Interview by Brad Balfour
From class clown to stand-up comedian and, finally, as a film and television star, Tracy Morgan has made his life and on-going bad boy adventures part of his stage persona. Weekly, he replicates this persona as his character--the whiney, clueless television star Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock. Whether doing his fictional sketch comedy series, TGS with Tracy Jordan or his animated analog, the secret agent Blaster--one of the G-Force guinea pigs--Morgan lends both a street credible smirk, a wink and nod to what he does so well. And now that 30 Rock has garnered 22 Emmy Award nominations this year (with the Award ceremony little more than a month away), Morgan is riding high.
A native New Yorker, Morgan rose from the projects to the stage, working his way up to the national comedy circuit while guesting on television and in films. After appearing onDef Comedy Jam, he became well known appearing on Martin as the Hustleman. Morgan then did an hour-long standup Comedy Central special and contributed a voice to Comedy Central's Crank Yankers. He also hosted the channel's showcase, Comic Groove, and was added to Entertainment Weekly's "It List" in 2002.
Once he joined NBC's Saturday Night Live, Morgan popularized two memorable characters--Safari Planet host Brian Fellow and space adventurer Astronaut Jones--as well as homeless romantic Woodrow and Dominican Lou. His impressions included Mike Tyson, The View's Star Jones, Della Reese, Busta Rhymes, Maya Angelou, and Samuel L. Jackson. He has also appeared as himself, both on "Weekend Update" and in backstage sketches where he grilled guest hosts with inappropriate questions.
Morgan segued from his seventh year on SNL to primetime as star of his short-lived series, The Tracy Morgan Show. Morgan also appeared in such films as Head of State (directed by and starring SNL alum Chris Rock) A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Half Baked, 30 Years to Life, How High, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.
As Blaster, Morgan gets to wag his cute little tail while flirting with a Penelope Cruz-voiced fellow agent. In G-Force, live action is mixed with finely rendered 3-D computer animation to tell the story of a team of biologically enhanced guinea pigs trained by maverick scientist Ben [Zach Galifianakis] to become secret agents for the US government. Unfortunately, besides being super-agents fighting a global criminal threat, they are fugitives, having had their program shut down by a human spy agency suspicious--and maybe jealous--of what these costly house pets can do. Still, Ben sends the squad to thwart power-mad billionaire Saber [Bill Nighy], who plans to transform the household appliances his company produces into a gigantic supercomputer [like a Decepticon] in order to take over the world. Not unlike some of Jerry Bruckheimer's other productions, it's sometimes hard to tell the flesh-and-blood characters from the computer-generated ones.
Morgan makes his first foray into an action film--albeit as a furry creature--while still keeping his street creds. In this exclusive interview, the 41-year-old Morgan reviews his role in this perfect-for-summer film and his life in general.
Q: They wanted you to be yourself.
TM: Hoyt [Yeatman Jr., the director] said, "Just be yourself and have fun with it," but we did what was on a page and then he would say, "Just have fun and be yourself." I didn't have to make a choice. I didn't have to do any dialect. I didn't have to do a London accent. They didn't want a Japanese dialect. They said, "Just do Tracy. People love your accent." He wanted me to bring in my voice.
Q: You have your urban experience, certain musical tastes and likes as well. Is that what you drew on? You added a little sexy.....
TM: Actually [Hoyt] wanted Blaster to be the ladies man, and, you know, I've had my experiences with women. I'm 40 years old, from New York City, and I'm hot. I'm Tracy Morgan, you know! I was married for 21 years. I have a son that's 23, so I should know a little something. He wanted me to bring that to the table.
So I asked him, "Was that okay for me to add my little two cents and all that stuff?" and he said, "That's what we want." So, that's what I brought. Tracy Morgan is not Blaster or Tracy Jordan; Blaster is in Tracy Morgan. A lot of people ask me, Wait a minute, let me tell you something. Tracy Morgan is not... Tracy Jordan's Tracy Morgan.
Q: With Tracy Jordan, your 30 Rock character, you draw on yourself to give that character life. He's like you, but not you?
