Three years after a life-threatening auto accident, Tracy Morgan is back to full-time comedy series production, playing an ex-con who returns to find the Brooklyn of his youth transformed
by Susan Hornik
It’s been just over three years since a Mercedes Sprinter minibus carrying Tracy Morgan and a number of friends and associates was rear-ended by a Walmart-operated tractor-trailer on the New Jersey Turnpike, resulting in extensive injuries to the comedian, including several broken ribs and a broken nose, arm, and leg. The crash killed his friend and collaborator, James McNair, and required Morgan to engage in years of physical therapy in order to recover both physically and cognitively. The truck’s driver, Kevin Roper, after initially pleading not guilty to vehicular homicide and four counts of aggravated assault (he’d been awake for more than 24 hours prior to the accident), changed his plea to guilty in 2016 and was sentenced to 300 hours of community service, among other requirements, but avoided jail time.
The 48-year-old Alpine, New Jersey resident has engaged in sporadic projects in the intervening years, but his TBS comedy series The Last O.G., currently in production, is the most wide-ranging and ambitious. Its plotline has Morgan playing an ex-con named Tray, who returns to his beloved Brooklyn neighborhood after 15 years in prison and finds it transformed in every sense. He transitions to “normal” life in an age of gentrification and hipster ascendance, and reconnects haltingly with the family he left behind. He is also forced to grapple with the fact that the mother of his children (Tiffany Haddish) is now married to a wealthy white man (Ryan Gaul).
“[Tray’s] whole thing’s been gentrified,” the comedian told us during an interview at the Television Critics Press Tour. “To do 15 years and come home and be on a normal basis is hard anyway, but to come home to gentrification…he was like in the Planet of the Apes.”
With the help of friend Miniard Mullins (Cedric the Entertainer) and Cousin Bobby (Blackish star Allen Maldonado), Trey slowly adapts.
“You want to know the reason why the dinosaurs ain’t here? They couldn’t evolve quick enough,” quipped Morgan. “Thank God Tray has Bobby. He has Mullins. Mullins is the first person to help him and tell him, ‘You got to do this. You got to program different now.’ You know, he understood protocol, but he had to learn a different program.”
Born in the Bronx but raised in a housing project in Bedford Stuyvesant, Morgan was faced with a number of harrowing experiences in his youth, not least the death of his father at the age of 39 from AIDS (the result of hypodermic needle use) and witnessing a number of friends not surviving the drug-fueled street life of Bed-Stuy in the mid ’80s. In a 2009 interview with NPR’s show Fresh Air, he recalled a pivotal moment with a close friend.
“He would say to me, ‘Yo, Tracy, man, you should be doing comedy. A week later, he was murdered. And that for me, that was like my Vietnam. I had my survival guilt when I started to achieve success…why I made it out and some guys didn’t.” We asked Morgan to look back on those dangerous days in the context of today’s rapid-fire evolutions in the borough, both demographic and economic.
“I look at [the changes in] Brooklyn in a good way,” he said. “I mean, it’s not the place I’m from. I’ve seen it change. Part of it’s got something to do with the Barclays Center, you know, when they put it up. We are shooting down places in Brooklyn and I’ll go, ‘Wait a minute. This wasn’t like this 15…20 years ago. But I have grandparents…I have aunts. I would like for them to be in safer places, a safer environment and all that.”
“This isn’t a black show, though,” Morgan added of The Last O.G. “This is a show about humanity, about second chances…about redemption. I mean, it’s a black cast…there are black people in it, but I wanted to transcend that. Black people ain’t the only ones who live here. Everybody lives here. Who are we to say others don’t matter? There are white people coming home from prison, too.”
We asked Maldonado what the on-set experience with Morgan was like.
“It’s incredible; it’s like you are in comedic college,” he said. “Watching him work and his passion for the role and the show…how connected he is with the material, the cast and the crew. He is really dedicated to giving the world something special on screen.”
Morgan’s physical rehabilitation efforts are ongoing, despite achieving much (he was confined to a wheelchair for a time). We asked him how he manages to keep up with the rigorous pace of 18-hour production.
“I have my crew and I love them; they make sure I sit down,” he said. “They don’t ask me, they make me. ‘Sit down for a little while. Sit down.’ So I’m good. I’m taken care of by my people, and I love them with my heart.”