"I was dead for ten days, so I can tell you from the horse's mouth: I got closer to God than you ever will. I was on the other side. And you know what He said to me? He said, 'I forgive you, my son. Now go back home because your room ain't ready.'"
Tracy Morgan is describing the aftermath of the 2014 accident that nearly took his life. His minibus was pancaked by a tractor-trailer on the New Jersey Turnpike as he and six others were returning home from a stop on Morgan's standup comedy tour. His buddy, fellow comedian Jimmy Mack, was killed. Morgan ended up in a coma for nearly two weeks.
The comedian, who will perform at the Hard Rock in Hollywood this weekend, was in rehab for months. His memory was weak. He had headaches. Then there were nosebleeds. More than a year later, he reemerged on the Today show and told Matt Lauer: "Bones heal, but the loss of my friend will never heal." Then he showed up at the Emmy Awards and hosted Saturday Night Live.
"It wasn't easy," Morgan says. "All car accidents are tragic, but the two most notable ones were mine and Princess Diana's. The whole world knew about it. When I came back and did the Emmys, I realized the funny was still there... I laughed through crying."
These days, Morgan is more determined than ever to get on with his life and career. He has returned to the road and is looking forward to the Hard Rock, but maybe not South Beach at 4 a.m. "I've done a few shows in Miami," he mentions. "I love to stay there, [but] I don't do the nightlife. No way. I'm a 47-year-old... married man. Nightlife gets you in trouble."
In truth, it's not only nightlife that has caused him trouble. He has admitted to struggling with alcoholism and created controversy with comments about women, gays, and people with disabilities. He even once told an audience that if his son even acted gay, he would "pull out a knife and stab him." Morgan later expressed regret for that statement, but he nevertheless made other offensive remarks. He once referred to a former girlfriend as "a cripple." He also advised an audience: "Don't ever mess with women who have retarded kids... Them young retarded males is strong... they're strong like chimps."
But Morgan remains more contentious than contrite. "I don't even know what I said, but I did apologize. It was just a joke! But I joke about everybody — white people, black people. I'm a comedian."
Likewise, he's quick to dismiss a remark he uttered while making an impromptu appearance on TNT's pregame coverage of the Miami Heat and New York Knicks matchup in 2011. Asked by hosts Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith who was better-looking, Tina Fey or Sarah Palin, he suggested Sarah Palin was good masturbation material. TNT was forced to issue an immediate apology. For his part, Morgan blames the commentators for asking the question in the first place.
"You can't be mad at me," Morgan insists. "Tina Fey said, 'You can't be mad at Tracy.' That was a crazy question. I'm just a comedian who's trying to be funny. It's like asking Richard Pryor something like that."
When it's suggested that his attempts at comedy can be misconstrued, Morgan simply shrugs. "I know that. That's their problem. They say humor is the highest form of intelligence, so they must be some dumb-ass people."
If anything, his near-death experience appears to have given
These days, Morgan says the thing that matters most to him, aside from his wife and four children, is that elusive quality "the funny." He says Lorne Michaels, creator of Saturday Night Live, helped him regain it.
"When Saturday Night Live returned after 9/11 had just happened, I wondered, How are we going to be funny?" Morgan recalls. "The country was grieving and mourning. Lorne Michaels showed us how by having Mayor Giuliani on and having Giuliani tell the world to start laughing again... Grieve if you must, but then put an end to sorrow."
Likewise, he is also done caring about people's opinions of him. As with much in his life now, his indifference toward critics traces back to the accident. "Forgiveness is the key to all of that," he insists. "I forgave myself for asking everyone to be on that
So what does he have in store for the audience at Hard Rock? "Funny. Funny. Funny. Funny. Big bags of funny. Big truckloads of funny. Truckloads!... That gift got me through all my tragic situations in life. God is not an Indian giver. He would not give me that gift and then just take it back."
Still, the Tracy Morgan speaking today is far different from the characters he has portrayed on the big screen, Saturday Night Live, and 30 Rock. (The last earned him an Emmy nomination for playing a clueless caricature of himself.)
He objects to any insinuation that he's anything like 30 Rock's fictional Tracy Jordan. "I can't just be a great actor or performer. I gotta be that, huh?" he says. "If you really think Tracy Morgan is that dumb and all that, then the joke's on you."
Still, he says he never considered quitting. In January, he announced that he and comedian Jordan Peele are developing an as-yet-untitled comedy series for FX. In it, Morgan plays a career criminal released from prison after 15 years who has to work his way back into society. He's also slated to portray comedian Redd Foxx in an upcoming biopic about Richard Pryor.
"I still love to work, [and] I still have the ability," he says, "but I just take more time for my daughter, my wife, my son, because they're precious to me... I see beautiful people every day. I'm not rushing to die."
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It seems Morgan has mellowed. "I don't want to get emotional," he says, choking up. "I'm trying to fight back my tears. But whenever I think about my tragedy, it really affects me. It's always going to be with me. "
Asked what it's like on the other side, Morgan declines to comment but says, "When I was younger, I asked God for strength. That's all I ever asked Him for. So He gave me strength to come out of that coma. Thank God I'm here... It feels good to be loved, and it feels good to love. That's what a human being is supposed to do. We're supposed to love each other and help one another."
He pauses. "Whatever you do has got to come from the heart, and so whatever I do comes from my heart."