Tracy Morgan doesn’t seem to mind talking about his rough personal history, including his youthful days as a crack dealer and his 2014 multi-car accident that killed longtime friend and collaborator James McNair, 62. After that, Morgan went through extensive rehab for a traumatic brain injury. He says he’s fit now for the rigors of a sitcom schedule.
“You understand, I took a pretty bad bump on the head. My brain was rebooting for a year. Then it came to me,” he says of his new TBS comedy, “The Last O.G.” “I went through hell. But I didn’t come back empty-handed. I came back with ‘The Last O.G.’ ”
For years before the accident, Morgan had mulled a sitcom about someone returning home from prison. It took shape during his recovery, then crystallized after pitching it to Jordan Peele. Peele and co-creator John Carcieri took that seed — and many of Morgan’s actual experiences — and grew it into “The Last O.G.”
In the show, Tray Barker (Morgan) is plucked from a happy existence with his girlfriend, Shay (Tiffany Haddish), when he’s caught selling crack and sent up for a 15-year bid. Tray returns to his much-changed neighborhood to find Shay married to Josh (Ryan Gaul), a white man, and raising twins that Tray didn’t know he’d fathered. The show is populated with representations of people Morgan knew growing up.
“We all know these people. Not just in my life. You know these people. It’s a show about society,” he says, emphatically. “These are real people; it’s a real series. Funny yet grounded. And kind.”
Its compassion lends “Last O.G.” its unusual, seriocomic tone. When the cast starts with him and Haddish, then adds Cedric the Entertainer as the obnoxious honcho of Tray’s halfway house and Allen Maldonado as Tray’s enthusiastic and dim cousin Bobby, the show is going to be funny. But there are also uncomfortable depictions of the struggles of ex-cons.
In one episode, Shay tries hard to be a good daughter at her estranged mother’s funeral, only to be mercilessly ripped into by her family. It seems extreme, but Morgan insists, “Come on, man, I’m trying to tell you, this ... is ripped right out of my life. That’s what it is in my community. Poverty, frustration in these intimate spaces? People get emotional at black funerals, man.”
Having emerged from the time capsule of prison, Tray has become a wise, living link to the past. O.G. (Original Gangster) figures from Morgan’s life inspired Tray’s transformation, including the late McNair.
“He was older than us, he had more experience. He had more knowledge, wisdom and understanding, and he would bless us all with that. That’s what makes you an O.G.,” says Morgan. “My father was my first O.G. He gives you the knowledge of self.”
In one episode, Tray’s son, Shazad (Dante Hoagland), gets in trouble for bringing nunchaku to school. Tray spends the day calmly teaching him the error of his ways. The real-life incident that inspired that plot went differently.
In real life, Morgan brought his father’s gun to school.
“He got some boxing gloves, some headgear and all that, took me down to Yankee Stadium, and he whupped my ass,” says Morgan. “ ‘Could have killed somebody. Could have killed yourself. And I’ll kill you myself before I give you to the system.’
“It wasn’t even the beating that hurt me; it was the fact that I’d disappointed my dad. I loved my dad. He died in ’87.”
Morgan, a veteran of “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock,” makes clear, though, that the character expresses just one aspect of who the actor is.
“Tray Barker is part of Tracy Morgan. Just like Tracy Jordan was a different part of Tracy Morgan,” he says, comparing his “Last O.G.” role to his wacky “30 Rock” character. He smiles broadly: “A diamond has many different sides.”
Jordan was “The drinking guy. The guy who got two DUIs. The ‘Saturday Night’ party guy. Doing live television is like being shot out of a cannon. Then there’s a party. In this, it’s Tracy Morgan before Tracy Jordan, in the ‘80s, when crack was running wild.”
He reminisces about his best friend, Alan, in those days before “SNL.”
Alan was “my crack-dealing partner. He got murdered. Maybe, what, 19? I was 20, 21. We were selling crack. He went across the street; he and another guy got into it, got shot and killed him. That was common in our community.”
He turns thoughtful, speaking forcefully about how people who’ve been convicted of nonviolent crimes can’t be thrown away.