Tracy Morgan On Being 'The New Black' Tracy Morgan, a Saturday Night Live alumnus and one of the stars of NBC's 30 Rock, has a new memoir — I Am the New Black — about growing up in what he calls "Ghetto, USA."

Tracy Morgan On Being 'The New Black'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


TRACY MORGAN: Tina Fey and I had an agreement that if Barack Obama won, I would speak for the show from now on.


MORGAN: Welcome to post-racial America. I'm the face of post-racial America. Deal with it, Cate Blanchett.


GROSS: My guest, Tracy Morgan, accepted the Golden Globe on behalf of "30 Rock" this year in a typically unpredictable way. He's earned his reputation as a wildcard, and so has the character he plays on "30 Rock," Tracy Jordan. The character was created for Morgan by Tina Fey, the creator and star of "30 Rock." She worked with Morgan on "Saturday Night Live," where he spent seven years. On "30 Rock," Morgan plays the star of an NBC sketch comedy series who's always getting into trouble, saying and doing the wrong thing, clueless about why it's wrong. Tina Fey plays the head writer.

Part of what has given Tracy Morgan his reputation as a wildcard is his behavior in interviews. On a couple of local morning TV shows, he took off his shirt to show off his rounded belly. He exposes his belly on the cover of his new memoir, too. Between the covers, Morgan exposes himself in a new way, telling the story of growing up in what he describes as Ghetto USA. The book is called "I Am the New Black."

Let's start with a clip from this season's opener of "30 Rock." The head of the network, played by Alec Baldwin, has made it clear that in this economic hard time, the show has to reconnect with the real America, and he's told Tracy that he's lost touch with his roots and need to reconnect with the common man. Back in the dressing room, Tracy talks about this with the two members of his entourage, Dot Com and Grizz.


MORGAN: (As Tracy Jordan) I blame you and Dot Com. You two have built a protective shell around me like a hermit crab or mermaid booby, and now I've lost touch with the common man.


MORGAN: (As Tracy Jordan) Who's that?

Unidentified Actor #1: This is Raleigh, the custodian. You said you wanted an ordinary person to reconnect with.

MORGAN: Oh hey, guy, come on in. So Raleigh, where you from?

Unidentified Actor #2: (As Raleigh) Brooklyn.

MORGAN: Right on, my brother. My dear friend Moby opened up a tea house in Park Slope. Does he know you? Hey Raleigh, you ever lose your remote control?

Actor #2: Yeah.


MORGAN: And do you wife start getting all mad because the roof won't close, and the bed that's in the shape of your face is getting rained on?


MORGAN: I like you, Raleigh. Can I feel the rough skin on your hands?

GROSS: That's Tracy Morgan in a scene from the season premiere of "30 Rock." Tracy Morgan, welcome to FRESH AIR. Does that scene connect with anything from your life, that sense of having lost touch with your roots?

MORGAN: Absolutely not.


MORGAN: Absolutely not. It still rains on me when I - Tracy Jordan and Tracy Morgan are two different entities, okay? Tracy Morgan is not a part of Tracy Jordan's life. Tracy Jordan is a part of Tracy Morgan's life. But that's television; that's a figment of someone's imagination. You know, life smacks Tracy Morgan in the face, and I don't mean to talk in third party, but no, it doesn't stop raining when I come outside, no, absolutely not. I'm very in touch.

GROSS: You've worked closely with Tina Fey on "Saturday Night Live" and on "30 Rock." How did you start working together as - did you work together as a collaborative team on "Saturday Night Live" before "30 Rock"?

MORGAN: No, on "Saturday Night Live," I never really wrote. You know, I would just - I would let the writers cast me into the show. So my strength - and I put all my energies into performance. I just couldn't deal with the rejection, you know, getting your sketches cut, and it was hard for me. So I said you know what? I'm going to focus all my energies on performance. I'll let them cast me in stuff, and when they cast me in stuff, I'll be the funniest thing in it.

GROSS: Why did you start to do that, to focus just on performance. Were you...?

MORGAN: Because it was a performance-driven show at the time. You had me, Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan, those were performance - it was a performance-driven cast. The writing was great, but it was really performance-driven.

GROSS: It sounds from your memoir that it was a really frustrating time for you when you were on "Saturday Night Live."

MORGAN: At times, but that's for anybody. You know, being that I said it, it just - everybody has - it's really been blown out of proportion at that.

You know, there's ups and downs of any job. If you worked at the post office, there's ups and downs. You have your good days, and you have your bad days. If you're a housewife, you have your good days, and you have your bad days. I wasn't miserable there. "Saturday Night Live" was the joy of my life. I didn't get along with everybody there, but who does? There's sibling rivalries and all of that, but people take things and blow them out of proportion.

