It's the rare high-school dropout drug dealer with a family to support who decides to pursue a career as a stand-up comedian. Even more rare is the man who makes this plan work. Meet Tracy Morgan.
An outside observer might assume that comedy saved Tracy Morgan's life. Not according to Morgan. "Comedy didn't save my life, 'cause comedy was with me when I was dealing drugs," said Morgan in a recent phone interview with Play.
"What saved my life was my family. Comedy is just something I do. It's a contract," Morgan said. "When I get a cold, comedy doesn't bring me chicken soup. My wife does."
But comedy does pay the bills. Morgan credits his professional success to natural talent. "I was born this way! I didn't go to school for it. No one gave me a pill. Being born with a sense of humor -- I think we all have one. Stand-up comedians are just more in touch with it."
But Morgan acknowledges that his upbringing also contributed to his comedic abilities. "My dad was a funny person. My family was funny. You know, in a black neighborhood, growing up in poverty, there were only a few things that made us happy. We had music, which was Marvin Gaye. We had comedy, which was Richard Pryor. We had sex."
By the time he was 23 years old, Morgan was a father of three and living on welfare. That's when he began focusing on comedy. Rising through the ranks in New York City and eventually earning spots on television programs like "Uptown Comedy Club," "Apollo Comedy Hour" and "Showtime at the Apollo," Morgan caught his biggest break when he successfully auditioned for "Saturday Night Live" in 1996.
Morgan credits SNL with teaching him to not to be scared. "It taught me to be fearless," said Morgan. "I had never done live entertainment on TV. It was like being shot out of a cannon every week. Tightrope walking without a net. Live television. You better be fearless." Will Ferrell was the SNL performer who had the most powerful effect on his career, Morgan said. Why? "Look at Will, man. He's fearless."
During his time on SNL, Morgan achieved particular acclaim for his impersonations, including memorable takes on Al Sharpton, Aretha Franklin, Marion Barry, and Maya Angelou. But his favorite celebrity to impersonate was erstwhile attorney-turned-television-personality Star Jones. "People loved that one."
After seven years on SNL, Morgan left to star in "The Tracy Morgan Show," which lasted just 18 episodes. Then, in 2006, Morgan caught his second big break: Tina Fey asked him to join the cast of her new sitcom, "30 Rock."
That this is the main reason casual fans recognize Morgan seems to irk him. Morgan's publicist instructed Play, on multiple occasions, to "avoid questions about '30 Rock'; just focus on his stand-up." Earlier this month, Morgan told Ocean Drive Magazine "it feels great to hear my voice again. If you just take 'Saturday Night Live' and '30 Rock,' that's 14 years of me doing other brilliant characters and working with brilliant writers."
Morgan's "30 Rock" years, while fruitful professionally, were difficult personally. Partying and excessive drinking led to the end of Morgan's 20-year marriage to his high school sweetheart. Morgan told Barbara Walters in a May 2013 interview that he "was dying inside" during his first two years on of the show.
Morgan quit drinking some time after the divorce, and has slowly rebuilt his personal life. He recently remarried and had a child this summer (during his interview with Play, a baby could be heard crying in the background).
Play: What's the secret to being funny?
Morgan: Being able to laugh at yourself, don't take yourself so serious. You gotta look at life and laugh. Some things in life are serious. But if you take life too serious, you never get out alive. Everybody wants to have a sense of humor, but nobody wants to laugh at themselves. We are really ultra-sensitive in this country and in this world. Ever since you have social media, everybody's ultra-sensitive, everybody wants to take everything so serious.
Play: How is your return to stand-up going?
Morgan: My return to stand-up is going great! I never left it. I would always do stand-up. I never left it. I did TV, movies. But I never left it. Stand-up is the foundation of my whole career.
Play: Do you improvise on stage more than most comedians?
Morgan: Yeah, you know, things come to me when I'm on stage. I like to believe I do my best creating when I'm on stage. Life is, you know, unpredictable. So when you are doing live comedy, things can be unpredictable.
Play: How did you choose to come to Alaska as part of your tour?
Morgan: My agents do that stuff.
(Play laughs out loud.)
Morgan: I have other people along, routing my tours, you know? But I didn't choose -- Alaska chose me. I don't go anywhere I am not invited. I have been here before, and had a great time. People in Alaska were a hip crowd. I wanted to come back.
Play: You told Elle Magazine that you admire women with guns. In Alaska, many women have guns. Are you looking forward to your visit?
Morgan: I told someone I like women with guns?
Play: You were explaining the difference between, as I recall, a "regular" girlfriend and a "thug" girlfriend.
Morgan: Oh. Well, a woman who can use some steel, for sporting, yeah, but not for -- not against human beings. I am against that. I am for the preservation of human life. And I don't hunt.
Play: What do you want audiences thinking when you finish your act? What is the essence of Tracy Morgan's career?
Morgan: If you're gonna see me, see me with your heart and not your eyes.
Play: Can you expand on that?
Morgan: Yeah. Don't judge a book by its cover.
By Vikram Patel
Daily News correspondent