After years away from the spotlight, the ''Saturday Night Live'' alum is back on a hit TV show. We talked to him about his drug habit, his comeback, and the controversial comedy on ''Girls''

Garrett Morris doesn’t like to dwell on the past. In particular, he’s not crazy about discussing the years between 1975 and 1980. It’s not that he isn’t proud of his groundbreaking role as one of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players in the first five seasons of Saturday Night Live. It’s just that some memories — like the invisible mind-controlling robot he thought was stalking him in his dressing room at Studio 8H — he’d rather forget. ”I was doing a lot of drugs back then,” he says, relaxing with a self-rolled cigarette on the patio of a Hollywood jazz club. ”I was freebasing cocaine. And when you freebase, you see all sorts of strange things crawling up the walls.”

Happily, the wildest thing Morris does in his dressing room these days is nap. After three decades of bouncing between schlocky horror movies (like Severed Ties and Black Scorpion II: Aftershock) and don’t-blink TV guest spots (on shows ranging from Diff’rent Strokes to Hill Street Blues), the 75-year-old Juilliard-trained actor is finally proving that he is indeed ready for prime time. He plays Earl, the charmingly rambunctious cashier on 2 Broke Girls, CBS’ raunchy hit sitcom about a couple of ambitious but cash-strapped waitresses (Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs). ”Garrett brings a lot of history with him,” says executive producer Michael Patrick King (Sex and the City), explaining why he cast Morris. ”He’s been around. That’s one of my favorite attributes about him. We can make jokes about his character getting fired from Earth, Wind & Fire, and you believe it. He feels authentic. More importantly, he’s an expert comic. He knows his way around a joke.”

That expertise was underutilized by SNL‘s early writers, which may be one of the reasons Morris spent so much time doing drugs and imagining invisible robots. Though he appeared in some classic skits — most notably as baseball player Chico Escuela (”Baseball been bery bery goo to me”) and as the newsreader for the hard of hearing on ”Weekend Update” — he was more often given bits involving racial stereotypes, like the infamous ”Tarbrush” sketch, an ad parody for a toothpaste that dulled African-Americans’ supposedly too-shiny teeth. (The bit got pulled — mercifully — at the last minute.) Thirty-five years later, Morris still has a knack for stepping into controversy; during CBS’ press tour in January, reporters pounced on 2 Broke Girls for its edgy racial humor. ”It’s just like Saturday Night Live,” he says. ”I got at least three letters from the NAACP complaining about things on SNL. But I never saw it as racist,” he says, taking a last drag on his cigarette. ”I just saw it as comedy.”

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