Saturday Night’s Children: Tracy Morgan (1996-2003)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 35 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

Since the debut of 30 Rock in 2006, Tracy Morgan has become best known for his role as the unhinged millionaire superstar Tracy Jordan — a character fellow former SNL cast member and 30 Rock creator Tina Fey wrote specifically for him. “I love seeing Tracy every day, and I love that we’re going into this with the notion that we’re not going to sanitize him too much,” Fey told The AV Club in 2006 after the show’s premiere. “We’re not going to clean him up for America’s protection. It’ll be a little bit more of the real deal.” Despite Morgan’s habit of saying terribly offensive things, it’s hard to tell where Morgan ends and Jordan begins when they’re both lifting their shirts on live TV and shouting “Someone gon’ get pregnant!”

Morgan’s childhood, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, was hard. His Vietnam vet father came back from the war a heroin addict and died from AIDS when Morgan was a teenager, and his relationship with his mother was often strained. From a young age, Morgan turned to comedy to cope with his early traumas and defend himself against school bullies. “When kids are making fun of you in the schoolyard, you go get your big brother, and he comes back with you and he turns into the Incredible Hulk,” Morgan told Time in 2009. “But my oldest brother was born with cerebral palsy. So I had to develop a sense of humor.”

Morgan’s early struggles culminated after the murder of his best friend. Morgan told NPR in 2009:

“He would say to me, ‘Yo, Tracy, man, you should be doing comedy. 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.”

Morgan married in his early 20s, had three sons, and gradually achieved success as a stand-up comedian in the 1980s, performing many shows at the Uptown Comedy Club and the Apollo, where he was discovered by Martin Lawrence’s ex-wife and subsequently cast as a supporting character in the sitcom Martin.

Morgan continued his role on Martin until SNL hired him as a repertory player in 1996 alongside newcomer Ana Gasteyer. He quickly became one of the highlight cast members of his era thanks to his recklessly silly delivery and muppet-like growl of a voice (see Alec Baldwin’s impression of Tracy here). Despite being up against an all-white writing staff, Morgan found his niche on the show and racked up a list of hit recurring characters like Brian Fellow of “Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet,” a show about animals hosted by “an enthusiastic young man with a sixth grade education and abiding love for all God’s creatures.”

Other memorable characters include Dominican Lou, Astronaut Jones, Uncle Jemima (“That means you get f**ked up for less money!”), and Woodrow the homeless man, whose song for Britney Spears “Take a Doo Doo Pie” is one of my personal all-time favorite SNL songs. Morgan also impersonated celebrities including Star Jones (“I am a LAWYER”), Bobby Brown, Louis Armstrong, Serena Williams, Shaq, Maya Angelou, and bailiff Burt in the “Judge Judy” sketches with Cheri Oteri. He also had a recurring bit during monologues and between sketches where he tells Lorne Michaels, “Get me a soda, bitch!”

After seven seasons on SNL, Morgan left in 2003 to star in his own NBC sitcom The Tracy Morgan Show, but it was canceled after one season due to low ratings (it shared the same time slot as American Idol’s second season). He had two stand-up specials, One Mic in 2002 and Black and Blue in 2010, and he’s appeared in shows and films including Half Baked, Head of State, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Death at a Funeral, Human Giant, and Crank Yankers, in which he plays the smooth-talking Spoonie Luv. Since 2006 he’s starred on 30 Rock and given us countless memorable gems like “Stop eating people’s old French fries, pigeon. Have some self respect! Don’t you know you can fly?” He earned an Emmy nomination in 2009 for his performance on 30 Rock, returned to SNL to host the same year, and if we’re all lucky and have been good this year, maybe he’ll guest star on SNL this weekend with Fallon, Kattan, and Sanz to perform the Christmas Song? As Brian Fellow would say, “That’s crazy!

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.

Saturday Night’s Children: Tracy Morgan (1996-2003)