Actor and comedian Tracy Morgan has a new show about getting a second chance at life. It's fitting for a man who experienced a second chance of his own — making a remarkable recovery from a horrific traffic accident that left him in a coma.
He was severely injured in the wreck in 2014 in New Jersey. At the time, doctors reportedly weren't sure if he would ever walk or talk again. Morgan's friend James McNair was killed in the accident and three others were also injured.
Sixteen months later though, Morgan was back on TV hosting Saturday Night Live, where he'd performed with the cast for seven years until 2003.
He joked about his recovery: "People were wondering, 'Can he speak? Does he have 100-percent mental capacity?' But the truth is I never did. I may even be a few [IQ ] points higher now."
Now, Morgan is back as a series star for the first time since the end of 30 Rock in 2013. In the new TBS show The Last O.G., Morgan stars as Tray Barker, a man who just got out of prison after serving 15 years. He returns to his old Brooklyn neighborhood, which has dramatically changed since he left.
Morgan says he's had the idea for the show bouncing around for eight years, but it became especially relevant after his own recovery.
"It's about second chances," Morgan tells NPR's Michel Martin on All Things Considered. "And it hit me: If Tracy Morgan can get a second chance, why can't Tray Barker?" Morgan talked with NPR about his health, gentrification, his early experience selling drugs and his return to television.
On his current health
I'm feeling great, I'm feeling blessed. What's more important for me, is to make sure [my audience is] feeling good. That's why I do TV; that's why I make people laugh. I want to make sure they feel good too.
On worries that he wouldn't perform again after the accident
Every day. Every day in my wheelchair. It was life or death. You ask me, was I worried about doing TV? I was worrying if I was ever going to walk again. I was worrying about if I was ever going to remember my own name. So it's way deeper than TV. TV was the last thing I was thinking about. ...
I faced death. So of course, you could imagine how I feel now that the show had a successful premiere. I feel great. I feel awesome. But I feel great for everyone else.
On second chances and parallels between his character and his own life
When I was younger, before show business, there was another life. And I did those things and I really didn't want to do them. It's just that crack made it so accessible — the money was right there and I didn't want to be ridiculed. All the kids around me were selling crack and getting money and all that. So I wanted to be a part of it. So everyone did it.
But I always wanted God to forgive me for it. So I'm quite sure Tray Barker doing those 15 years in prison was the same way. "God please forgive me, I was just trying to survive." So he took it upon himself to learn — get better. To do better, because he knew better. Once you know better you can do better.
On gentrification in Brooklyn and other cities
You're talking about displacement. Those are some of the things we're going to have to tackle too. You gotta watch the rest of the episodes. People were displaced with the Barclays Center and all of that. Things are different.
But you know, it's like being a roach. You learn how to survive. That's the first thing you learn in life is survival. Before you live, you gotta survive.
On being back on a TV series for the first time since the accident
It feels good being back to TV. Feels good being back in front of my audience, absolutely. I'm filled with joy. I thank God every day for sparing my life. Just to come back and touch you guys in a funny way.
NPR's Marc Rivers produced the audio of this story for broadcast.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, a new TV series about second chances starring an actor who knows a little bit about them.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LAST O.G.")
TRACY MORGAN: (As Tray) Second chances are a beautiful thing. When I went away, my neighborhood was hanging on by a thread thanks to dealers like me. This time, I will be a force for positive change. This time, I'm going to do it right.
MARTIN: Of course that is actor and comedian Tracy Morgan in the new TBS series "The Last O.G." He plays Tray, a former drug dealer from Brooklyn looking for a fresh start after 15 years in prison. "The Last O.G." premiered on Tuesday, and it marks Tracy Morgan's return to serious television after a horrific traffic accident in 2014 that caused a traumatic brain injury and put him in a coma. Four years later, though, he's back with his first major role since his Emmy-nominated performance as Tracy Jordan on NBC's "30 Rock." and Tracy Morgan is with us now from his home in Alpine, N.J. Tracy Morgan, thank you so much for joining us.
MORGAN: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Well, first and foremost, I think your fans want to know, how are you? I mean, how is your health? How do you feel?
MORGAN: I'm feeling great. I'm feeling blessed. What's more important for me is to make sure they're feeling good. That's why I do TV. That's why I make people laugh. I want to make sure they feel good, too.