TM: A lot of that stuff that you see on 30 Rock, is right from the headlines when it comes to me. I've experienced all of that stuff. I'm a standup comedian. You know, were crazy, crazy like the guys who wash the windows on The Empire State Building. You've got to be crazy to get up there and wash those windows.
So that's what we do. Most people are afraid to do public speaking. That's what we do for a living. Most people would die rather than get up and speak in front of somebody, or a bunch of people. They'd rather die than give the eulogy.
Q: Or be on the Empire State Building window-washing...
TM: [They'd rather be] washing than speaking in front of crowds. So, I love it.
Q: You have one of the best casts in the world. Do you get to spend time with each other beyond the show?
TM: When we're working, we don't hang out. Fortunately, we're all working. Everybody on the show. The show has done wonders for everybody. That's part of their careers. We're working in some capacity or another, so that's the down thing about success. You don't get to see your friends and family as much, because you're working,but when we around each other, we have a bunch of fun. Tina, Alec, Le Juday [Judah Friedlander], OJ, we're always singing and making each other laugh and then it ends up on the page and in the script.
Q: Is there any difference in working with former Saturday Night Live star Tina Fey as the series creator and head?
TM: Tina, she's down like four flat tires. That's Tina. She's the chief. Were goin' to battle with her, and she sets that example. She's our Tom Brady. If you read Bill Belicheck's book, he said Tom Brady was taking a nap, and that's when he knew they were going to win The Super Bowl. That's cool, baby!
Q: Alec Baldwin... what is he like?
TM: He's played all these straight roles, these dramatic parts, and sometimes people get a perception from that. But the fun part is about breaking the perception, and Alec is hilarious. I call him "AB." and I call Tina Fey, "Fey Fey." That's my "Fey Fey." She ain't goin' nowhere, that Tina Fey. I've watched her from the red carpet and everything.
B: It must be fun being in a groundbreaking show.
TM: We have ties with All In The Family. I look at Nick At Nite, and TV Land, and I look forward to the 30 Rock marathons on New Years' Eve just like the Honeymooners marathons.
Q: When you do 30 Rock as opposed to an animated film, how much of it is driven by the interplay?
TM: OK, we're both comedians. The only difference is, [that Tracy Jordan] has three hundred million dollars. He's an international movie star, I'm not, but we're both entertaining. Tracy Morgan is a very entertaining person but not because he's black. I don't want to be stereotyped. We're brothers, but he's just an entertainer in show business.
Q: You must get a kick out of doing a show like that where you're taking the piss out out of the hand that feeds you--meaning the network. That must be fun.
TM: You know, it isn't politically correct and we love it. I think "PC" is just killing comedy. That's why Bruno is having such a hard time with lawsuits. People nowadays do not have a sense of humor, and that's why I loved doing G-Force because for me, it brought out the kid in me.
We're adults a lot longer than we're children, if you think about it. We're kids a much shorter time than we are adults. When we become adults... People think being an adult is being serious. It's not having a sense of humor, or being entertained, and that's what this does. It's for the family...for everybody to enjoy.
Q: When did it dawn on you that you could get paid to be a kid?
TM: To get paid and be funny? Oh man, that was about 17 years ago. I said, "Wait a minute," because I was always the class clown and everything, and then when I got older and had a family--three kids and a wife--one day I was walking down the street and went into a comedy club [got on stage] and they gave me 10 dollars.
I started with 10 dollars and now I'm doing a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. So, I try to protect my sense of humor with everything I got in this world, 'cause I feel that's the only gift that God gave me to survive in this insane place. Growing up in the ghetto is really dangerous, and I think I survived because I made the gangstas laugh. They liked me because I was the funny guy in the block, so they said, "Don't hurt him! He's our entertainer." I just turned it into a business as I got older.
Q: Do you think comics understand pain more than most people?
