Saturday Night Live can be funny. It can be important. It can be anarchic. It can be a cultural mirror and a bullshit barometer, irreverent, skeptical, and silly. But when it’s at its best, it is emotional. Triumphant even.
Without a doubt, that’s what SNL was this Saturday night, welcoming former star Tracy Morgan back to its stage a little more than a year after a tragic car accident that left him in a coma, with a traumatic brain injury, and fighting for his life.
As Morgan’s doctor, Dr. Brian Greenwald, told me back in August when it was announced that Morgan would be returning to Studio 8H, it was nothing short of “a miracle” that he would recover to the point of being able to perform on SNL—an exhausting, daunting comedy challenge that has sunk some of the most talented performers in Hollywood even at the top of their game.
The weight of that brought extra attention to Saturday’s episode, and also a curiosity to see how Morgan would fare—whether his health was up for a night of spryly reading cue cards, keeping up energy, and keeping comic timing.
The moment also brought the likes of Morgan’s 30 Rock co-stars Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Jane Krakowski, and Jack McBrayer to the real 30 Rock to give Morgan a helping hand, not that he needed it as Morgan, despite his precarious health, did just as much—if not more—heavy lifting as is typically required of an SNL host.
The monumental nature of his recovery combined with the nostalgia of some of his best characters returning made for an air of pure happiness that lit a fire under the SNL players to produce what was the best episode of the season thus far.
Larry David was there as Bernie Sanders, the most brilliant piece of casting since Tina Fey as Sarah Palin. Fey was roasting Playboy on Weekend Update. Iconic Tracy Morgan characters Brian Fellows, Woodrow, and Astronaut Jones all featured in sketches. There was a camel in 30 Rock.
It was fantastic. And so was Tracy.
There was, understandably, much hand-wringing over whether he’d have the chops he used to have, the energy to last 90 minutes doing rapid-fire sketch comedy, or the smarts and quick wit it takes to star on SNL. “The truth is I never did,” Morgan joked during his opening monologue, for which he received a standing ovation from the audience in the rafters. “I may actually be a few points higher now.”
His monologue promptly addressed his return and recovery. “I’m back. It feels so good to be here,” he said. He acknowledged his comedy family. “It showed me how much love and support I have in this world.” He thanked his “Obi Wan Kenobi, Lorne Michaels,” who he said he called to ask for permission to return to the stage and prove that he was rehabilitated.
Mostly, he was. He read cue cards better than, say, Lindsay Lohan or January Jones did in recent years. There were a few slurred words and mispronunciations—a few botched attempts to say “prophetic” most glaring—but he otherwise pulled everything off with the rough-around-the-edges expertise you expect from Tracy Morgan. Maybe a little bit of the polish was gone, but he never seemed particularly disoriented, or struggling, or sluggish.
Hell, he even sang a song, as adorable homeless hero Woodrow, with Kenan Thompson on Weekend Update, led a sketch that was basically a full-fledged musical production number, and tangoed. “Everything’s going to be fine,” he told the audience at the end of his monologue, which included a reunion of the 30 Rock cast reenacting a fake plot in which his character, Tracy Jordan, almost died in 2012. “So let’s be funny.”
That mission was specifically accomplished during the return of his beloved Brian Fellows sketch.
Brian Fellows was glorious.
I remember watching Morgan do Brian Fellows, a sassy and clueless animal expert and host of a cable access nature talk show, oh, about 15 years ago and laughing harder than I ever have in my life. I have no idea what makes this sketch so funny. I’m certain it has to do with that signature Tracy Morgan thing, where he makes every outlandish tick and absurd behavior of his characters so earnest and convincing that the only reaction is to laugh.
The way he channels Brian Fellows’s indignance and colors it with infantile immaturity and deluded confidence creates this hilarious, utterly weird cocktail that was so regularly served during Morgan’s turn-of-the-millennium run on the show. There was a proud quirk to the show then that gave it a vibrancy it’s been missing a bit in the years since. One “That’s crazy!” from Brian Fellows and we’re transported back to that brilliant time.
And then the camel entered. Dear god, there was a camel in Studio 8H. There was a camel on the set of Saturday Night Live for a Brian Fellows sketch, and that camel didn’t behave. It made for one of the best botched sketches the show has ever produced, with the camel defiantly meandering into the camera shot, in front of the cue cards, doing anything but standing still to the point that Morgan, in character, bellows, “I can’t see, camel!”
From the camel casting to the star-studded cameos, there was so much bombast and enthusiasm surrounding Morgan’s return that by the time he participated in an absurdist sketch titled, “Yo! Where’s Jackie Chan Right Now?” we expected Jackie Chan to show up, too. (He didn’t.)
When we talked to Morgan’s doctor back in August, he told us, “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]. Based on my own experience of him sitting there and making him 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.”
It’d be a lie to say that Morgan didn’t look ever so slightly not himself, as understandable as ever considering the bleak prognosis after his accident. But his sense of humor and his passion for making us laugh was stronger than ever. For a fan of SNL, it was so much fun to watch.
So in the words of Woodrow, Tracy, “Take a doo-doo pie. I love you.”