I wrote this book, and there's 198 pages, and then certain media want to take the things that are said about certain cast members and turn it into "The Jerry Springer Show."

GROSS: Okay, let's talk about growing up.

MORGAN: Right.

GROSS: So you grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn. Describe the neighborhood.

MORGAN: Well, it was rough. It was Bed-Stuy, do or die. You know, it was rough. It was deprivation, it was poverty, it was Ghetto USA. It was what it was, but there was love. There was a lot of love, you know, but then crack came along, and guns came along, and you know, it became an epidemic in America.

GROSS: Your father fought in Vietnam, and you say he fought for, like, four or five tours, and he came home addicted to heroin, and that kind of split up the family because your mother didn't want you around him when he was using.

MORGAN: Of course not.

GROSS: Yeah.

MORGAN: Of course not. My mother gave - my mother loved my father. My mother tried to help my father, but when you're addicted to heroin, that's a very powerful addiction, and most people never survive it. And like many other young men that went over and served in Vietnam, a lot of them came back junkies.

GROSS: I know, but...

MORGAN: That's how heroin and all of these things took place in the '70s. It was a big boom on that. It was young kids over there just trying to get through the night.

GROSS: When you were six or seven, and you know, your father was freshly home, and you were trying to get to know him...

MORGAN: Right.

GROSS: ...did you understand what it meant to have a habit? And here's what I'm even thinking, you know, like...

MORGAN: No, I was six years old.

GROSS: I know, and kids are so afraid of needles, you know, of getting, like...

MORGAN: I was six years old.

GROSS: ...vaccinations and shots, and here your father is...

MORGAN: I knew my daddy was sleepy all the time. That's what I knew.

GROSS: Right.

MORGAN: But he was my daddy.

GROSS: Right.

MORGAN: Kids don't see fault like that. Kids' minds ain't even that developed.

GROSS: Yeah, I'm also wondering, like, you write about how your father would have night terrors from post-traumatic stress.

MORGAN: Yeah, and that would make me cry because my daddy was scared, and I knew that, and I was a baby, but I seen it.

GROSS: Yeah, but I figure that must have been really scary to see your father scared like that.

MORGAN: Oh, you don't know the half. This book is just the half. People are really shocked about some of the things and revelations that are made in this book, but you don't even know the half. There are people still - I know people going through this every day, you know? I know people going through this every day.

My childhood, yeah, sure, it wasn't a happy ending. I lost my daddy. And at some point, I lost my mommy emotionally, but she had five kids.

GROSS: Yeah, well, you write about how you left your mother's home in Brooklyn to live in your father's home in the Bronx when you were in high school.

MORGAN: Yeah. I thought it was because I wanted to play football, and she didn't want to let me.

GROSS: And now what do you think?

MORGAN: But I think it was bigger than that. Now that I look back on it now, I think that I ran because if I would've stayed, I might have became a statistic like some of my other friends.

GROSS: What...

MORGAN: I might have got caught up in the streets, and I might not be sitting here talking to you. So I did what I thought was best for me, and I ran, and I went to my father who put me in a high school with a football team and said run, Tray. Have fun. And by the time I really got to know him, I was still going through anger because I was still angry. I was like any other inner-city child with a chip on his shoulder because his daddy and his mommy wasn't together.

GROSS: And I should say when you went to live with your father, he wasn't using anymore, right?

MORGAN: No, he had stopped maybe 10 years.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. I just wanted to make that clear.

MORGAN: But it was too late. Yeah, it was too late. He wasn't using then. My father was - he was down like four flat tires at that time, but I was angry. He was always in my life. My father was always there, taught me how to - took me fishing and all these things, but it's not like having daddy there.

GROSS: You write that when you were in high school and living with your father, your father sent you to two psychiatrists because you were so angry all the time.

MORGAN: Me, I was.

GROSS: Did you understand then what was making you angry, and is your take on it now different?

MORGAN: No, I didn't. I was 16, 17 years old. I just knew I was mad, and I might have been mad at him. I might have been mad at him because when I went to school, I was around my peers. I made - I was the life of the party. I made them laugh and everything, but when I went home, it would just be like I was mad because now he's trying to tell me, and I felt like I had grew up already. By the time I was 11 years old, I was hanging out until 4, 5 o'clock in the morning. Now I'm with you, now you're telling me I have to be in by 8 o'clock, and I have to eat three square meals, and I have to study. What? It's too late for that.

GROSS: Do you think you're still angry? Because you still sound a little bit angry.


MORGAN: No, I'm not angry. I'm just passionate. I don't see myself as angry, although other people see that. I just see myself as a short, dumpy guy with bad feet, and I'm passionate.

GROSS: Okay.


MORGAN: I'm a grown man now. I'm doing well off.

GROSS: All right.


MORGAN: I really don't have anything - and my kids are fine. You know, my ex-wife is fine.