TM: I think so. We understand rejection. Just to be in show business, period. People that make it in that next level, they're the ones that... You have to be able to deal with rejection. Most people never make it in show business 'cause they can't deal with rejection. If you can't deal with it on a regular level with women. Why do you think men become alcoholics and stuff? It eases the pain.
Q: A comic is really finding a way tell the story of [his/her] own life...
TM: In a comedic way while injecting your sense of humor.
Q: But it's pure you. You're really naked on that stage.
TM: I tell people all the time, if you want to understand me, you have to go watch my stand-up,and you have to listen. You can't just take the sex part and say,"Well, all he did was curse." No, [it's] the story of my life.
My mother was born and had five kids. My father came back from Vietnam, so that tore my family apart because he came back a junkie, and chose heroin over us. Then her first son was born with Cerebral Palsy. Then I was born. Then she had a daughter. So, I was born in-between cerebral palsy and the only girl.
I didn't really get that [snaps fingers]... She probably think I didn't need it, but I was a kid. I needed it. So, that was painful, and then my mother and my father broke up. That hurt me even more. I was supposed to ball up in a corner and die and disappear, but then I'm a survivor. I thought, "To survive. To just survive."
Then I got older and I said, "Fuck surviving. I want to live."
Q: That's the thing.
TM: Now that I'm living, they want to stop me. I yelled at this guy from BET because he said, "What do you think, some black people said that you were coonin' when you gave that speech at The Golden Globes?"
These are the same fucking people that said when I was a little kid, "You can grow up and be anything you want," and now that I've grown up and become successful, they say, "You're coonin," so, fuck them.... Don't listen to nobody.
Q: You're able to channel that, not necessarily by being angry, but through things like G-Force. It has these right, hip elements, so adults as well as kids walk out smiling. I love that.
TM: It's all family. At the end of the day, it's all family. That's all you got. Family. Pardon me for saying, but like Michael Jackson, all he needed was one friend who considered himself family. That's all Michael Jackson needed, was one person to say, "Let's go to the Yankees game." Two Yankees games would have cleared all that shit up.
Q: You're probably right.
TM: Two Knicks games would have cleared all the..."Order a hot dog, Mike." He never had anybody there to do that.
Q: He tried to stay a kid because he never had a chance to be one.
TM: I think he's The Curious Curse of Benjamin Button. He's the real fucking The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. He grew young.
Q: You're the first person I think who's pointed that out.
TM: It's because [as] I told you, we are adults longer than children. Children understand. Children have fun. When you go to a nursery or kindergarten, you don't see racism there. that shit is a learned behavior.
They're just playing together. If they fight, it's over a toy. They ain't fightin' because of color. They don't care about that stuff. We become adults, and we learn that shit from the generation before us. So, you have to be careful.
You have to be careful on how you raise children. The young people that are going to see this... They don't care about corporate America. They're just going to see G-Force, man, and that's what I love about it, because it's so pure, and me and you, we are the kids in us.
Q: This picture is about a team. It's not about one color, not one race.
TM: You know, me and BET were talking about this. I think every kid in school should play a sport, a team sport. It teaches you camaraderie. Why do you think women are so fiercely competitive?
You have to learn camaraderie. Have you every been a part that was something bigger than you? G-Force is bigger than me or Nicolas Cage--it took all of us. I don't care who is a bigger star. It took all of us to do that movie. It took hundreds of people. One unit. Whenever I'm on a set, I always look around and I love the way the fucking machine runs. From the person holding up this, to the reporter. It's all a machine,and you gotta love the way it runs.
Q: People who work in film, it's like you're in alternative universe, you're in your own world.
TM: It's a community. I'm not a part of the black community. I've never been a part of the white community. I'm a part of show business community. Whether Liz Taylor knows me or not, I'm your neighbor. I can say Michael Jackson knew who I was. I never met him, but guarantee I probably made him laugh,and that right there, I made his kids laugh. I made every reporter in that room laugh. I made you laugh. I made every reporter do this, because it's laughter.
Q: Do you think it's partially about growing up in New York?
TM: Do you want to have a beautiful woman? Make her laugh, man.
