For Tracy Morgan, it all started at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre in 1984. According to Us Weekly’s bio of the comedian, he was just a teenager when he took to the stage for the renowned venue’s weekly amateur night, and won over the notoriously tough crowd. Performing at the Apollo, he said, “gave me the confidence to conquer the world.”
It may have taken a while, but that’s just what he did. Morgan worked comedy clubs, honing his standup act, and at age 23 landed a role in the cast of Martin Lawrence’s sitcom Martin. A successful audition for Saturday Night Live led him to join the cast in 1996, becoming one of the show’s most popular performers until his exit in 2003. In 2006, his SNL co-star Tina Fey created a character modeled after Morgan for her new NBC sitcom, 30 Rock, with Morgan hired to play comedian Tracy Jordan, a hilariously amplified version of himself.
Now a living comedy icon, Tracy Morgan is one of those people who can elicit laughs at just the mention of his name, but behind the comedy there’s also been some serious pain. Read on to learn the tragic details of Tracy Morgan’s life.
Tracy Morgan’s father had a rough life and a tragic end
Tracy Morgan grew up in the Tompkins housing project in Brooklyn’s rough-and-tumble Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, noted the Wall Street Journal. In an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Morgan touched upon his childhood, recalling a stormy relationship with his mother, who had split from his father. Growing up in the neighborhood he jokingly dubbed “Ghetto USA,” Morgan described his childhood as being not particularly happy, yet also not out of the ordinary. “I was like any other inner-city kid with a chip on his shoulder because his daddy and his mommy wasn’t together,” Morgan explained.
As Morgan told Vanity Fair, when his father — a Vietnam veteran — returned from the war he brought a nasty drug habit back with him. “My father was a heroin addict. He died of AIDS. But he was always in his kids’ life,” Morgan said, adding, “His kids was his legacy. Me, my brothers, and my sister were his world. We were his world.”
In his memoir, I Am the New Black, Morgan writes about an incident during his senior year in high school when his “entire world turned upside down.” After he and his father had a vicious fight that ended with Morgan telling his dad he “wished he was dead,” his father responded later that day by showing Morgan his test results and saying, “You got your wish — I’m dying. I’ve got AIDs from doing drugs.”
Dealing crack is a lifelong regret for Tracy Morgan
In his book, I Am the New Black, Tracy Morgan recalled how crime plagued his neighborhood. “My backyard became the city’s market for crack and heroin,” he wrote, “and our people were right there to participate in every way — as dealers, as addicts, and as statistics day after day.”
With few other prospects, Morgan began supporting himself by selling crack. “I was the worst drug dealer you could imagine,” he admitted to Rolling Stone. “I would throw meetings with the f**king crackheads. I’d tell them, ‘Listen, I’m tired of all your bulls**t. You’ve got to get your s**t together.'” Morgan also joked about his crack-dealing days during an appearance on Conan. “I sold crack, yeah, but I was a crack dealer with a heart of gold,” Morgan quipped. “I would sell them crack and then feel sorry for them.”
Decades later, Morgan admitted he’d come to regret that part of his life. “It still bothers me today,” Morgan told NPR’s Fresh Air, “but it’s something that I did. It was survival.”
Tracy Morgan’s start in comedy has dark roots
Dealing crack in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the 1980s was not without its risks. That hit home for Morgan when his best friend Alan — “[his] crack-dealing partner” — was murdered in the midst of a drug deal when “he and another guy got into it, got shot and killed him,” Morgan told the Los Angeles Times. He added, “That was common in our community.”
Before his death at age 19, Morgan’s friend told him something that stuck with him. “He would say to me, ‘Yo, Tracy, man, you should be doing comedy,'” Morgan told NPR’s Fresh Air. “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.”
Receiving a firsthand lesson in the fragility of life, Morgan decided to do something with his. As he wrote in I Am the New Black, he began crafting a standup comedy act, taking to the stage of “every open-mic night in the Bronx and any comedy club that would give me five minutes of time.”
How Tracy Morgan’s real-life pain led him to SNL
As Tracy Morgan honed his standup act, he landed a slot on the TV series Def Comedy Jam, where he portrayed a character he’d created called Biscuit, sporting a propellor-topped beanie with a food stamp affixed to it. A profile on Morgan in The New Yorker reminded that comedian Martin Lawrence hosted that particular episode, and ultimately hired him for his TV sitcom, Martin, with Morgan playing a character dubbed Hustle Man.