GROSS: Good, good.

MORGAN: But when I speak, I speak passionately. I do. It's not anger. I mean, that little 17-year-old boy, he's grown up. He's a man now. And when I was angry, when I was younger, I was in a cocoon. Now I'm a beautiful, black butterfly.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tracy Morgan, who now stars on "30 Rock." You probably also know him from "Saturday Night Live," and he has a memoir now, which is called "I Am the New Black."

So I just wanted to get back to your childhood a little bit. When your father died of AIDS when you were in high school, you dropped out of high school, and you needed money. So you say you started selling marijuana and then eventually started selling crack.


GROSS: But - so I'm wondering. Did you take Al Pacino's advice from "Scarface," don't get high on your own supply?

MORGAN: No, I never did drugs. My drug of choice was beer, was liquor. As far as narcotics, no. I would smoke weed and drink beer like any other - like Michael Phelps do that. But I never did no narcotics - never. My father had died from that. So I already knew better. You know, I'm a very smart person. I was able to see that. As a child, I was able to know that I wanted a better life.

GROSS: You say that it was helpful to you as a comic to sell crack because of all the characters that you met. What do you mean?

MORGAN: Well, it wasn't helpful for me to sell crack, especially to my old community, and it still bothers me today, but it's something that I did. It was survival. Now I'm living. Now I don't have to do any of that stuff. I'm a grown man now, but when I did, I wasn't good at it. So I had my fledging attempt at being a drug dealer.

GROSS: So, but tell me really, like, how did you feel when you were selling crack, knowing that you were selling a drug that destroys lives?

MORGAN: I was a kid. I had no fear. I was crazy, and when you don't have fear, you're crazy. I didn't have a healthy dose of fear. I was like, everybody else is doing it. I never thought I could get killed, or somebody could kill me, and then friends started dying. Friends started going to jail. I know guys that are doing years in the hundreds. I know people that never made it out of our childhood. My best friend, who I used to sell crack with, got murdered one day, murdered by somebody we went to junior high school with. And that was it for me. I started doing comedy.

GROSS: After that?

MORGAN: Right after that. Because me and him used to be cooking the drugs up, and he would say to me, yo, Tracy, man, you should be doing comedy. You should take your ass to the Apollo. And I was like no, man. And then, a week later, he was murdered. And that for me, that was like my Vietnam. And I had my survival guilt when I started to achieve success, why I made it out and some guys didn't, because it's not for everybody. I just - I do what I do so that some - I can hire some of my friends to work with me and for me, and I could take care of my family.

GROSS: Okay, so...

MORGAN: I didn't write this book to hurt anybody. I wrote - this is my life. I'd rather tell my story than to have the E! Hollywood channel do it.

GROSS: In reading your memoir, it seemed to me the most emotionally difficult part of what you were writing was writing about leaving your mother. That when you were in high school, you decided you didn't want to live with her anymore, you wanted to live with your father. And you just kind of left one day.

MORGAN: It was a terrible situation. It was a really terrible situation, and it wasn't my mother's fault. Something just went off in me. I wanted better for me. And I not only ran away, I came back a year later and got my little brother and my little sister.

GROSS: And took them with you to your father's house.

MORGAN: Yeah, and the...

GROSS: And he got custody. He got legal custody, which...

MORGAN: Yeah, and that was really hard. That was the hardest day of my life. And I heard my mother cry, and it just broke me down. And I think about it now - I never meant to hurt my mother.

GROSS: In - you know, in the book, you describe how you - are you okay to keep going?


GROSS: In the book you describe how you and your mother never reconciled.

MORGAN: One day we will. Maybe one day, she'll pick up this book.

GROSS: I figure she would.

MORGAN: Maybe she'll read it. Maybe she'll read it.

GROSS: Do you intend part of it to be a way of saying to her, let's talk?

MORGAN: When you talk to someone, they can either argue with you or just shut you off and walk out of the room. When you talk to someone on the phone, they can hang up on you. But when you write them a letter, they have to read that letter. They just have to read that letter. Me, I forgive my mother, and I moved on. That's for my moving on. That's for me. My mother had to forgive herself. I understand, mommy. That's all I'm saying is I understand. I understand what the position you was in and why you did what you did. I love my mother. My mother made sure, her stubbornness - she made sure we was going to eat. She made sure we had Christmases. That was my mother. My father wasn't there for that.

GROSS: You know what's going to be odd for people hearing this? A lot of people say that when they see you being interviewed, that they never know, like, what's the real Tracy Morgan and what's, like, part performance, and so people are always used to seeing you being comically over the top as yourself on television. I'm not talking about "30 Rock" or anything. I'm just talking about, like, when you're interviewed.

MORGAN: Right.

GROSS: And there's that famous thing that's all over YouTube, where you're interviewed by a local TV show...

