Tracy Morgan is heading home.
Just over one year since the June 2014 fatal car accident that left the comedian in a coma and took the life of his friend James “Jimmy Mack” McNair, it was announced that the star will host the October 17 episode of Saturday Night Live, the late-night sketch series that made Morgan a household name.
It’s a testament to the remarkable and also unlikely success of his treatment and recovery that, after such a traumatic brain injury and bleak initial prognosis, he will be well enough to go live from Studio 8H just two months from now. “It’s a miracle, really,” Dr. Brian Greenwald, Morgan’s brain doctor, tells The Daily Beast.
Dr. Greenwald is the medical director at the JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute in Edison, New Jersey, where Morgan was taken two weeks after the June 7 crash last year. He was in a coma at the time and treated for over a month in the rehabilitation center before continuing his recovery at home.
And Dr. Greenwald has been seeing Morgan once a month for the past year.
“When I started treating Tracy in June 2014, if someone had told me that he’d be on SNL in October of 2015 I would’ve had to look at that with great doubt,” he says. “Unfortunately, so many people don’t recover as well as he does.” Then that word again. “He’s really nothing short of a miracle in general.”
Morgan was traveling from a comedy gig in Delaware when the limousine van he was riding in collided with a Wal-Mart truck on the New Jersey Turnpike, leaving him with a serious brain injury, a broken leg, and broken ribs. He and the crash’s other victims reached a confidential settlement with Wal-Mart in May; a separate wrongful-death claim had already been settled with McNair’s children in January.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the Wal-Mart truck driver had been awake for 28 hours at the time of the crash.
Representatives for Morgan did not return a request for comment for this story, but in his first public interview since the crash last June, Morgan described to Today show host Matt Lauer what had been a long and arduous recovery process.
“There are times when I have my good days and my bad days,” he said at the time, holding a cane to walk and pointing out scars on his forehead. “I’ll forget things. There are times when I get headaches and nosebleeds, and I won’t even let my lady know because I don’t want her to be worried about it.”
Speaking with The Daily Beast, Dr. Greenwald remembers what Morgan was like when he first started treating him.
“He had memory issues. He was agitated at times. He couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t stand by himself. He couldn’t do all the basic tasks by himself,” Dr. Greenwald says. “Now Tracy is driving. Tracy is living with his family and doing things on his own.”
Dr. Greenwald says that returning to the SNL stage had always been a goal of Morgan’s, who gave a tearful thank you to Greenwald and his team during the Today interview. During his conversation with Lauer, Morgan confirmed a desire to return to work, saying, “I love comedy; I’ll never stop loving her. I love comedy and I can’t wait to get back to her.”
But in that interview, which took place two months ago, Morgan also said, “Right now my goal is to heal and get better, because I’m not 100 percent yet, and when I’m there, you’ll know it.”
Does that mean that Morgan is back to 100 percent now, or at least he will be come October when he takes the stage at 30 Rock?
“That’s a hard one to answer,” Dr. Greenwald says. “It’s not like you run a blood test and say, ‘Hmm, is Tracy ready for SNL?’”
He says that Morgan’s quick wit is certainly back. Morgan’s leg was fractured badly and he’s still being photographed with a cane, so he cautions against any sketches that would be too physically demanding, or require lots of walking around the stage.
“To say whether or not he is ready for it is a challenge to figure out, but it’s incredible to see that he’s gotten so far already and that he’s even thinking of doing it so quickly,” Dr. Greenwald says.
Morgan is still very much in the recovery stage, Dr. Greenwald also confirms, reiterating that Morgan himself says that he still doesn’t feel fully back to normal. But he is also not concerned that taking on a task as potentially grueling and taxing as hosting SNL will slow or endanger Morgan’s recovery.
“There’s obviously some risk when you’re taking on something so intense like this,” Dr. Greenwald says. “I think based on where he is in his recovery, though, it’s certainly not unreasonable to try.”
There will be obstacles. Dr. Greenwald cites common memory, fatigue, and mood issues that occur with people with brain injury, while saying that Morgan seems to be doing well on each of those fronts. It may also take extra preparation to ensure that he gets his lines and blocking down. But in the end, Dr. Greenwald couldn’t be more optimistic about Morgan’s SNL homecoming.
“I think it’s likely that us as his fans will not be able to see the difference [between Morgan before the crash and now],” he says. “Based on my own experience of him sitting there and making me laugh for an hour, I think he still has a lot of great talent. Having such a serious injury changes anybody. But as far as professionally, Tracy’s going to do great.”