SECOND CHANCES

How Tiffany Haddish and Tracy Morgan Spun Comedy Gold From Real-Life Pain

The stars of TBS’ ‘The Last O.G.’ tell The Daily Beast how they met at a karaoke night more than a decade ago, and how each evolved from hardship into their funniest selves.

Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

The Last O.G. is a story about coming back. And no one has had a more dramatic comeback than Tracy Morgan.

Close to four years after he nearly died in a tragic highway crash caused by a sleep-deprived Walmart truck driver, Morgan is making his return to series television opposite Hollywood’s current obsession, Tiffany Haddish, in a show co-created by Oscar-winner Jordan Peele.

“This is a big day for us,” Morgan tells me. The first two episodes are about to premiere for an audience of fans and press at SXSW and he’s anxious to see how they are received. Haddish may be a big movie star now, he says, “but TV is bigger, you’re in people’s homes.”

Morgan knows what that feels like, having spent seven years in the cast of Saturday Night Live before joining Tina Fey’s 30 Rock and playing an exaggerated version of himself for another seven seasons. That show ended in 2013 and he’s spent most of the intervening years recovering from his traumatic brain injury. A triumphant return to host SNL and a Netflix stand-up special proved he had lost none of his comedic gifts.

They shot the whole first season on location in Brooklyn during the summer of 2017, before Haddish’s breakout performance in Girls Trip made her a household name. When the pair arrives for our interview at a hotel in Austin and I ask where they’re coming from, Haddish replies, “Success. Where you coming from?”

“I know what it is to have a second chance in life, man,” Morgan says. “Nobody in this room got closer to God than me. When you’re in a coma for 10 days, you’re knocking on the door.” He raps his knuckles on the table and remembers, once he’d come home from the hospital, asking his wife how he looked when he was lying there that first day. “She started crying and said, ‘Dead.’

“We don’t overlook anything in our careers,” he adds, as Haddish nods along in agreement. “Every little bit means something to us. Or we’re just not going to be a part of it.”

“Every single day Tracy taught me something new,” Haddish says of her experience on the set with Morgan.

“She is a beautiful woman, you’ve got to understand that,” Morgan adds, clearly enamored by Haddish. “A gorgeous black woman I get to work with, holding my arms all the time. Even if it’s play-play, you get attached. Even though sometimes she might not dig the stuff I’m coming from, I love her.”

“Yeah, I’ll be like, ‘Stop, Tracy. Back it off. I need five minutes,’” Haddish jokes. “But it’s all love. Like my big brother.”

Morgan says it was important that their chemistry on screen together felt real. Because if they “don’t feel it” then the audience won’t either.

In the show’s pilot, Morgan’s character Tray and Haddish’s character Shay are a happy couple, cuddled up on the couch watching American Idol’s first season finale. He’s all in for Justin Guarini while she’s rooting for Kelly Clarkson. She’s trying to tell him something important, but he won’t listen, instead running out to the corner store for a blunt and a candy bar.

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Morgan says it was Peele’s idea for him to yell, “Wait for me!” as he’s walking out of the door. He’s talking about American Idol, but the line soon takes on a much deeper meaning.

Moments later, the cops are taking Tray away on a drug charge. The show picks up 15 years later when he’s finally out of prison and returning to a radically changed Brooklyn. The gangstas and bodegas have been replaced by hipsters and coffee shops. Living in a halfway house run by Cedric the Entertainer, he sets out to try to get the love of his life—and the twins he didn’t even know he had—back.

That time jump mirrors the gap between when Morgan and Haddish first met in the early 2000s and when they started working together last year. “He don’t remember, but I remember,” she says, as he protests, “I was drunk!”

“We were at the Saddle Ranch in Hollywood for karaoke night and he got to singing and stuff and the next thing you know, he’s got his shirt off and we were dancing,” Haddish recalls.

“She fell in love with me and I didn’t know it, I’m just learning this now,” he says, remembering that when he sang Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” Haddish “started crying, snot bubbles and everything.”

“I sang ‘Proud Mary’ by Tina Turner,” Haddish reveals, a performance she recreated on Comedy Central’s The Comedy Jam last spring.

While Morgan’s personal challenges have been well-documented, he notes, “Both of us have been through some real-life drama.”

While shooting the pilot, Haddish would turn to their director, The Lonely Island’s Jorma Taccone, and say, “I used to date dope dealers, let me tell you, I know what this is about.”

She also drew from her own experience of growing up in foster homes and living out of her car on the streets of Los Angeles not too many years ago.

“The thing that I love most about Shay is that she wants to help the homeless, that she’s looking out for them,” Haddish says.

In the 15 years since Tray left, Shay has moved on, married a successful (white) man and helps run a homelessness prevention charity called the Rest Easy initiative. “And I assume her being pregnant, him gone, not having no income, her mama’s on drugs, she don’t really have no foundation, I assume that she probably ended up in that shelter,” she says. “And ended up homeless with those kids.”

It’s the same thing Haddish told herself when she was struggling back in the day: “If I ever get any kind of power, I’m going to make sure kids don’t feel like garbage. I’m going to make sure nobody has to be on the streets with their kids.

“I do know about being on the streets,” she says. “I don’t know about being on the streets with no kids, but I know about being homeless, I know about feeling like garbage. And now when I do my comedy shows I have people bring suitcases or make a donation for foster youth so they can feel valid.”

“I love this show, because it’s dark, but it’s kind,” Morgan says. “You don’t see a lot kindness out there anymore, people just being kind to other people.”

When Morgan started playing Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock in 2006, viewers assumed that character reflected his true personality. “That’s because it was,” Morgan says now. “Tina Fey partied with me at those SNL after-parties. That’s how I became an alcoholic, in real life.” He’s been sober since a series of drunk driving arrests around that same time.

“They were too late,” he says of the notorious weekly celebrations, which often start close to 2 a.m. “Live television is like being shot out of a cannon.” Turning to Haddish, who became the first-ever black female stand-up comic to host SNL last year, he adds, “You know, you’ve experienced it! It’s like being shot out of a cannon and then there’s a party?!”

“After I hosted SNL, I went to that party and I had like two drinks,” Haddish says. “I was talking to Lorne Michaels, talking to Taylor Swift, and then I sat in the corner and I was asleep,” she adds, pretending to snore.

“Lorne’s like a pops to me,” Morgan chimes in, noting that he was the only host to ever announce the musical guest from Michaels’ office. “That’s my Obi-Wan Kenobi, I get a call from him every birthday.” He says Michaels must have called his wife “a million times” when he was recovering from his accident. “That’s my dude.

“I auditioned against like 1,500 black dudes and he said, ‘I want him,’” Morgan continues. “So they say every Jewish dude is supposed to love one nigga in his life and I’m glad he chose me.”

When I ask which of these two characters, on 30 Rock and The Last O.G., are closest to the real him, he says they reflect two very different points in his life—pre- and post-accident.

“It’s different Tracy Morgans.” he says. “Tracy Jordan is the after-parties. That’s what Tina Fey saw. Tray is after the accident.”

“See, he’s just evolving, he a real man,” Haddish jokes.

“Yeah, there’s a reason why the dinosaurs ain’t here no more, they didn’t evolve quick enough. Alligators and crocodiles are still here,” Morgan says. “It’s the ecosystem. If you don’t evolve, you won’t be here no more. The comedy ecosystem took care of me, I evolved quick enough.”