MORGAN: Well, you're the first person ever interviewed me in retrospect.

GROSS: Is that true?

MORGAN: Now you're seeing the other side.

GROSS: Oh, okay.

MORGAN: Now you're seeing the other side because you was interested.

GROSS: It just, like, completely - it's, like, 180 degrees from the over-the-top comic side. It's like whoa. It's like...

MORGAN: I love you for that, Terry. I love you for that, just caring, just being interested. I love you just for that.

GROSS: All right.

MORGAN: You know? And I feel good. I feel good.

GROSS: Being that emotional?

MORGAN: It's emotional. It's emotional for me. It is, and I've got to be honest with thyself. I'm funny. I still turn the funny on. The funny bus is still sitting downstairs. Yeah, the funny bus - I've got a whole truckload of funny downstairs.

GROSS: Okay.


MORGAN: Stop. Stop.

GROSS: I just think people are going to be kind of stunned, like whoa, this is, like, not what I was expecting. It's like he's got a tissue and...

MORGAN: Well, you think they're going to say I had a meltdown on the air...

GROSS: No, no, but I...

MORGAN: People cry. People have emotions.

GROSS: No, I know. I know. I know.

MORGAN: I feel. Yeah, I feel.

GROSS: My guest is Tracy Morgan. His new memoir is called "I Am the New Black." He stars on the NBC series "30 Rock." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Tracy Morgan, the star of "30 Rock," who also spent seven years on "Saturday Night Live." He's written a new memoir called "I Am the New Black." The book details Morgan's difficult life growing up in what he calls Ghetto USA.

Morgan moved out of his mother's house as a teenager to live with his father. His father was a Vietnam veteran who started using heroin during the war and came home an addict. That's how he later got AIDS. Morgan was living with his father when he was dying.

MORGAN: I came home one day and he was about 90 pounds.


MORGAN: And he was sitting outside, and I don't know how he found the strength to climb down four flights of stairs. He had lost all his teeth. He was just about on his way out, and I looked at him, I said, dad, why are you sitting out here? And he couldn't talk. He had lost that ability, and he just looked at me, and he mumbled: I needed air. Take me upstairs. And I picked him up in my arms, and I carried my father upstairs, and then as we was going through the door, he cried. He looked at me, and I said, what's wrong, dad? He said: I remember when I carried you through the door when you was a baby.

GROSS: You took care of your father at the end?

MORGAN: Yeah. I was there. I brought him food to the hospital, let him yell at me, because I knew he was afraid. When you're facing death, you can be afraid. I don't know nobody, anybody that walked to the gas chamber and was all bold. That's only for TV.

GROSS: What surprised you about how he faced death?


GROSS: What surprised you about how he faced death?

MORGAN: He still made music.

GROSS: Oh, right. Your father was in a band, and you were his roadie for a while.

MORGAN: Musician. He still made music.

GROSS: Oh, you know what? You know what I wanted to ask you to do?

MORGAN: I have it on audiotape.

GROSS: Yeah, okay. I don't know if you'd be willing to do this, but you mention a couple of songs that he wrote.

MORGAN: "One by One"?

GROSS: Would you sing one or sing part of one?

MORGAN: (Singing) One by one, save your brother.

(Speaking) He made that. That was the hook, and then he also made another one called "Obsession," and that was about my mother. He was...

GROSS: How'd it go?

MORGAN: It was just "Obsession." I'm not - I don't want to sing it because right now, that'll make me too emotional, but it was a song called "Obsession." My father had remarried, but he was always obsessed with my mother, and he wrote that, and those are the last two songs that he wrote. Then maybe three weeks later, he passed on.

GROSS: My guest is Tracy Morgan. His new memoir is called "I Am the New Black." A little later we'll talk about his work on "Saturday Night Live." Here's an example of it. The guest host on this edition was Garth Brooks. At the time he'd released an album by his rock-star alter-ego, Chris Gaines. In this sketch, Brooks has just performed as Chris Gaines. He's backstage, he's taken off his Chris Gaines moustache and wig and runs into Tracy Morgan. Tracy doesn't seem to understand that Garth Brooks and Chris Gaines are the same person.


MORGAN: Hey, what's up? Great show so far, Garth.

GARTH BROOKS: Thanks, man. I'm sorry the pimp chat got cut.

MORGAN: Oh, don't sweat it, man. I'll do it next week. Man, I'm just going to say goodnight tonight.

BROOKS: Oh, cool.

MORGAN: Hey man, I remember that concert you did in Central Park, man. It was on HBO, man. I was clicking through the channels, and I saw it. It was nice.

BROOKS: Oh, thanks, dude. It was fun, Don McLean, Billy Joel. It was cool.

MORGAN: Hey, why you didn't have the O'Jays on? I mean, they legends.


