THE BEST MEDICINE

How Tracy Morgan Found the Humor in His Near-Death Car Accident

The SNL alum talks about his first comedy special since the 2014 car accident that left him in a coma and nearly took his life: ‘I had to remember I was funny.’

Cara Howe

Tracy Morgan is explaining how one masturbates in a hospital without getting caught. Or, rather, how not to care about getting caught.

“Easy!” he says, sort of barking in that loud, Tracy Morgan way. “They standing right there and I masturbate! I didn’t give a fuck who was in the room! This dick gotta be beat upon. What do you want me to do? What do you want me to do?

When we meet, the former Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock star is reclined on a chaise lounge and grinning, almost as if he’s waiting to be painted like one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s French girls.

The loud, multicolored stripes on his silk, blousy shirt (and matching Converse sneakers) and stark white pants pop in bold contrast to the beige hotel décor. He shows off the thick gold chain with a pendant of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns that’s hanging around his neck: “Biggie Smalls would be proud, right?”

We’re there to talk about his new Netflix special Tracy Morgan: Staying Alive, his first stand-up special since his life-changing near-death experience in 2014, when a Walmart truck driver who hadn’t slept for 28 hours crashed his 18-wheeler into the limousine Morgan was riding in on the New Jersey turnpike.

Morgan’s friend, comedian James “Jimmy Mack” McNair died. Morgan suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him in a coma for eight days, and an early prognosis for full recovery that would have made the idea of a stand-up tour just over two years later unfathomable.

Staying Alive covers, with great humor and perhaps even greater frankness, Morgan’s life in the months after the crash, from his struggle to regain his memory, to the profound experience of learning how to walk again when his then-infant daughter was also learning to walk for the first time, to, yes, his intense desire to masturbate while hospitalized.

In the special, Morgan recalls that after hearing the full scope of his injuries—cracked ribs, a shattered femur, every bone in his face broken and the coma—his response to doctors was, “Is my dick OK?”

Laughing about the joke while we speak in the hotel, Morgan swiftly, much as he does in his special, moves from brash comedy about the mechanics of hospital masturbation to a sober, earnest monologue about what he’s learned about himself since the accident.

“Listen, I had to grow up, man,” he says. “Only kids do shit like that.”

“But you gotta understand, I had a serious brain injury, so my brain was rebooting,” explains. “Literally rebooting. I would have dreams about shit from when I was three. When you get TBI, traumatic brain injury, it has to reboot like a computer. For months I was dreaming about shit from when I was eight, when I was ten. I told the doctor, and he told me the brain is starting to reboot.”

Then, maybe the most poignant part of the process: “I had to remember I was funny.”

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Morgan, a large personality on any day, gets particularly intense when talking about his accident and the ways it affected his faith.

At times his eyes widen and he begins to shout when recalling the details of the accident and how hard it’s been to get to a place where he can forgive the driver of the truck. The ribald sense of humor is there—in the special he jokes, “When I was in the wheelchair I still shopped at Walmart; you can’t beat those fucking prices”—but so is a grave seriousness and even an enlightenment that Morgan himself admits catches people off guard.

“We get intense, huh?” he shouts at one point in our conversation. “My interviews get intense! But that’s good.”

He talks about how, while recuperating at the hospital, he became depressed watching his friends and colleagues out in the field, making specials and TV shows, and basically doing what he wanted to do. His wife got fed up and stopped pitying him, pushing him to embark on his comeback.

“In the beginning it was very scary,” he says. “And not just the special.”

There was his first big interview on the Today show almost a full year after his accident. The speech he gave on the Emmys stage a few months later. And, just 15 months after he, in his own words, “saw the white light," returning to host Saturday Night Live. “You don’t know if timing, if the instincts, if the gift is still there. The sense of humor.”

He remembers being “nervous as shit” to host SNL. He went to Lorne Michaels after the dress rehearsal in a panic. He was flubbing lines. Getting confused. Didn’t know if he could do this. He launches into a fantastic Michaels impression as he remembers the SNL honcho’s response: “He said, ‘Tracy, they’re not here because you’re funny. They’re here because they love you.’”

Morgan takes a pause and nods his head as he recounts the exchange. “And that’s when I let go,” he says. “From there it took off. Just being myself on stage. Not worrying about nothing. Because when you worry it takes the place of faith. When you worry it’s because your faith is weak.”

In response to nearly every question I ask about his accident, specifically about finding humor in everything we went through, Morgan brings up his faith. In some ways, he even seems to feel like this was something that was meant to happen to him, something he needed to go through in order to refocus his life.

“I had some growing to do,” Morgan says. “And God has a funny way of showing you. ‘I’m going to slow you down and sit you down for a year. And you’re going to grow.’ And that’s what happened.”

“Listen, without struggle there is no progress,” he continues. “As a human being I feel like I made a lot of progress. The humility. The humanity. The humbleness. You ever get hit by a fucking 18 wheeler? You know how humbling that could be? You ever lost your friend? To come back and survive something like that and be funny and be sane, you have to praise God for that. Who knows, man, what I was heading to? God is a genius. He’s got a way with pit stops.”

He’s found a renewed sense of purpose, raising his daughter and making sure he doesn’t mess up his second marriage—to Megan Wollover, who is 18 years his junior—like he did his first. But he also sees his comedy and even his celebrity now in the service of others.

That’s true when he is out in public and other people who endured traumatic accidents seek him out to talk about the experience. (Just the night before, while eating at P.F. Chang’s, a man who spent four months in the hospital following an accident came up to him. “I hugged him and said, ‘I love you. Your room wasn’t ready. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.’”)

But he also sees the stand-up stage as a platform God has put him on to tell audiences they need to love each other now when it counts.

“Listen, my interpretation of love is different from others,” he says. “My interpretation of love is acts of service. So if I’m making your ass laugh I’m in service to you.”

Almost involuntarily, I grin and chuckle. “See that smile just now?” he says. “That’s my service to you.”