When Morgan subsequently auditioned for Saturday Night Live, Biscuit was among the characters he showcased. In an interview with The New York Times, Tracy Morgan recalled that while he had to “learn how to develop a character,” he discovered “they were already in me.” Biscuit, he explained, “was just me as a child with a chip on my shoulder because my dad wasn’t around.”
Although he landed the job, Morgan initially found himself floundering on SNL. As he admitted to Rolling Stone, he was rarely cast in sketches and “didn’t feel a part of the show.” Recalling being “basically the only black dude there besides Tim Meadows,” his whole outlook changed when SNL exec producer Lorne Michaels had some words with him. “Tracy, you’re not here because you’re black. You’re here because you’re funny,” Michaels told Morgan. “I never forgot that,” Morgan added. “I’m here because I’m funny.”
Tracy Morgan was sidelined by health woes
In 1996, Tracy Morgan was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, admitting in an interview with Time (via Entertainment Weekly) that he exacerbated his condition by not taking his diabetes seriously until “one day [he] got really sick.” In 2010, Morgan was forced to sit out two episodes of 30 Rock when he successfully underwent a kidney transplant, with a rep telling EW in a statement that he was “doing well and taking some much-needed time to recover after the surgery.”
Sadly, that wasn’t the last of his health woes. In 2012, TMZ reported that Morgan appeared “extremely intoxicated” while attending an award show ceremony during the Sundance Film Festival. While being escorted out of the building, he abruptly fell unconscious, with an ambulance dispatched to rush him to a hospital. A hospital spokesperson told TMZ that no drugs or alcohol were found in Morgan’s system, while his rep blamed the comedian’s collapse on a “combination of exhaustion and altitude.”
Morgan seconded that opinion when he later addressed his hospitalization on Twitter. “Superman ran into a little kryptonite,” he tweeted. “The high altitude in Utah shook up this kid from Brooklyn.”
Two DUI busts in under a year was not a good look for Tracy Morgan
Even though drugs and alcohol weren’t a factor in his Sundance collapse, the speculation can be forgiven in light of Tracy Morgan’s two prior DUI convictions.
The first of these occurred in late 2005, when TMZ reported Morgan was arrested and charged after being pulled over for speeding while he was driving in Hollywood. Just under a year later, Morgan was arrested and charged with DUI once again, this time in Manhattan. According to TMZ, police claimed that Morgan was pulled over because he “was unable to maintain a position in a lane of traffic.” A CBS News report noted that Morgan “smelled of alcohol” and then “failed a breathalyzer test.” Meanwhile, TMZ pointed out that the second arrest could be considered as a violation of Morgan’s probation for his previous arrest.
A subsequent report from TMZ revealed that when Morgan was sentenced in 2007, he managed to avoid jail — but didn’t get off scot-free. In addition to performing five days of community service, Morgan was also sentenced to wear a Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring (SCRAM) ankle bracelet, which can detect vapors of alcohol emitted through the skin. Morgan was later ordered to wear the device for an additional 80 days when he was busted for having a forbidden cocktail. In October 2007, E! reported that a judge ruled that Morgan had completed the terms of his probation.
The horrific car wreck that changed Tracy Morgan’s life
June 7, 2014 is a date that Tracy Morgan will never forget. On that day, reported, he and some friends were being driven from a standup gig when the vehicle was struck by a tractor-trailer on a New Jersey highway, according to CNN. Rushed to a nearby hospital, Morgan was listed in critical condition. His longtime friend, mentor, and fellow comedian, James “Jimmy Mack” McNair, was killed.
In August, the The Washington Post reported that Morgan broke his ribs, nose, and leg in the crash, which also left him comatose for two weeks with “no memory” of the incident. According to the comedian’s attorney, Benedict Morelli, Morgan also “suffered a traumatic brain injury” injury during the crash.
“When you have a traumatic brain injury it takes a very long time to find out how you’re going to do and how much you’re going to recover,” Morelli told the Associated Press, via NBC News in the immediate aftermath of the wreck. At the time, Morelli was uncertain about his client’s fate. “We’re hoping and praying to get him back to where he was. But the jury’s out.”