BROOKS: Yeah. Hey, maybe next time. Thanks, Tracy.

MORGAN: Hey, don't shine me on. I'm talking about the O'Jays, baby. They better than that guy you got this week.

BROOKS: Are you talking about Chris Gaines?

MORGAN: Yeah, that lame-ass trick. He don't show up to rehearsals all week. Then he's strutting around here in that crazy-ass suit. Man, who he think he is?

BROOKS: Dude, have you heard him sing?

MORGAN: I don't need to hear him sing to know I don't like it. I just think he's bizarre. I mean, you're a real dude. You be fixing your transmissions and everything, man. That dude is fruit of cake, man, sweet like bear meat.



MORGAN: I'm telling you. If I was your road manager, man, I would drop Chris Gaines like a hot potato, man. This is SNL, the 25th year. I mean, you should have been with Barry White. You should have hired him, kid. You get into a fight, Barry White gonna back you up. Chris Gaines, the first time he see a knife, he's gonna skate on you, man.

BROOKS: No, he's not going to skate on me, man.

MORGAN: My man, he's soft, man. The dude is chicken, and he fat, too.

BROOKS: What? Fat?


MORGAN: He's fat. You can see the gut through that outfit, man. If you were that big, they'd be calling you Girth Brooks.


MORGAN: You know what I'm saying? You've got this soup can with you tonight, man. You should have booked Willie Nelson.

BROOKS: Hold it, you like Willie Nelson?

MORGAN: He smoke weed, right? That's what I'm talking about, man.


GROSS: Tracy Morgan and Garth Brooks on "Saturday Night Live." We'll talk more with Tracy Morgan in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tracy Morgan, the star of the NBC series "30 Rock." His character was created for him by Tina Fey, who created and stars in the show. They first worked together on "Saturday Night Live," where Morgan spent seven years. Tracy Morgan has written a new memoir called "I Am the New Black."

I want to get back to "Saturday Night Live," when you joined there.

MORGAN: Right.

GROSS: I'm going to quote something from the book. You say, I'm real life ghetto and that's probably why they brought me into "Saturday Night Live." But "Saturday Night Live" wasn't ready for that, not at first. I had my finger on the pulse of urban comedy. But when I brought my act to "Saturday Night Live," they just felt bad for me.

I want to play an excerpt of a sketch from "Saturday Night Live" that kind of satirized the differences between you and other members of the staff. So this is a sketch with Rachel Dratch and before - you're co-hosting a talk show and she describes it as a show inspired by actual conversations and interactions between Rachel Dratch and Tracy Morgan. So here it is.


RACHEL DRATCH: Hello and welcome to the show. I'm Rachel.

MORGAN: I'm Tracy.

DRATCH: And today, we'll be talking to a funny man and talk show host in own right, Jon Stewart. But first, a segment called "Catching Up" where Tracy and I catch up with what's going on in each other's lives. So Tracy, what'd you do last night?

MORGAN: Yeah, I just chilled out with the homeboys, you know what I'm saying? Busting out a couple bottles of Cristal at the club, drove around my baby blue Jaguar. Typical bad boy stuff.

DRATCH: Cool. Cool.

MORGAN: What about you, Dratch? What you did last night?


DRATCH: I went to this Brazilian restaurant on the Upper West Side with a couple Dartmouth friends. You should go. They have really good flan.

MORGAN: Yeah. I don't know what that is.


GROSS: So that's Rachel Dratch and my guest Tracy Morgan on "Saturday Night Live." So does that - was there like a culture gap similar to the one that we just heard in that sketch between you and Rachel Dratch or you and other members of the show?

MORGAN: Absolutely.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

MORGAN: Absolutely. We celebrated the differences and the places that we came from. "Saturday Night Live" was like a university for funny. It was just all different funnies there. And at that point, I realized that in order for me to do it, I had to put my guards down and let the writers see my flaws - to make fun of them. And I learned how to do it, and I - that was my process. That became my process. Okay, what I'm doing, it may be too urban for this mainstream audience so I let the young guys - the mainstream writers - do it. But I'll give them the stuff.

GROSS: What do you mean you'll give them the stuff?

MORGAN: If I didn't give you - if I didn't give "30 Rock" writers stuff to write about, I mean what - I'm a 40-year-old black man from the ghetto, you know what I mean? What does a young writer know, a white writer know about that?

GROSS: So what did you give them, to help?

MORGAN: So it's all collaboration. I just started to collaborate and I realized the gift of collaboration is more than the gift of competition.

GROSS: How did you start collaborating with Tina Fey on "Saturday Night Live?"

MORGAN: Just being funny. Just being funny around her and she'll - Tina Fey was basically the first one to go wait a minute, this dude is funny but you got to let him be him. You can't be afraid. Yeah, he's edgy. He's from the ghetto. But let's let him be him. And it worked.

