Tracy Morgan on drugs, Richard Pryor and the stigma of TV comedy
While he may be world-famous and seven years sober, the streets of Bed-Stuy Brooklyn still ring in the voice of Tracy Morgan. Coming from a childhood of poverty and crack-dealing, Morgan built a respectable career in standup, performing on HBO's Def Comedy Jam before reaching TV mega-stardom on Saturday Night Live, and 30 Rock. While he's still juggling projects for FX and also hosting The Billboard Music Awards, at the moment Tracy Morgan has returned to his standup roots, and his Excuse My French tour lands in Denver this Saturday, June 15, at the Paramount Theatre. In anticipation of that show, we caught up with Morgan to chat about the outrage following his Melbourne Comedy Festival gig, being sober and why he's not Richard Pryor.
Tracy Morgan performs at the Paramount Saturday.
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Westword: You play a lot of characters that are outwardly tough, but have a very sensitive, vulnerable center. Is that something you're pulling from your own personality?
I don't compare myself to characters. It depends on what the subject is. If it's a sensitive subject to me, then I'm gonna be who I am, know what I'm sayin'? I'm not always in character. Sometimes I'm engagin' in a conversation with Barbara Walters or somethin', and she starts on somethin' that's very personal to me, I'm honest with it.
I know a lot of people want to talk about your rough childhood...
My childhood wasn't disastrous like that. People want to focus on a thing, but I like to focus on my really happy adulthood.
Right. My question isn't so much about your childhood, but what was going on in the time and place you grew up. Music journalists often talk about how crack affected hip-hop at that time -- was there an impact on black comedy?
Drugs...comedians have always had a stigma for drugs and alcohol because of John Belushi, and a lot of the other standups that came before us. But nah, I don't see that now. A lot of people moved away from it. It's just a stigma. Not all of us are tragic figures. A lot of comedy comes from the joys in life, too. I don't ever want to let young people think they need to destroy their lives to be creative. I've been sober for seven years.
It seems that things got a lot better for black comedy when you were coming up in the early '90s. There was In Living Color, and you had a role on Martin and a Def Comedy Jam appearance. Did it feel like you came along at a special time?
There were a lot more vehicles. I wouldn't necessarily say it got better; we still had to do what we had to do. But there were a lot more vehicles for young people in the entertainment world. Today you don't see a lot of those vehicles on network TV. We have all these cable channels and other stuff.
So there aren't the same opportunities for young black comics today as there were when you were coming up?
I don't see it. I came up in a different time. Maybe there are new opportunities in different areas. There are a lot more channels on TV now.
In Tina Fey's book, Bossypants, she talks about hiring people based on how well you get along with them, not just on their talent. Was she an easy person to work alongside?
Yeah, sure. I worked with Tina Fey four or five years together. Yeah, it was cool. She and I never didn't get along. We were professionals, ya know?
You've done some TV work lately with FX and hosting the Billboard Music Awards, but right now you're on a standup tour. Since that's where you began, does being on a stage fulfill you creatively in a way that TV doesn't?
Well, yeah. I've done TV for so long. Now I get an opportunity to hear my own voice again, which is really cool. I get to tell my life story, from my mouth. TV can be kind of constricting. Now I have the freedom to free-fall, ya know?