Tracy Morgan is one of the stars of 30 Rock. We’re not breaking news here, but it bears repeating since he doesn’t get much attention. Certainly not as much as co-stars and critical darlings Tina Fey (who created the show) and Alec Baldwin. But, hell, even Jack McBrayer, the guy who plays Kenneth the Page, gets more love. This, we suspect, is because most fans of the show assume Morgan is playing himself, not an arrogant, dunce-y character. That 30 Rock (which returns October 30 on NBC) blurs fiction and reality (Morgan plays Tracy Jordan, star of a sketch-comedy series) only adds to the confusion.
Morgan isn’t much help in clarifying the situation. Sitting with him in a booth at the London Bar with his assistant Kenny, I find it’s hard to get a bead on the guy. He’s talking to me—actually, it’s more like rapid-fire free-associating—but not really looking at me. “When you’re in the spotlight, people want to dissect you and then put you back together the way they want you. But not Trey-Bag. I’m doing it like Frank Sinatra: my way, baby!” He continues to stare at an indeterminable spot three feet above my left shoulder, eyes slightly crossed. “I just came out of Lasik eye surgery ten minutes ago. Maybe fifteen minutes ago. So my vision is distorted.” I ask him if maybe he should be resting his eyes. “Nah, whatever,” he says. He orders a green tea. “You lose when you booze, isn’t that what they say? I can have a drink if I want to. I just don’t feel like it.” I nod. “What do they call that? Oh, I’m functioning. I’m a func-tion-ing alcoholic.” Kenny offers a cautionary “Trey,” which Morgan ignores. “I’m going to tell you the truth any-fucking-way, so it don’t matter if that’s on the table,” he says, motioning to my tape recorder.
I ask him if people confuse him with his character, and if it might be annoying to be mistaken for an idiot. “He’s my alter ego, he’s not me,” says Morgan, pushing his green tea aside. (“That don’t look like tea.”) “Some people believe everything they see on TV. People, it’s called tel-lie-vision! You have to be highly intelligent to get away with a dumb joke. That takes a pretty smart fella.”
Morgan, who used those smarts to propel himself out of the Coney Island projects, worked his way up the New York comedy circuit before landing a supporting role on Saturday Night Live in 1996 (which is where he met Fey, who conceived the character of Tracy Jordan with Morgan in mind). His stand-up routines tend toward the raunchy. At a recent performance at Carolines, Morgan riffed for ten minutes on losing his virginity to a girl who he says was handicapped. The punch line was that she kept banging her leg braces against him during sex. Morgan’s affable stage presence and bug-eyed delivery made it more hilarious than offensive. (The guy sitting next to me laughed so hard he spat out his beer.) This is his comedic strength—the comfortable embrace of the outrageous—honed on SNL in skits like “Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet” (in which he played a mentally stunted man obsessed with animals) and put to good use on 30 Rock, where Tracy Jordan says things like “The only way I can feel good about myself is to be booby-slapped by a coked-out Russian stripper” with a straight face.
In person, Morgan seamlessly switches between crass-simpleton caricature and self-aware actor. He jokes about his growing fame—“I feel like a young girl whose body is just developing. I’ve got some nice tits, a nice ass, a pretty face … everyone want to fuck me”—then his tone darkens. “There’s not much success where I come from. It’s heavy-duty in my community to reach the level I’m at. For the past few years, I’d been feeling very alone, and that’s dangerous.”
Since 2005, Morgan has been separated from his wife of twenty years and was arrested twice for DUIs. Last year, he was accused of groping a female disc jockey in Miami (he told her he wanted “to impregnate” her, and allegedly put his head in her lap). He was sentenced to wear an alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelet for months. The bracelet was incorporated into 30 Rock as a joke, but Morgan says it was a low point in his life. He felt estranged from friends and was mortified for his three children. But he found a mentor in Baldwin. “When I got my second DUI, Alec was the main one counseling me. He’s a passionate dude,” says Morgan. “I don’t give a fuck what nobody say about him, dude been there. ‘You got an opportunity on 30 Rock,’ he told me. I felt the love when he do that.
“I partied like a rock star, but now I’m chillin’ out,” he adds. “People have a perception of me. They think I’m crazy. Do I seem mental?” I say no, he seems sane, if a little depressed. “You’re right,” he says. “I’m a sad clown.” All pretense of humor vanishes. Sensing my interest, he quickly changes gears, his mouth creasing into a broad smile. “Know how you can tell it’s a good interview? You ain’t say nothing!” A minute later, before I can wish him luck with his Lasik recovery, he’s gone.
I meet Morgan again at an early-morning 30 Rock rehearsal at Silvercup Studios in Long Island City. He says the structure of the daily filming schedule helps his mental state, and he is in better spirits, helped, it seems, by having just broken up with a girlfriend. “I ain’t drinking, I’m having fun, and I can date anyone I want,” he tells me. When we get up to the studio, he introduces me to Tina Fey—“Tina! This here’s the reporter from the New York Times.” New York Magazine, I correct him. Fey smiles politely and excuses herself. The cast begins filming a scene for the Christmas episode, in which Fey, as her own alter ego, Liz Lemon, informs the writers that she has a Christmas surprise. Morgan’s follow-up line, “Colorful sweaters?,” is shot over a few takes. First, the director instructs Morgan to say it disappointedly. “Colorful sweaters?” Morgan sighs. Then he’s asked to say it excitedly—“Colorful sweaters?” he intones brightly— then to add a little more Tracy to it. “Motherfucking colorful sweaters?” Morgan deadpans. Everyone laughs. The take is clearly unusable, but Morgan looks satisfied. It’s what he lives for, cracking up an audience.
During a break he says, “When I met with you before, everything seemed really dark. But I got people who care about me, and I’m getting to a place where I got some wisdom. I’m 40!” At this point in his life, I ask him, who is he? His expression is blank before his eyes narrow flirtatiously. “You just can’t get enough of me, can you?” he says. Then he’s off to finish filming.