GROSS: So what did she write for you that you thought really worked?

MORGAN: She wrote me in "The View."

GROSS: Oh. Oh.


MORGAN: She wrote me in "Judge Judy."

GROSS: As Star Jones?

MORGAN: All of these things.


MORGAN: Yes. Star Jones, she wrote all of that stuff.

GROSS: One of the characters you did on "Saturday Night Live" was Maya Angelou, the poet and memoirist, and so I just want to play an excerpt of that sketch. It's on "Weekend Update" with Tina Fey at the desk and you're wearing this like, you know, graying wig with like large red glasses, and lipstick, and gold earrings, and a...

MORGAN: Right.

GROSS: ...a kind of almost tie-dye orange-red top.

MORGAN: Yeah. I remember.

GROSS: Okay. So here you as Maya Angelou introducing your Hallmark cards.



TINA FEY: This month Hallmark Cards will release a series of greeting cards written by poet Maya Angelou. Here now with a preview of her work is Maya Angelou.


MORGAN: (as Maya Angelou) Thanks, Tina. As always, you effervesce the sweet aroma of woman in full bloom.


FEY: Thank you. That's good, right?

MORGAN: (as Maya Angelou) Oh yes.


MORGAN: (as Maya Angelou) And now, I shall read some of my Hallmark cards. I will begin with this one here.


MORGAN: (as Maya Angelou) It's my favorite.


MORGAN: (as Maya Angelou) I lay down in my grave and watch my children grow. Proud blooms above the weeds of death, I lay down in my grave, my grave, to die.


MORGAN: (as Maya Angelou) Happy 5th Birthday, Grandson.


FEY: Wow. That was moving, a very moving sentiment.

MORGAN: (as Maya Angelou) It made my grandson cry for days.


MORGAN: (as Maya Angelou) And look, there's a little slot to put money in.

FEY: Oh, so that's perfect. Yeah.

MORGAN: (as Maya Angelou) This next one is my favorite.


MORGAN: (as Maya Angelou) I see you brown skin, neat afro, full lips, a little goatee.


MORGAN: (as Maya Angelou) A Malcolm, a Martin, Du Bois. Sunday service becomes sweeter when you're black - black like the night. Happy bar mitzvah to you, little bubelah.


GROSS: That's Tracy Morgan in a sketch from "Saturday Night Live" playing the poet Maya Angelou. So when Tina Fey wrote - told you that she had written a show around a character that she created for you, what did you think?

MORGAN: I knew it was going to be funny because everything else she had did for me was great. And I was like Tina, I love Tina, I roll with Tina. And, but what we didn't know was how successful the show was going to be. I know I didn't see all of this coming - 14 Emmys and all of that stuff. Nobody seen - nobody sees all that. We just like put the work in and hope people love it. And then work on Alec Baldwin, who is the chief, is one of the five greatest actors of all time, is Alec Baldwin. So just working with him has made me better. It's made me and everyone else better just working with him.

GROSS: Now...

MORGAN: You have to be fast.

GROSS: ...some of the stories in "30 Rock" do connect to your life.

MORGAN: Right.

GROSS: Most famously, the ankle bracelet that you had to wear after getting arrested for driving under the influence and it's a bracelet that basically sends an alarm to...


GROSS: some kind of headquarters. If you drink, it can sense the fumes. So it's to prevent you from drinking for the...

MORGAN: Yeah. But it was hard for me, Terry. People always want to look into things, you know what I mean? They want to read into things more than what it is. So, you know, the thing I liked about Tina was that she didn't just, I had an ankle bracelet, let's make fun of it. No. The ankle bracelet had been off for like a year. It had been off already.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MORGAN: So she waited until the scars healed to make fun of it. She didn't do it while I was still hurting because she knew and she was sensitive to know that that bracelet was hurting me and my family, my kids didn't - it was painful for me wearing that thing, you know? So she didn't just make fun of it right there. She would wait until the scar healed.

GROSS: You describe in your book that you kind of turned your demons into a persona that you named. You called him or it Chico Divine?

MORGAN: Chico Divine. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So who is Chico Divine?

MORGAN: Chico Divine is Tracy Jordan. Now I don't do it real life. Now I do it on TV. I exorcise my demons.

GROSS: Ah-ha. So Tracy Jordan...


MORGAN: It's my alter ego.

GROSS: Okay. You were saying there's no - earlier you said there's no connection now between me and Tracy Jordan.

MORGAN: Alter ego. But he's my alter ego.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

MORGAN: Chico Divine was a little bit more wild because on TV I don't drink liquor. But Chico Divine was, you know, me manifesting the alter-ego side of me.

GROSS: So, but you're obviously like really comfortable with putting your kind of wild side and what you consider to be your demons out there on television.

MORGAN: Baby, I was in the papers every week.

