By Dan Snierson
April 03, 2018 at 01:23 PM EDT
Kareem Black

Tracy Morgan returns to series TV in TBS comedy The Last O.G., four years after surviving a horrific car accident that left him in a coma. The 49-year-old comedian — and alum of such essential comedies as Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock — stars as Trey, a big-hearted ex-con who moves back to Brooklyn, where his now-married ex, Shay (Tiffany Haddish), is raising twin teens he didn’t know were his. Which brings us to the theme of the show: “Redemption, simple and plain,” says Morgan, who drew from parts of his own life to help frame this at-times-melancholy, at times-ribald comedy. “I knew these people—people that got locked up, did their time, tried to come out and do the right thing. It’s about leaving the party. It’s about growing up.”

While Morgan’s episodic television homecoming on The Last O.G. (debuting April 3 at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT) marks another step in his Hollywood comeback — he first returned with the 2017 big-screen comedy Fist Fight and Netflix stand-up special Staying Alive — he is quick to note that its significance is dwarfed by a far more important victory: “It was about walking, about talking again, about coming out of that coma,” he tells EW. “That’s how deep it got for me. It’s a beautiful thing being able to do the things that I loved to do, like TV and be funny for the world, but for me it was different. It was deeper than that, man! Coming out of a coma took everything I had. It took all my might. My daughter was only 10 months old!”

Without missing a beat, he then adds: “You know who the last O.G. is? My first O.G. was my daddy. My last O.G. was Jimmy Mack [James McNair, Morgan’s friend and fellow comedian who died when Morgan’s vehicle was hit by a Walmart truck]. He was 62 years old, he had seen it, did it, and was giving me that knowledge. That’s called the O.G. The greatest O.G. in the universe was Ben Kenobi, baby! That was Luke Skywalker’s O.G.! And Yoda was his!”

As you can see, Morgan remains a force of comedy. Who were his biggest influences — and his most unlikely ones? What role did 30 Rock wind up playing in his life? And what was the first joke that he ever told? Here, Morgan reflects on his past and his punchlines.

The first joke I ever told
My father was Richard Pryor funny. I remember being in the projects, about 4 years old, and he sat me on his knee, and he was jonesing around with a guy named Boo Boo, and said, “Say: ‘Your mother eats tiger t–ties and alligator testicle soup,’” and I said, “Your mother eats tiger t–ties and alligator testicle soup.” The whole crowd started laughing, and from that day I wanted to be a comedian. Also, in high school, I was the class clown. I was snapping on my friends: “Your mom is so dumb, she thought menopause was a button on a tape deck.”

The comedy bit that inspired me to become a comedian
“Signifying Monkey.” Rudy Ray Moore. When I heard the words and the way he would say it, that was funny to me. When he says, [singing] “Signifying Monkey/stay up in your tree/you are always lying and signifying, but you better not monkey with me,” I loved that. I would go around my whole project singing it. … I’m sitting in the room at my uncle’s listening to this stuff. I come from a family full of funny people. In the ghetto, that’s all we got — our senses of humor. We had to entertain ourselves. They would also play Redd Foxx albums and Richard Pryor’s albums. I heard all of that growing up.

The comedian I’ve borrowed the most from
Richard Pryor. His honesty. His truth. As long as you tell the truth on the stage, you don’t got to defend it. It’s something we can all identify with and relate to on some level or not, no matter what color you are. The truth is the truth, all around the world. People laugh at the truth, they don’t laugh at lies. Lies hurt.

My most unlikely comedy influence
Jackie Gleason. Watching The Honeymooners growing up was awesome. “Bang! Zoom!” and all that. Him and Art Carney and their hare-brained schemes. At the end of it, he would look at Alice and go, “Baby, you’re the greatest.” That was heartfelt. That was kind. The Honeymooners [episode] that I loved the most was when he read that letter that he wrote to his mother-in-law the night they got married. I’m a very emotional person, and that touched me. He’s on my Mount Rushmore. Richard is there. Flip Wilson is there. Lucille Ball is there. And my physical comedy comes from Carol Burnett. Look at the faces she made! That’s where the physical in Tracy Morgan comes from.

