Is Tracy Morgan NBC's next breakout star? New family sitcom brings the ex-''SNL''-er/Crank Yanker into prime time

By Bruce Fretts
Updated November 27, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Tracy Morgan: Reggie Casagrande

Tracy Morgan has just finished taping a scene on the L.A. set of his self-titled NBC sitcom in which his character, Bronx auto-shop owner Tracy Mitchell, has a heart-to-heart talk with one of his sons. Suddenly, his nostrils flare. ”What’s that smell?” Morgan asks the crew. ”Smells like…Emmy!”

Sounds like the ”Saturday Night Live” vet is ready to be a prime-time player. Aside from ”NewsRadio”’s Phil Hartman and ”Just Shoot Me”’s David Spade, ”SNL” hasn’t had a ton of success with crossovers to sitcom stars,” says executive producer David M. Israel (who cocreated ”Tracy” along with fellow ”3rd Rock From the Sun” alum Jim O’Doherty). ”But people are going to be surprised by Tracy’s warmth and depth.” NBC entertainment chief Jeff Zucker believes that Morgan can make the transition: ”Tracy was telling jokes and acting on ‘SNL’. There’s no reason to believe he can’t do the same thing in prime time.”

During his seven seasons on ”SNL,” Morgan created several recurring characters, including homeless lady-killer Woodrow; the effeminate and combative ”Safari Planet” host Brian Fellow; and the swinging, singing space explorer Astronaut Jones. Now he’s asking audiences to accept him as a much tamer creature: a sitcom dad. ”The Tracy Morgan Show” (debuting Dec. 2 at 8 p.m.) casts him in the Bernie Mac — Damon Wayans mold as a crusty-yet-cuddly family guy with a levelheaded wife (”Booty Call”’s Tamala Jones) and two rambunctious boys (Marc John Jefferies and Bobb’e J. Thompson). ”I’ve played outrageous characters my whole career,” says Morgan. ”People don’t know this part of me.”

The role is hardly out of character for the 35-year-old comedian: Morgan and his wife, high school sweetheart Sabina, have three sons — Tracy, 17; Malcolm, 16; and Gitrid, 12. ”This character is close to me,” says Morgan. ”The only difference is in real life, it takes more than 22 minutes to solve problems.” Morgan’s domesticated lifestyle caught his costars off guard. ”It shocked the s— out of me,” says rapper Heavy D (who plays a mechanic at Tracy’s garage). ”You can’t see Brian Fellow with kids.” Echoes Jones: ”I thought maybe he’d be wild with the chicks out at the nightclubs, but that’s not him.”

Morgan’s flava hasn’t always been so mild. Born in the Bronx, he grew up in a hard-knock Brooklyn housing project. ”I did some things I’m not proud of,” admits the comedian. ”I tried my little hand at drug dealing, but that wasn’t me.” Says Israel: ”He could’ve wound up like a lot of other people — in jail or dead. Comedy was his saving grace.” Morgan’s father, Jimmy (who died in 1987), was a musician, Vietnam veteran, and master of the put-down contests known as jonesing. Recalls Morgan: ”One day he sat me on his lap and made me jones on somebody, and that was my very first joke. It was something about somebody’s mom. Dude’s name was Boo-Boo — God bless the dead.”

In his early 20s, Morgan started jonesing professionally, and later guest shots on ”Def Comedy Jam” and ”Martin” brought him to the attention of ”SNL” guru Lorne Michaels, who’s now one of Tracy’s executive producers. ”I wouldn’t do it without Lorne,” says Morgan. ”He’s my Obi-Wan Kenobi.” After he joined the ”SNL” cast in 1996, screen time was scarce (his first on-camera appearance was as a Caribbean magic man in a commercial parody), but Morgan eventually became one of the sketch show’s MVPs. ”I learned how to be patient,” he says. ”And when my shot came, I took full advantage of it.” Just as Morgan had established himself as a go-to guy, however, he called it quits at the end of last season. ”I didn’t want to stay too long,” he says. ”I wanted to leave on top.”

Now Morgan faces the tough task of shoring up NBC’s struggling Tuesday-night lineup, having bumped ”Whoopi” out of the leadoff spot. With his series, Morgan wants to present a more working-class New York City than ”The Cosby Show” did. ”We’re not quite the Huxtables — we’re a little to the left,” he says of the Mitchells. ”We’re from the streets. There’s love and affection in the hood, and we’re going to show that.” While Tracy Mitchell might not boast as much street cred as Woodrow, he’s not Ward Cleaver, either. ”We’re going to keep our edge,” he promises. ”Ain’t nothing sappy about Tracy Morgan.”