Tracy Morgan enters Bar Breton, a Flatiron District bistro known best for its haute burger, wearing a walking cast. The rest of his outfit is less than subtle. Besides the moon boot, Morgan sports a gray hoodie, a black do-rag, the dirtiest white sweatpants in the long and storied history of white sweatpants, and a leather bomber jacket with faux-fur collar and cuffs. Even if he weren’t the most famous black man on network TV, he’d draw some attention from this lunch crowd, smugly pleased to be eating comfort food from a Michelin-star chef. Morgan isn’t even at his table before one of these folks, a suit-clad, bespectacled man in his 30s, bellows, “Yo, what happened?” and motions to the leg. The question is not appreciated. “Why don’t you say hello first?” Morgan asks in a more subdued, nearly dread-inducing version of his trademark delivery. It has the desired effect. “I’m sorry,” the guy says. “Hi. How are you doing?” Morgan considers this for a moment, as if debating whether to bust the guy further or let it be. He chooses the latter tack.
“Hi, I’m Tracy Morgan.” The comedian reaches for the guy’s hand, shakes, then moves to the table. Some grumbling follows, and to Morgan’s credit, the thing that upsets him isn’t being interrupted—about a half-dozen more people holler at him in the next hour, and Morgan seems genuinely pleased at the attention—but rather that the guy was a dick about it. Twenty-five minutes later, it still eats at him.
“Before you get into my injury, why don’t you say hello?” Morgan says in between burger bites, though the offender is long gone. “It’s common courtesy, motherfucker. You’re intelligent. You wear glasses. I have to tell you that?” Morgan disparages the man’s upbringing, then pokes his jaw out and shrugs. “I don’t mind correcting behavior,” he says. “Some people need to be corrected.”
But the burger is already working its magic, and soon enough, lunch with Tracy Morgan turns out to be everything you would hope it to be. Besides his work on 30 Rock, in which he plays a balls-to-the-wall parody of himself named Tracy Jordan, Morgan is best known for playing Mr. Unpredictable in interviews, as a quick look at any clip from his late-night talk show appearances will prove. Over lunch he doesn’t disappoint. His first major tangent concerns the U.S.S. Intrepid. A decommissioned aircraft carrier-turned-museum, the Intrepid was towed from its Hudson River slip in 2006 for repairs and returned to Manhattan in 2008. Morgan knows why.
“They armed that motherfucker!” he says. “They took that shit somewhere and put missiles on that motherfucker. Still got the Christmas lights on it. But that 9/11 shit will never happen again. That shit is armed and ready. She’s hot! I know it. She’s hot! There’s missiles on that fucking Intrepid.”
Less coherent, but even more spectacular, is Morgan’s theory about the International Space Station, which involves the powers that be filling the station with “motherfuckers from all continents,” then freezing the planet below and using it as some sort of reservoir “’cause they can’t find no water on Mars.” A follow up question—and who, presented with such a theory, could resist a follow-up?—sets Morgan off on a riff about Noah’s Ark: “Noah’s my man, because that motherfucker built a big-ass boat, 40 cubits by 40 cubits. With no power tools! There wasn’t no Sears and Roebucks back then.” It’s great stuff, and it’s entertaining half the restaurant. But Morgan knows where he’s going with it.
“They said that motherfucker was crazy, building a fucking boat in the middle of the desert without a cloud in the sky,” he says, his TV-ready smile dropping away. “You gotta believe. When I told motherfuckers coming up that I was gonna be a comedian, they didn’t believe me. Then I told them I was gonna be a superstar. They didn’t believe that. Now look.”
Some of those haters are no doubt present in Morgan’s memoir, I Am the New Black, which dropped back in October. The book reveals what is fair to call a lot of real personal shit about the comic, though plenty was already known. Morgan grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a Brooklyn neighborhood so tough that only now are pioneering white scenesters daring to move in. He survived a hardscrabble youth, marrying young, fathering three sons, and turning the sense of humor he sharpened on street corners into a profession. He ascended from Def Comedy Jam to a recurring role on Martin Lawrence’s Fox series to SNL cast membership to 30 Rock, where he has achieved pop-icon status playing a loveable comedian with a penchant for bad and bizarre behavior.
But much of Morgan’s story wasn’t common knowledge until he wrote it down. The comedian’s father Jimmy was a musician, Vietnam vet, and heroin addict who died of AIDS when Tracy was 17. Father and son were separated for years before a teenage Tracy left his mother’s home to go live with his dad. Later, Tracy would sell crack for a living, a vocation he abandoned for comedy after his best friend was murdered.
“My father was my angel,” Morgan says. “My father was guiding me away from bullets. When I was selling drugs, I knew deep down in my heart that my father wouldn’t approve of it. That always kept me from going past the point of no return like my homies, who wanted to go be Scarface and all that other shit.”
Jimmy Morgan’s failings are recounted with sympathy, his strengths lionized. When Tracy speaks about his mother, who suffered from a gambling problem she later overcame, but has been estranged for years from her son, the tone is quite different. Morgan is quick to express frustration, then careful to qualify it. He explains that his sons, all adults now, never knew their grandmother, that they’ve been isolated from their family by a barrier she erected. “It’s enough to make any parent angry, disrespect my kids like that,” he says. Later, he adds, “I love my mother. I was born between my oldest brother having cerebral palsy and my sister. You see what happens—cerebral palsy, only girl? I thought she didn’t love me. But she had to give him attention, and she had to take care of her. I was a kid. I didn’t know.”
Anyone who has followed Morgan’s off-screen exploits could be forgiven for thinking him still a kid. The comic was arrested for DUIs in 2005 and 2006. That second collar led to him wearing an ankle bracelet that monitored his blood-alcohol level, a punishment that 30 Rock empress Tina Fey, with Morgan’s blessing, later prescribed to Tracy Jordan. The bleed from Morgan’s personal life into his on-screen persona has fed a perception of him as an Andy Kaufman type, with no line distinguishing performer from performance. His public appearances do little to dispel the notion. Time and again, Morgan has refused to behave like a well-heeled celebrity in front of cameras and microphones, such as last year at the Golden Globes, when he accepted 30 Rock’s award for best TV comedy by declaring himself “the face of post-racial America” and informing Cate Blanchett that she could “deal with it.”
Some no doubt see such incidents as outbursts from a comic drunk on fame and out of control—a comic like Tracy Jordan. But Morgan has been a professional performer for two decades, and sitting across from him, you sense that he knows exactly what he’s doing, even (or especially) when he’s wildly inappropriate. He claims that his period of jackass recklessness is behind him, that he’s now two-years sober. A diabetes-related health scare and the recent dissolution of his 23-year marriage, he says, served as wake-up calls.
“You asked me earlier if I’m happy,” Morgan says after the plates have been cleared and the check dropped. “Yes. You wanna know why? Because I’m taking a better stand. I’m a better man. Forget being funny! Forget being rich!” He pounds a fist on the table. “I’m a better fucking man. I’m a better man today because of all that shit.”
On the way out of the restaurant, Morgan dances his way to the front door as a Jackson 5 song plays over the speakers. The tail end of the lunch crowd loves it. As coats are retrieved, the front-of-house man moves in for a handshake. Morgan accommodates, complimenting the afternoon’s music selection. “I’m gonna come back here a lot,” he says. Then the host looks down.
“What happened to your foot?” he asks.
Morgan smiles. “I busted it off in some dude’s ass!” he says. Everybody laughs.