Q: You know what your next direction will be: a self-help book to get the pretty women.
TM: That's part of it, but you've got to make 'em laugh. Women love a man with a great sense of humor rather than they love a hump. Rather than they love a big dick. They love a sense of humor. They're so emotional. They go through so much heavy shit every day, that if you can just make her laugh for a second, they'll love you forever. That was Blaster's flaw.
Q: Do you think that Blaster finally gets Juarez, the girl GP agent [voiced by Penelope Cruz]?
TM: Well, you'll find out in the sequel. That's what everybody wants to know.
Q: They are guinea pigs, so they could have had a threesome. Just speculating.
TM: No, they're not deviant like that. They might have had a threesome, but whose baby is it?
Q: That would be tough to figure out. Did you ever decide she was playing you to get Darwin [voiced by Rockwell], or was she playing him to get to you, or was she playing you both to get you to fight over her...
TM: She was playing me to get him, I believe, 'cause she's with me all the time and I'm always giving her my attention. Now, you know, in real life, if you give a woman attention she ignores you, but if you don't give women attention, they go crazy. They go, "What's wrong with me?" You better believe there's something wrong with you, because there ain't nothing wrong with me!
Q: There's that point where you've got to flip it so that after you've been putting her off, you've go after get her....
TM: You can't flip it, because they won't let you. Once the balance of power's been situated, then that's it. Women get creeped out once they know that you love them more than they love you, so you have to play hard-to-get too, but to get 'em... This is how you get 'em. I'm giving you my secrets now. I'm showing you how to use the force. Okay?
All you've got to do is look at her in a way that doesn't creep her out, but make her feel like she's the only one in the fuckin' room.
Q: It's the toughest thing to do--get the balance right where you let her know that that's true, but you don't want to let her know you're that desperate for her.
TM: You don't care. Roll your eyes at her. Make her feel like she's not worthy of you.
Q: So, do you think Blaster had it down or not?
TM: No, Blaster wants her too much, and I try to get through to her, but he won't listen to me.
Q: What would you have told Blaster?
TM: You've got to make her laugh. I don't know. I don't know what makes her laugh. Blaster just needs to be himself and stop begging. When you beg, you make people hate you. If I ever see a woman I like, I'll just walk up to her and say, "If God made anything better than you, he's keeping it for his MF self."
Q: That's what you should have told Blaster?
TM: That's too heavy. I wanted to keep it light, but just remember that line, and I guarantee she'll smile and once you get to a woman, see the way to a woman's heart is through her funny-bone. You make her smile, she'll love you forever.
The way to a man's heart is through his stomach. If you know how to cook, you've got him. See, I tell any woman, God gave you what you needed to get a man, but I'm gonna see if you can keep him. You've got to know how to cook if you want him to come home. If you make that lasagna with six different cheeses, then I'm comin' home.
Q: Did you get a chance to meet Penelope Cruz?
TM: I've never met her.
Q: What would you say to her if you did?
TM: The first thing I would say is,"How are you doing, Ms. Cruz? Hubba-Hubba." Nic Cage is cool, but Penelope. Come on, nothing makes a man feel better than a wo-man. He was the first act, but the real act is yet to come. Nic Cage is cool, but to me, he ain't got nothing on Penelope.
Q: When you do an animated film, you usually don't have that option. You only get together with everybody after the fact so it must have been fun to finally sit down with Nic Cage who plays the mole Speckles...
TM: [It was] the first time I ever met him and the first time I ever met Zach. It was the second time I met Jerry Bruckheimer. So, just to be there at the table with those guys was an honor, and then to have you guys laugh was an honor [as well].
Q: Having met Bruckheimer, did you have any sort of suggestions, besides saying, "I'm available?"
TM: Jerry does the picking and the choosing.
Q: Maybe you could get yourself a cameo on one of his TV shows.
TM: No, I've got 30 Rock. 30 Rock is good enough.
Q: It seems like you've done nearly everything, TV, movies, stand-up, voice overs.
TM: Everything except for directing and I haven't done Broadway which I want to do one day.