MARTIN: You know, at the time of the accident, it was reported that the doctors weren't sure you'd ever walk or talk again, let alone perform. But, I mean, four years later, you've hosted "Saturday Night Live," you've done meaty roles in a number of films. Did you worry that you wouldn't be able to perform again? Did you ever think you'd be back here doing this?
MORGAN: Every day. Every day in my wheelchair, it was life or death. You asked me, was I worried about doing TV? I was worrying if I was ever going to walk again. I was worrying about if I was ever going to remember my own name. TV was the last thing I was thinking about. People in the world were just concerned with my health. They were just happy to see me back. It's bigger than me, and I think that I'm here because my room wasn't ready. When your room is ready, your room is ready. Until then, I'm going to fight the good fight, and I'm going to run a damn good race. So, of course, you can imagine how I feel now that the show had a successful premiere. I feel great. I feel awesome.
MARTIN: Where did the idea come from?
MORGAN: Well, I had this idea for the show for eight years, been rolling around in my head for eight years then one day just it just snapped, it's about second chances. And it hit me, if Tracy Morgan can get a second chance why can't Tray Barker? You've got to understand, like I said, when I was younger, before show business, there was another life, and I did those things and I really didn't want to do them. It's just that crack made it so accessible. The money was right there, and I didn't want to be a drug dealer. And all the kids around me was selling crack and getting money and all that. And so I wanted to be a part of it, so everyone did it.
But I always wanted God to forgive me for it. So I'm quite sure Tray Barker doing those 15 years in prison was the same way. God, please forgive me. I was just trying to survive. So he took upon himself to learn, get better, to do better because he knew better. Once you know better, you could do better.
MARTIN: Let me play a clip for people who may not have had a chance to see the premiere, and we can talk a little bit more about it. Here's a clip of where Tray comes across some teens who he thinks are in his old trade, and he wants to give them some advice. Let me play it for you. Here it is. And we'll talk about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LAST O.G.")
MORGAN: (As Tray) You see me? I use to be just like [expletive] just like ya'll. I got locked up for 15 years, 15 years. Ya'll little [expletive] need to check ya'll own potential, man. Ya'll little [expletive]...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As character) Actually, sorry to interrupt. We're just waiting for our friend.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As character) Let's go to brunch, [expletive].
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (As character) Oh, my God. That guy was just acting so weird just now.
MARTIN: There's a lot in that clip right there. There's a lot in there right there.
MORGAN: Well, we living it. It's just - listen. As long as we telling the truth, we don't got to defend it. This is the world we living in. You know why the dinosaurs ain't here no more? Because they didn't evolve quick enough.
MARTIN: Well, I wanted to ask you about that. I mean, look, on the one hand, we were talking earlier, full disclosure, I grew up in Brooklyn. And when I was last there, it was disorienting for me. I mean, so on the one hand, yes, it's safer than it used to be. But a lot of people who stuck it out during the bad times feel they don't have a place there anymore. They feel like they don't belong there anymore, so how do you feel about how it's....
MORGAN: You're talking about displacement.
MORGAN: You're talking about displacement. Those are some of the things that we are going to have to tackle too. You got to watch the rest of the episodes. People are displaced, things are different. But, you know, it's like being a roach. You learn how to survive. That's the first thing you learn in life is survival. Before you live, you got to survive.
MARTIN: But Tray is so sweet, though. I mean, Tray wants to be...
MORGAN: Well, that's what I love...
MARTIN: You know what I mean?
MORGAN: ...About the show.
MORGAN: It has a dark premise, but it's kind. It's a kind show.
MARTIN: Well, before we let you go - so thank you for talking to us. And so are you - did you have fun with it? I mean, has this been a good experience for you doing a series again?
MORGAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. It feels good being back to TV. Feels good being back in front of my audience. Absolutely. I'm filled with joy. I thank God every day for sparing my life just to come back and touch you guys in a funny way.
MARTIN: Well, it's great talking to you. Thank you for the series. Thank you for your - doing your work, and I hope you're having fun. We'll see - we'll look forward to the rest of it. That's actor and comedian Tracy Morgan. His new show "The Last O.G." can be seen on TBS. Tracy Morgan, thank you.
MORGAN: God bless you, baby. Thank you. And my audience, I love you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.