The person in comedy I’d most love to meet
Charlie Chaplin. The things he knew how to do — without voices, without noise! He did silent films, and he was funny! He’s the greatest.

The stand-up special I have watched the most
Richard Pryor: Live in Concert. Sometimes I’ll look for inspiration, and I go back to where I first found it. The two sweetest words in comedy are Richard Pryor. I loved the way he showed his fearlessness. I’m not really into material — I’m into performance and fearlessness. Eddie Murphy’s “Umfufu” [from “Raw”] and all of that. At that age, he was able to have insight like that!

The shortest joke I’ve ever told
It wasn’t in stand-up. It was on Saturday Night Live when I told Lorne Michaels, “Get me a soda, bitch.”It was my first year [on the show]. I was going up in the elevator, and it was just me and Lorne Michaels, and Lorne was standing in front of me. I knew he could feel me behind him, and I was smiling. Then I went and told T. Sean Shannon, and we wrote the joke. I first did it at the table [read], and I told Lorne later on that night, “I’m uncomfortable doing this joke, because where I come from, if you call your boss a bitch, you get fired.” He said, “No, I’m not really a bitch. The joke’s funny, we’re going to do it.” And then I was committed.

The joke I’m asked about the most
It might be something to do with Brian Fellow [the not-an-accredited-zoologist host of Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet sketch on SNL]. They ask me, “Was Brian Fellows gay?” and I said, “No, he’s ambiguous.” That’s the question I got asked the most. Little do people know, Brian Fellow has a wife and three kids.

The joke I wish I never told
It would be that joke that I said on stage that got me in trouble with the LGBT. [It was reported that at a 2011 gig, Morgan said that if his son were gay and didn’t talk like a man, he’d stab him. He later apologized.] I never said it like that, but it’s a joke that I wish I could take back because I never wanted my material to hurt anyone. … That’s a joke that I take out of my mind, it’s behind me; I don’t talk about it, I don’t repeat it.

The TV comedy that made me want to pack up and move to Hollywood
Barney Miller. It was grounded, it was real, it was at a police station, it was funny, the characters were hilarious. I loved Fish. Abe Vigoda! He was an older man, he wasn’t having it, he was tired, he was cranky all the time.

The TV comedy that I quote the most
Sanford and Son. People do crazy stuff to me, and I act like I’m having a heart attack, and I say [in Redd Foxx voice], “I’m coming to see you, Elizabeth!” I loved calling people, “Ya big dummy!” Every day I’m calling someone a “big dummy.”

The TV comedy that rescued me
30 Rock. Being on that show kept me busy. I was sober then. I was able to do Tracy Jordan without having to have a drink. Tina Fey saw me partying at the after-parties of Saturday Night Live, so she [drew from] that. I didn’t have to be in the picture — I could paint the picture. I got crazy without actually having to drink. And that saved me.

The comedy that helped me to start laughing again while I was recovering
If you don’t laugh, you’re going to cry, so I laughed. … Key & Peele. I was just watching it 10 minutes ago! Hilarious! It’s so real, and that’s what makes it funny. They’re what you call all-day real characters. When [Key] was doing comedy in front of a burn victim, it’s the truth. [Jordan Peele, who co-created The Last O.G., serves as an executive producer on the series alongside Morgan.]

My go-to gag to get a laugh when a bit is bombing
I inject sex into it. I talk about sex. Sex is funny. The noises we make, the faces we make, the things we do. And intimacy. I like to be intimate with my audience anyway. In comedy, sex always works. There’s always something funny to say about sex.

The joke I want told at my funeral
I couldn’t answer that. I would just want my tombstone to say, “Here lies one funny motherf—er.”

The funniest word to say on stage
“Hypothetical.” That coming out of my mouth sounds funny.

The weirdest place I’d love to do a stand-up special
Kingdom Hall. Because I would shock the s— out of everybody.

Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and Tracy Morgan star in the Emmy-winning comedy. You want to go to there.
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