Q: What about singing?
TM: My father was a singer. I sing all the time. I sing every day. When I'm on the set, I sing.
Q: But you've never gone in that direction.
TM: No, no. That's my son. My youngest son is into music. I was more into sports and comedy.
Q: You've never pursued sports though.
TM: No but I was really good. I went to high school up here in the Bronx, De Witt Clinton. I was All-City halfback, and I was a All-City track runner.
Q: Would you like to create and direct an animated film?
TM: No, I think that stuff is too hard. I'll leave that for the animation department. Well, I plan on directing a short, maybe next summer.
Q: Would it be humorous or serious?
TM: It would be humorous. I want to show the world my humor. I've doing a lot of everybody else's humor my whole career. I've just been funny in it, but you ain't seen what I'm thinking.
If you want to understand me, then you have to see my stand-up,and what might stand out is the sex because you've got to understand, I've been doing this since I was little. You know where I come from in my neighborhood, everybody is promiscuous.
I come from where Mike Tyson came from. I come from right across the street from Jay-Z. I didn't have a pond in my backyard. I saw violence. I saw all that stuff in the "hood" growin' up, and a good thing I had a sense of humor, because that's what got me out of it.
Q: Do people stereotype you or have expectations of you because of that experience?
TM: Sure, sure. I got into it with BET on the phone. The first people that will really turn on you is black people. Sometimes your own kind.
Q: Isn't that funny?
TM: Yeah, that's the way it is. Jesus couldn't go back to Nazareth. They probably would have killed the man.
Q: I feel a bond, or complementary relationship with your experience and mine, because as a Jew, everybody seems to hate us.
TM: And our minds are open. They say that every Jewish person is supposed to love one black person in his life. I'm glad Lorne Michaels chose me.
Q: How difficult was it working in the framework of Saturday Night Live?
TM: First, it's "live" entertainment. It's on late night--working at 30 Rock is prime time and a single camera--[with Saturday Night Live] you have a audience right there, so you establish a relationship with them within the first 30 seconds. They let you know if they don't like you. It's like stand-up. It's live entertainment. There's nothing on TV like it... Saturday Night Live is the only thing that's "live" on television.
Q: Isn't that amazing to think about that?
TM: Come on man, it's like being shot out of a cannon.... every week.
Q: What was your weirdest "live," impromptu, improvised experience you've had in terms of doing standup, or other things?
TM: Saturday Night Live maybe, making something up and it working...saying something as Brian Fellows or as Woodrow and it absolutely working and you have millions of people that see it as opposed to doing a show. In stand-up you only have about 5000 people seeing it. You do something in Saturday Night Live, you have millions of people seeing it.
Q: It would be interesting to see you work with Zach.
TM: You know who was so funny? Eddie Murphy when he did Dreamgirls. That was profound. That was really a profound performance. My career person said, "You and Zach should do a movie together." I think we would have a ball.
Q: If you did action films, would you like to move on to do some serious action films?
TM: I'm doing an action film now--A Couple of Dicks with Bruce Willis [which is supposedly re-titled, A Couple of Cops--directed by Kevin Smith]. Me and Bruce are two Brooklyn detectives. We're filming that now in New York City. In the movie, I get shot and I kill a couple of people. Everything is Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan. Or Tracy Morgan and Bruce Willis.
Q: Since you're the co-star, you don't die in it. It used to be that in such films, it was the black character that always got killed in the movie.
TM: Well, fortunately, I've never died in a movie.
Q: That's cool.
TM: I've never died in a movie or on a TV show. Never.
Q: You missed your chance to be melodramatic.
TM: Well, I cried in First Sunday when Loretta DeVine made me cry. So, I broke the fourth wall, but thank God, I've never died. Nobody said, "Well, you did in this scene."
Q: Mentioning the fourth wall, how far or crazy would you take it in making your own movie?
TM: I couldn't tell you. As far as creativity and art [go], I would love to do something where I have to get in touch with the pain and all that dark stuff. That's refreshing.