that for the most part, people are kind to me and they appreciate my art and craft.
K. MORGAN: You must have people coming up and doing your SNL characters at you.
T. MORGAN: All the time. Brian fellows, Astronaut Jones…there’s like a Brian Fellow movement.
K. MORGAN: Any celebrities contact you about impressions?
T. MORGAN: No, Star Jones didn’t mind…
K. MORGAN: What about Mike Tyson, you guys are friends.
T. MORGAN: I’m good friends with Mike Tyson. I grew up with him. That’s my dude.
K. MORGAN: Mike Tyson is actually a really funny guy.
T. MORGAN: People don’t know that about him! People won’t give the other side a chance…he’s so sweet man, he’s cool. He was just so young and successful at such a young age, and…he didn’t have nobody, not nobody that cared about him…you know at this point of my career, I’m only caring about people who care about me.
K. MORGAN: Is that easier or harder when it comes to the business?
T. MORGAN: I don’t think of it as a business, I think of it as life, cause if you’re hanging out with people that don’t care about you, that’s bad I don’t care about how much money or business you’re doing…its just not good, it doesn’t make sense. One and one still make two to me. You know, at some point we’re human beings, that’s the bottom line, that’s the deep reality of things. We gotta start caring about each other on this planet, I mean; we’re at war and wars like all around us. That’s the little white dove inside of me…
K. MORGAN: So what’s next for you?
T. MORGAN: Oh Darling…My favorite answer to that question is, I like to leave it in God’s hands.