Comedic actor Tracy Morgan, known for his unpredictable antics, got his big break on Saturday Night Live. His 30 Rock character was loosely based on his over-the-top personality.
A childhood full of turmoil and tragedy might seem an unlikely source for the development of comedic genius, but it was yet another tragic event that spurred Morgan to pursue a life as a comic. A good friend suggested that Morgan develop his natural talent for humor by pursuing comedy for a living. Soon after, the friend was killed in one of the many acts of random violence that marred Morgan’s community. His friend’s death spurred Morgan to begin doing stand-up, building a popular act from the humor he had always used to deal with the difficult situations in his life.
By his early 20s, Morgan and his wife had three sons—Gitrid, Malcolm and Tracy, Jr.—and the family was living on welfare. Fortunately, Morgan soon found success as a stand-up comedian, making his breakthrough at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater. Morgan spent time in the Uptown Comedy Club, also in Harlem, before being picked up to play a supporting character named Hustle Man in Martin Lawrence’s sitcom Martin. Morgan was a regular on the show from 1994-96.
In 1996, Morgan made a major leap forward in his career, joining the cast of the legendary television sketch-comedy show, Saturday Night Live. He spent the next seven years on the show. SNL has long held a reputation as a challenging workplace environment, and Morgan agreed saying, “If you can survive Saturday Night Live, then you’re good as far as show business is concerned.”
But Morgan also faced hurdles that his colleagues didn’t. The comedian had honed his skills in front of primarily African-American audiences, and SNL‘s comedy was targeted for a mainstream, mostly white audience. Morgan also performed alongside mostly white comedians. Instead of leaning toward writing for the show, Morgan shifted all his energies to performance. He found, though, that the writers didn’t know how to write good parts for an African-American man. He therefore found his time on SNL to be a challenging experiment in bridging the gaps between his own experiences and those of his coworkers and the audience.
In 2003, Morgan left SNL to headline his own show on NBC, a sitcom called The Tracy Morgan Show, but it didn’t gain much of a following and ran for only one season. During and after his Saturday Night Live years, though, Morgan landed significant roles in a handful of feature films, including A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (1996), Half Baked (1998), Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001) and Head of State (2003). In 2010, Morgan appeared in both Death at a Funeral and the Bruce Willis police flick, Cop Out.
Morgan found his niche in television in 2006 on the hit show 30 Rock, a sitcom created by fellow SNL alumna Tina Fey. Fey, a longtime admirer of Morgan’s strengths, wrote a character specifically for Morgan named Tracy Jordan, who is the star of a fictional sketch comedy show. The character is loosely based on Morgan himself; many of Morgan’s own eccentricities and tribulations, including the ankle bracelet he was ordered to wear after a DUI arrest, appear on screen.
Morgan made his return to the stand-up stage at the Comedy Cellar in New York on October 12, 2015. He tweeted about his performance: “My first time on stage in 16 months at the #ComedyCellar! Picking up the pieces!” That week, he also returned to Saturday Night Live as its host. He told the audience: “I’m back. It feels so good to be here. You may have seen on the news I was in a terrible car accident a year ago. It was awful. But it also showed me how much love and support I have in this world.” The comedian also turned his tragedy into comedy, joking about himself: “People were wondering, ‘Can he speak? Does he have 100-percent mental capacity?’ But the truth is I never did. I may even be a few [IQ ] points higher now.”
In October 2015, Morgan also announced Tracy Morgan: Picking Up the Pieces, a comedy tour scheduled to kick off in February 2016. Towards the end of the month, the comedian appeared in a skit on the 88th Annual Academy Awards where African-American characters were placed in particular movies, with Morgan becoming the title figure in The Danish Girl.