The instructions – well, not really instructions, but warmly worded insinuations from publicists doing their job – couldn’t be clearer: When you’re talking to Tracy Morgan, don’t focus on the past. Don’t focus on the 2014 accident that nearly killed him. Don’t dive into the controversies, the apologies, or presumably even the triumphs from his work on “Saturday Night Live,” “30 Rock,” or anything else on the small or silver screen.
Let’s focus on his stand-up, they say, and particularly his Feb. 26 show at the Seneca Events Center in Niagara Falls.
Sounds fair, you think. The man, at 47, is a comedic giant, not only one of the most prominent African American comics of his generation, but simply one of the most notable comedic performers of his generation, period. Black, white, whatever — it doesn’t matter.
As one of the publicists pointed out in an email, Morgan’s “past is all out there and he has so much more to look forward to.” You agree. Morgan’s tour is called “Picking Up The Pieces”; let’s find out how he’s putting those pieces together onstage.
And so on the appointed afternoon of the interview, when Morgan’s assistant texts his boss’ cell phone number and says, “You can call now,” you make that call. And here’s how it goes:
Tell us about the show, Tracy.
Another pause. This an age-old interview technique: When a subject answers a question – particularly with few words – you wait. Let the silence simmer. Usually the subject will fill the awkward void with more words. Deeper thoughts. Introspection.
Not Morgan. Not yet.
“Nothing else,” he said. “Just funny.”
OK then. Up on that stage, do you make yourself laugh while you’re making everyone else laugh?
“Oh yeah, of course, or I wouldn’t be doing stand-up. It’s only funny if I think it’s funny. If it’s funny to me, then it’s funny to you. I talk about stuff that nobody ever talks about, man. I went to the other side and came back.”
Morgan doesn’t elaborate on the “other side,” but he’s talking about that accident nearly two years ago on the New Jersey Turnpike. Morgan and six others were riding in a minibus after a stand-up show in Delaware when it was struck by a Walmart truck, triggering a six-vehicle crash. One of the people in Morgan’s ride, comedian James McNair, was killed. Morgan was in a coma for weeks.
“I came back bearing gifts,” Morgan said. “Funny gifts. And I’m going to share them with y’all when I get up there.”
He had funny gifts before the accident, too. Ask Tina Fey. Ask Lorne Michaels. So how are these new comedy gifts different than the old comedy gifts? Has your comedy changed?
“What are you talking about? My material?”
“I don’t focus on material — I focus on funny,” he said, and then launches an explanation: He talked about Bruce Lee’s stare in “Enter the Dragon.” He talks about a finger pointing to the moon.
“Don’t focus on the finger, or you’re going to miss all that other heavenly—”
Morgan’s cell phone cuts out momentarily – he’s in a noisy spot, with a woman’s squawky voice over a loudspeaker audible in the background. When he’s back, he’s still going: “Don’t worry about what I talk about. Just ask yourself, was it funny, or FUNNY? Funny is a gift. Material is just something you come by."
The short answers are gone. Morgan is steamrolling through this one, punctuating the end of each sentence.
"The gift you come from heaven with is the funny," he says, emphasizing that last word. A sense of humor.” (It sounds like "HEW-more.")
You try to ask a follow-up; Morgan plows ahead.
“I can’t stand when people focus on the material. It’s not what I’m talking about. Worry about if it’s funny. Funny is just funny. Richard Pryor, you ain’t from where he’s from, but you laughed anyway because it was funny.”
How has Pryor influenced you?
“He’s the messiah. Point blank. He’s the muh-SI-ah. I say that emphatically. I dare somebody else to challenge it. Anytime you’re born in a brothel, your mom is a prostitute and your father is a pimp, your grandmother is the madam, and you overcome all of that to be the funniest to ever do it? He’s the messiah.
“Anytime you survive an accident … and still do comedy, that’s heavy.”
Morgan doesn’t say whether he’s talking about himself or Pryor, who in 1980 survived an incident in which he reportedly poured rum over his body and set himself ablaze. Maybe he means both, because though their nearly life-ending traumas were starkly different (Pryor was freebasing cocaine when he set himself on fire, and later called it a suicide attempt), Morgan’s point is the same: Darkness ends with light.
“It’s going to take a lot more than an 18-wheeler to knock the funny out of me.”
Morgan, who just finished a movie and is working on a television show, travels on tour with his wife, Megan Wollover, and kids. He speaks with gratitude for the venues that are booking him and for the fans who are filling seats. He says the laughter that fills the theaters “heals. That’s what it does for everybody in that arena. It heals. You allow it, it’ll heal you.”
It’s a very public healing process. How did Morgan know when it was time to go back on the road and open himself up?
“I talked to wife about it one night, and she asked, ‘Are you ready?’ I said, ‘Yes, baby.’ She said, ‘Pull the trigger.’ And I got on the phone the next day with my agent and said, ‘Let’s go.’ That was it. No doubts. No asking me. Let’s go. And that was it. Now we’re doing it. Now we’re here. I feel great. And I’m coming up to Niagara with truckloads of funny.
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 26
Where: Seneca Niagara Events Center, 310 Fourth St., Niagara Falls
Info: (877) 873-6322