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The Strange, Dangerous Career of Tracy Morgan

October 24, 2009

It’s a shame that in this day and age, there are so many famous people — because it means that when someone truly unique comes along, no one notices. There are simply too many other famous people floating around. 

Case in point: Tracy Morgan, in the news recently for one of his trademark tirades which hurled expletives at former SNL castmates Cheri Oteri and Chris Kattan, has morphed from a faceless sketch comedy jobber to one of the most bizarrely hysterical figures in America’s current comedy universe.

Morgan sidled his way quietly onto the Saturday Night Live cast in 1996 after a handful of obscure bit roles on Martin Lawrence’s Martin and an simmering stand-up career. You wouldn’t have even really known he was there, as he paid his dues portraying background characters like police officers or crowd members.  An occasional line here, an featured role there. He’s precisely the kind of guy you might have expected to come and go quietly, without fanfare (see: Finesse Mitchell). But somewhere along the line, Morgan came into his own. And got really, really weird.

It was almost preternatural the way Morgan suddenly began to rise out of the SNL background to take on a life of his own in the late nineties, but his characters were so bizarre and original that they couldn’t be ignored. 

There was Woodrow, the transient who lived in the sewer and enticed starlets to descend into the filth and give dry reads of his movie script, with each sketch ending in a nonsensical song. There was Astronaut Jones, the Dean Martin-esque swinging spaceman who could care less what the strange aliens he encountered had to say; he was too busy waiting for them to finish rambling so he could proposition them for sex. And, of course, there was Brian Fellow, a man who ran an animal program but knew nothing about his subjects, fantasizing repeatedly that his animal guests were mocking or trying to hurt him. 

Gradually, Tracy Morgan went from spear-carrier to scene-stealer. His characters were so odd, so obscure and so unlike what you may have previously imagined Tracy Morgan to purvey that the comic went from a faceless backgrounder to a comic savant. Each week Morgan got bolder and stranger, making a name for himself by finding his own SNL niche. 

2003 saw Morgan leave the cast of SNL and head up his own FOX sitcom, The Tracy Morgan Show, which only lasted one season, and after bouncing from cameo to cameo, he ended up at 30 Rock, where he’s found the perfect vehicle for his manic loopiness. 

30 Rock is making Morgan — who plays Tracy Jordan, whom one can only assume is a loose version of himself — into more of a household name, and certainly a critical darling as the show racks up accolades. But the most interesting thing about Morgan is that his off-screen persona seems to be just as off-the-rails as his on-screen character. 

Morgan’s alcohol, drug, Smokea headshop products and health problems have been fairly documented by the media. In 2005, he was arrested in Hollywood, completely nude and in possession of narcotics. He was forced to wear an electronic ankle bracelet designed to test his skin for alcohol vapors in 2007, and during his first season of 30 Rock he almost lost a foot to unchecked diabetes.

There are also Morgan’s bizarre tirades and exclamations. He told Time Magazine he only wrote his memoir I Am the New Black now because “they gave me a big bag of money now.” He told Entertainment Weekly that the only thing that scares him is the IRS. According to the New York Times, he reportedly visits a Benihana two to three times a week and commands the room under the gaze of NBC publicists sent to keep an eye on him. 

He says things on Twitter like “For $15 I’ll induce your labor,” and boasts that his penis looks like R2-D2. He’s called himself “the black Rod Serling.” He cheerfully chirped to Campbell Brown on CNN this week that “I want to die like Vito Corleone, in the tomato patch, chasing my great-grandson around.”

During the audiobook reading for I Am the New Black, Morgan went off-script on former castmates Cheri Oteri and Chris Kattan, saying “F–k ’em.” Then he told PopEater yesterday that “If they were here, I would hug them.” 

You don’t see a lot of comics like Morgan anymore — in an age of countless media outlets and carefully concocted publicity plans, Tracy Morgan is single-handedly making his personality his brand. Jack Benny and Groucho Marx did the same thing. Morgan is achieving something few comics are able to accomplish — his persona, his character, his life is becoming as wild and out-of-the-box as his comedy. Hundreds of comedians have begged us to love them for their wackiness, but that wackiness wasn’t genuine. With Morgan, what you see on-camera is often what you see off-camera. Reaching the point where a funnyman’s personality is both the joke and the payoff isn’t easy — it’s an art. But it’s a long con that, once cusped by a comic, pays off massive dividends. Those dividends, well earned, are exactly what Morgan is enjoying right now.

With so many names and personalities being force-fed into your brain today as the “next big amazing thing,” it’s important to keep your eyes peeled for those folks truly doing something new. Tracy Morgan, with all his oddities, problems and that great big giant mouth, is someone to keep watching. If his past record is any proof, things are only going to get weirder.

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