GROSS: Right.

MORGAN: I was in the papers every week.


GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

MORGAN: I was taking my shirt off in clubs. I was dancing with the devil, mama.


MORGAN: Holler at me.


MORGAN: Where I come from in the ghetto, when you party, you took your shirt off. You say ooh, ooh, and it got - it got, it was a party.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Do you feel like you got him out of your system?

MORGAN: Other than that - huh?

GROSS: You got him out of your system?

MORGAN: I love Chico. I had some of the good - best times of my life with Chico, but he don't run things no more. He don't. Tracy Morgan is here and he only comes out when I let him - that's on TV.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

MORGAN: He's knows - it's like Jack Nicholson. You know, I love "30 Rock" because Tina Fey allows me to fly over the cuckoo nest once a week.

GROSS: So does she talk with you before? Like the bracelet scene. Actually, let me just play a real short excerpt of the bracelet episode. And in this part of the episode - it's the Christmas episode so like the staff of the show is going to the Christmas party, which they call the Ludachristmas party, and as they're on the way to the party, they see you in the hallway. And, of course, you're wearing your ankle bracelet which prevents you from drinking. So this scene starts with one of the writers talking to you.


FEY: Hey dude, I thought you left.

MORGAN: (as Tracy Jordan) Yeah. I mean what are you guys doing? Going to Ludachristmas?

Unidentified Actor #4: Yup. We heard you can't drink. You still coming?

MORGAN: (as Tracy Jordan) No. No. I can't go because of the ankle bracelet. Or maybe I could go and just not drink? Hey, maybe I'll compromise: I'll go to the party, cut off my foot and drink all I want.



MORGAN: I love that scene. The thing is, what Tina does is she'll take some of the things that I've mentioned and gone through and ripped stuff out of the headlines and put a twist, just a comedic twist on it. And she's a part of the healing process to me. I love T because she's a part of the healing process. You know it was like...

GROSS: Now will she say to you, are you okay with this?


GROSS: Will she write it and then take it to you?


GROSS: Uh-huh.


GROSS: It's just in the script.

MORGAN: She doesn't leave the funny on the table. No. She'll wait to see, maybe hear me talk about it, then it's good. That's me and her signal.

GROSS: My guest is Tracy Morgan. His new memoir is called "I Am the New Black." More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Tracy Morgan. He stars in the NBC comedy series "30 Rock" and spent seven years on "Saturday Night Live." Morgan's new memoir is called "I Am the New Black."

You describe when you got your first check from "Saturday Night Live," you know, you said you were still living in the ghetto and...

MORGAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...after you got the check you had enough money to move the family...


GROSS: ...and you moved in the middle of the night.

MORGAN: I felt like Noah. I felt like Noah who had built his ark and the first thing I wanted to do was get my family to higher grounds because I knew the floods was going to come.

GROSS: What were the floods?

MORGAN: More gunfire. More violence. And I'm on TV now too. Where I come from, people see you on TV, they think you stashed a million dollars in your house. And you don't want anybody knowing when you're leaving. You don't want nobody looking at your stuff as you put it into the truck. You don't want anyone following you to your new pad where you rest your head. And that was it. I just wanted a fresh start with my family and I wanted to leave my past in my past, so we quietly moved. We quietly moved up to Riverdale.

GROSS: And was that it?

MORGAN: It was awesome and that was an adjustment then. That was an adjustment because I wanted to - I had where I came from and where I was at, I could compare it. Like, why is there garbage on the streets where I come from? This is the, I am the new black. Why is there garbage on the streets where I come from and where I'm living now, there's no garbage? So that means we have to keep our own clean. We can't blame nobody. We can't use nobody as a crutch. We have to take care of your own. Period.

GROSS: Now the title of your new book is "I Am the New Black" and that is an allusion in part to a sketch that you did on "Weekend Update" in 2007 during the presidential campaign.

MORGAN: Right.

GROSS: And I want to play that. This was in response - Geraldine Ferraro during that campaign had said about Obama, if he was a white man or a woman he wouldn't be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is, implying that he was like really lucky to be black because it's making him more popular.

MORGAN: You know that reminds me of what Lorne Michaels said to me when I first got to "Saturday Night Live" and I thought people was like - I thought people was like isolating me and all of that stuff. And Lorne Michaels called me in the room and he simply said to me, Tracy - and this is coming from Lorne and this is why I love that man like he's my father. He said Tracy, you're not here because you're black. You're here because you're funny. And that's all he had to say to me. My fangs came down and I begin to feed.

GROSS: So, how did that change you at "Saturday Night Live" when Lorne Michaels said to you, you're not here because you're black, you're here because you're funny.

MORGAN: They let me know that I was there not because I was black and let me know, I'm here with Will Ferrell because I'm just as funny as him.

GROSS: Did that...