Doctors didn’t know if Tracy Morgan would perform again
A few weeks after the car accident that left Tracy Morgan in a coma, The New York Times reported that he was moved to “an undisclosed rehab facility” where he would spend the rest of the year healing his body and his brain.
During his months of recovery, Morgan underwent “rigorous rehab including daily speech, cognitive, vocational and physical therapies” in order to bring him back to the man he was before the accident, according to Page Six. Asked if Morgan would ever perform onstage again, the comedian’s lawyer, Benedict Morelli, admitted it was still far too soon to tell. “The doctors don’t know the answer,” he said, adding, “I don’t know the answer.”
Page Six also reported that the accident had cost Morgan some lucrative opportunities, including an FX TV series and a movie. While his ultimate prognosis was still far up in the air, Morgan remained optimistic about an eventual comeback. “I love you all,” he told the outlet, adding, “I’m fighting hard every day to get back.”
Tracy Morgan’s brain injury left lingering effects
In June 2015, Tracy Morgan was still recovering from the accident that took his dear friend’s life when he appeared on NBC’s Today (shown above) to share an update on his condition. The recovery process, Morgan admitted in the emotional interview, was slow, with him using a cane to assist his walking while his brain injury left him plagued with memory issues and headaches. “I have my good days and my bad days where I forget things,” Morgan said, adding, “There are times where I got the headaches and the nosebleeds.”
Asked about his eventual return to comedy, Morgan declared that he “can’t wait” to return to the stage. “But right now my goal is just to heal and get better ’cause I’m not 100 percent yet. … And when I’m there you’ll know it. I’ll get back to making you laugh.”
The experience, he later told GQ, had given him a whole new perspective on life and death. “When your room is ready, your room is ready,” he stated. “You know why I survived? Because I’m a tough motherf***er. Tough times don’t last. Tough people do. That’s why me and you still here.”
The reportedly huge settlement with Walmart came at a tragic cost for Tracy Morgan
Tracy Morgan’s accident led to a high-profile lawsuit, with Morgan suing Walmart. The driver of the truck that smashed into Morgan’s vehicle was found to have “been awake for 28 hours” when the crash occurred, reported Deadline, noting that the National Transportation Board took the side of Morgan and his attorney.
In May 2015, the Associated Press (via CBC) reported that Morgan’s suit against Walmart had been settled. A subsequent report from Reuters stated the settlement figure was possibly “more then $90 million” for Morgan and another passenger in the vehicle. Morgan’s attorney, however, disputed that conjecture, telling CBS News, “It’s not even close to the number” — without indicating whether the actual settlement was more or less than what was reported.
Yet the loss of Morgan’s dear friend James “Jimmy Mack” McNair was a pain that still lingered, and he blamed himself. “When you’re in an accident, your life is shattered. When you lose a friend like that, your life is shattered,” Morgan said in an interview with WABC TV. “I have to forgive myself for asking everyone to be on that bus. I had to forgive myself so I could move forward.”
Tracy Morgan smashed his $2M Bugatti the same day he bought it
While the details of how much money Tracy Morgan received in his settlement with Walmart have yet to be revealed, as of this writing, the amount was apparently large enough that the comedian could afford to buy a brand-new $2-million Bugatti sports car in the spring of 2020.
Unfortunately, Morgan’s excitement about his purchase didn’t last long. Hours after he bought the car, it was damaged in a fender-bender when a Honda CRV allegedly attempting “a right turn from the left lane” wound up smashing into the Bugatti’s side, reported Page Six. An eyewitness who was on the scene told the outlet that Morgan had “said he got it literally an hour ago and he paid $2 million for it. He just bought it and it’s pretty scraped up. It still had a dealer tag.” Morgan was reportedly not thrilled about the situation; the driver of the other vehicle told Page Six she was left “traumatized” when, she claimed, Morgan “was yelling at me,” which left her “scared.”
Clearly, this falls squarely onto the lighter side of the spectrum of tragedy, and even Morgan took it all in stride. After the fender bender, the star took to Twitter to let fans know he was OK, and also to put things in proper perspective. “Thanks for any concern but I am totally fine,” he wrote. “My NEW CAR? We shall see.”