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Tracy Morgan on drugs, Richard Pryor and the stigma of TV comedy

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While he may be world-famous and seven years sober, the streets of Bed-Stuy Brooklyn still ring in the voice of Tracy Morgan. Coming from a childhood of poverty and crack-dealing, Morgan built a respectable career in standup, performing on HBO's Def Comedy Jam before reaching TV mega-stardom on Saturday Night Live, and 30 Rock. While he's still juggling projects for FX and also hosting The Billboard Music Awards, at the moment Tracy Morgan has returned to his standup roots, and his Excuse My French tour lands in Denver this Saturday, June 15, at the Paramount Theatre. In anticipation of that show, we caught up with Morgan to chat about the outrage following his Melbourne Comedy Festival gig, being sober and why he's not Richard Pryor.

See also: - Demetri Martin on Woody Guthrie, prop-comedy and not being a hipster - Obama talks getting stoned and Conan rips GOP at D.C. Correspondents' Dinner - Rape jokes: Comedian debates feminist on FX's Totally Biased

Westword: You play a lot of characters that are outwardly tough, but have a very sensitive, vulnerable center. Is that something you're pulling from your own personality?

I don't compare myself to characters. It depends on what the subject is. If it's a sensitive subject to me, then I'm gonna be who I am, know what I'm sayin'? I'm not always in character. Sometimes I'm engagin' in a conversation with Barbara Walters or somethin', and she starts on somethin' that's very personal to me, I'm honest with it.

I know a lot of people want to talk about your rough childhood...

My childhood wasn't disastrous like that. People want to focus on a thing, but I like to focus on my really happy adulthood.

Right. My question isn't so much about your childhood, but what was going on in the time and place you grew up. Music journalists often talk about how crack affected hip-hop at that time -- was there an impact on black comedy?

Drugs...comedians have always had a stigma for drugs and alcohol because of John Belushi, and a lot of the other standups that came before us. But nah, I don't see that now. A lot of people moved away from it. It's just a stigma. Not all of us are tragic figures. A lot of comedy comes from the joys in life, too. I don't ever want to let young people think they need to destroy their lives to be creative. I've been sober for seven years.

It seems that things got a lot better for black comedy when you were coming up in the early '90s. There was In Living Color, and you had a role on Martin and a Def Comedy Jam appearance. Did it feel like you came along at a special time?

There were a lot more vehicles. I wouldn't necessarily say it got better; we still had to do what we had to do. But there were a lot more vehicles for young people in the entertainment world. Today you don't see a lot of those vehicles on network TV. We have all these cable channels and other stuff.

So there aren't the same opportunities for young black comics today as there were when you were coming up?

I don't see it. I came up in a different time. Maybe there are new opportunities in different areas. There are a lot more channels on TV now.

In Tina Fey's book, Bossypants, she talks about hiring people based on how well you get along with them, not just on their talent. Was she an easy person to work alongside?

Yeah, sure. I worked with Tina Fey four or five years together. Yeah, it was cool. She and I never didn't get along. We were professionals, ya know?

You've done some TV work lately with FX and hosting the Billboard Music Awards, but right now you're on a standup tour. Since that's where you began, does being on a stage fulfill you creatively in a way that TV doesn't?

Well, yeah. I've done TV for so long. Now I get an opportunity to hear my own voice again, which is really cool. I get to tell my life story, from my mouth. TV can be kind of constricting. Now I have the freedom to free-fall, ya know?

You definitely plug into an unfiltered part of yourself in standup that rubs some people the wrong way. Do you think...

I don't care about them. They should stay home, or see Kevin Smith or somethin'. Maybe they should not come see me. I do what I do. I don't get involved in that. There are too many personalities that I have to deal with. Everybody don't like Cap'n Crunch, some people like Chex Mix, I get that. I'm not upset with anyone. But I'm gonna tell my story, how I do it.

There are some people that don't care for the ghetto, period. That's where I'm from; I'm sorry I wasn't born with a river in my backyard. I'm from Brooklyn. That's where I come from and that's what I talk about. We didn't have money where I come from, we just had each other. So that's what I know. If people want to hear other things, go see other people. My fans know what I talk about. I don't gotta apologize for the truth.

Only people who feel like that are people who don't know how to separate Tracy Morgan from Tracy Jordan. That's cause they don't know Tracy Morgan. All they know is based on the character I play on TV. But I'm not that character. I have a real life. And when I do my standup, that's a personal thing. I get to express myself. My experience is coming from the ghetto. That's the problem with everybody in America, everybody wants everything sugar-coated -- they're feeling entitled now. No! I'm doing something that I want to do. Lenny Bruce went to jail so I could express myself on stage.

I recently read about a group of people walking out of your show at the Melbourne Comedy Festival last April.

I know I'm gonna lose a few people along the way. So what? I don't care 'bout that. I'm talkin' 'bout sex on stage, there's people in this world doin' a whole lot worse. You got time to worry about me? Try to destroy me on a blog, because I'm talking talking about sex?! There are people who are cranky! They gotta get lives, man. If you don't like comedy, stay home!

Do you get that often, people only wanting to see Tracy Jordan the TV character?

I don't care about that. You want to see me on TV, stay home and watch TV!

That reminds me of what happened to Andy Kaufman: He wanted to experiment with standup, but the masses who came out to see him only wanted Latka from Taxi.

Yeah! People want to put you in a box. They want to keep you in a box. Those people don't like to think outside the box. They got a problem with thinkin' outside the box, man.

You often cite Richard Pryor as a comedy hero. Biographers make a lot out of his difficult childhood inspiring his comedy; do you think your unique childhood experience set you apart with a different style of comedy?

Listen, a true artist doesn't keep adding clay. He strips away 'till he gets to the potential. When Richard Pryor left, he was a shell of a man, because he gave up everything he had and he was always honest. That's why we loved him so. I care, I care a lot, man, about what I do. I care a lot about people, man. This care is permanent. I care about my family, I care about my audience. Alec Baldwin is not comin' from behind the curtain. This is my opportunity to talk about my life.

For the last decade of Richard Pryor's working life, he really went downhill. It seems like those years could be a warning sign for other comedians. I'm not talking about the drugs, more of...

That's just young people. I'm 44 years old. If I was gonna go off the deep end I woulda done that a long time ago. I'm not concerned with that.

Right, but I'm talking more about the film roles he took. KSuperman III, The Toy, Moving. He really lost his creative edge in the last decade. Do you ever worry about losing touch with what originally inspired you?

No! I stay creative, I know how to write. Let me you tell you something: I don't worry about stuff like that. I've seen the Richard Pryor thing, man. I'm not Richard Pryor. His life was his life. That's not me, so why would I be concerned about any of that? I hear the question you're askin', and I understand the question you're askin', but no, I have no concerns about that.

Well, thanks so much for chatting with me, Tracy Morgan.

Right on, big daddy. Stay free. Stay free, my dude. Tracy Morgan performs at 8 p.m., Saturday, June 15 at the Paramount, 1621 Glenarm Place. For more information, go to paramountdenver.com.

For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.

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