MORGAN: Now, go to work, I don't want hear no excuses. I was looking for an excuse and Lorne said, no...

GROSS: An excuse for what.

MORGAN: ...I'm not giving you that.

GROSS: An excuse for what?

MORGAN: To fail, to bail out, to run. Again, like I did when I was a young kid with my mother, to run, and I got to stop running. I'd stop running away and I dealt with it.

GROSS: Were you considering leaving the show? Did you feel like you were failing?

MORGAN: Yeah, there were times that you weren't in, yeah.

GROSS: Oh, like...

MORGAN: I thought it was because I was black they wasn't putting me in the sketches. No, because I wasn't being funny. But I was making my adjustments. I was coming from a different world. I was coming from a world of black people and knowing how to make them laugh. And a lot of black entertainers, sometimes they search for the perfect audience. They stay in their comfort zone. And I was out of my comfort zone. And he said, make yourself comfortable, you're going to be here for a while, my man. You're very talented and I believed him. Lorne Michaels is my Cus D'Amato like Cus was with Mike Tyson. Cus D'Amato would come in Mike Tyson's room every night and tell him, and Mike knew - he was like what is this guy talking about? But Cus was building his confidence up and his confidence up. And that's what Lorne used to always do to me. He wouldn't talk to me but sometime he would give me a wink.

GROSS: He wouldn't talk to you?

MORGAN: Fuel my confidence up. And I'd do - yeah, I'll go out there and I'll do anything to make Lorne Michaels laugh. And it was a confidence builder for me and I love Lorne for that.

GROSS: You just said that he wouldn't talk to you, is that because he's not a talkative guy?

MORGAN: No, he was like - he was like Vince Lombardi but he'd give you a wink. He'd give you a wink. Pat you on the butt, yeah, good job, good - funny sketch. Give you a wink. He won't come over to you if he don't know you, if you're a new cast member, go: You were great, you were great, because it might go to your head. But if he would give you a wink, then you know you did your thing. But you still got Monday, brother, and you got to come even harder now.

GROSS: Okay. So we have to hear that sketch that I was talking about before, that black is the new president. So here's my guest Tracy Morgan at the Weekend Update desk.

MORGAN: Why is it that every time a black man in this country gets too good at something, there's always someone to come around and remind us that he's black?


MORGAN: First Tiger, then Donovan McNabb, then me.


MORGAN: Now Barack. I got a theory about that. It's a little complicated but basically it goes like this: We are a racist country. The end.


MORGAN: Maybe not the people in this room, but we're not a racist country - how did Hillary convince everybody in Texas and Ohio that Barack didn't know how to answer the phone at three in the morning?


MORGAN: Let me tell you something, Barack knows how to answer that phone. He's not going to answer it like, hello, I'm scared.


MORGAN: What's going on? He's going to answer like I would get a phone call at three in the morning, yeah, who is this?


MORGAN: This better be good. I'll come down and put somebody in the wheelchair.


MORGAN: Some things just never change, Seth.



MORGAN: People are saying he's not a fighter. Let me tell you something. He's a gangster. He's from Chicago.


MORGAN: Barack is not just winning because he's a black man. If that was the case, I would be winning, and I'm way blacker than him.


MORGAN: I used to smoke Newports and drink Old English.


MORGAN: I grew up on government cheese.


MORGAN: I prefer it.


GROSS: So Tracy Morgan, tell us about how that sketch came to be? Did Tina Fey write the sketch?

MORGAN: Yeah, we both wrote it. We both collaborated on it.

GROSS: Okay. So you've kind of needed a tissue a couple of times during the interview because you got very emotionally...

MORGAN: Right.

GROSS: ...involved in telling us about some of the hardships that you faced.

MORGAN: Right.

GROSS: There was an episode, I think, of "30 Rock," where you went to your high school and kind of broke down. And I'm wondering, like, among people who know you, do they know you as somebody who - although there's a lot of - although you're famous for being funny that beneath the surface, like, you're really emotional?

MORGAN: I'm quite sure, I'm quite sure. Most human beings are that way. I think that, yeah, you know, I come from one woman, one man. So, I have my emotional side. I don't show it publicly all the time because it's nobody's business. You know, I'm open with you because we are talking but I don't just go around in the streets crying. No way.

And as far as people on the outside looking at me, I don't know, you would have to ask them. Tracy Morgan, I guess, could be many different things to many different people. I'm many different ways to many different people. I'm going to give you what you give me. I'm going to keep it just as real as you keep it with me. This is not going to be 70-30. This is going to be 50-50, straight down the middle.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

MORGAN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: And I wish you good luck with everything.

MORGAN: I hope I wasn't too crazy with it.

GROSS: Tracy Morgan stars in the NBC series "30 Rock." His memoir is called "I Am the New Black." This is FRESH AIR.

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