Everyone was all dressed up, decked out in Oscar de la Renta gowns and Dior tuxes on Sept. 20, the night of the 67th Primetime Emmy Awards. They had all slogged through yet another long show filled with predictable moment after predictable moment. But then there was a surprise: "To present our final award of the evening," host and former SNL cast member Andy Samberg said with glassy eyes, "please welcome back to the stage, for the first time in over a year, our good friend, Tracy Morgan." As he walked out onto the stage, still slightly hobbled, in a merlot tuxedo, all those dressed up stars immediately rose to their feet. Tina Fey teared up. Kerry Washington yelled at the top of her lungs like a 13-year-old at a One Direction concert. And then Tracy Morgan said, "A whole lot of y'all women are gonna get pregnant at the after-party."
In 2015, Tracy Morgan is the only person who can still make this joke and get laughs. It's not because he's been making it for years, and that his impregnation desires extend far beyond women, to things like cornbread and Halo. It's because underneath Morgan's misogyny there's always been a sense of sweetness and silly earnestness. And it's because after nearly losing his life in a car accident, all anyone wants to do is laugh with Tracy Morgan again.
On June 7, 2014, just after 1 a.m., the Mercedes Sprinter bus Morgan and six other people were riding in was struck from behind by a Walmart tractor-trailer, setting off a chain-reaction on the New Jersey Turnpike that resulted in a six-car crash. Morgan was air-lifted to a nearby hospital, having sustained a broken leg and femur, a broken nose, and several broken legs; his longtime friend and collaborator, James McNair, was killed in the crash. The driver of the Walmart vehicle, Kevin Roper, reportedly hadn't slept for over 24 hours. Roper pleaded not guilty to one count of death by auto and four counts of assault by auto—Morgan also filed a civil lawsuit against Walmart for negligence, which has since been settled out of court.
Morgan told Today's Matt Lauer that he was in a coma for two weeks. Several reports said he'd possibly never walk again. "I'm not 100 percent yet. I'm not," Morgan said during that Today interview on June 1, 2015. But then he added, "When I'm there, you'll know. And I'll get back to making you laugh again."
The promos for Morgan's Saturday Night Live hosting gig on Oct. 17, the true signifier of his return to the spotlight, came out on Wednesday. In them, Morgan makes fun of the accident that nearly claimed his life. "I can't remember anymore," he told SNL's Bobby Moynihan, referring to his seven years on the show, before cackling and blurting out, "I'm messing with you Bobby!" Then he promised, "I'm gonna get everyone in this building pregnant."
We need Tracy Morgan. From his guest spots on Martin to 30 Rock to some of notorious appearances on live TV, he's a comedian who's been so true to himself, so devoted to being himself and doing what he thinks is funny, all with the confidence that people would fuck with it, or at least learn to love him. He wasn't a breakout success on SNL, but by the time all was said and done, he had created Astronaut Jones and Brian Fellow, a Top Ten SNL character that only Morgan could pull off. The sentence, "I'm Brian Fellow" isn't inherently funny, but Morgan, with his jaunty exuberance and underlying innocence, makes it legendary. It also helps that as Fellow, "not an accredited zoologist... simply an enthusiastic young man with a sixth grade education," it helps that Fellow wore a lot of lip gloss.
Morgan has had a few run-ins with the law and controversy, but he's never been afraid to make himself the butt of a joke, as seven seasons playing Tracy JORDAN on 30 Rock have proven. When Morgan was required by a judge to wear an alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelet, Tracy Jordan got the same sentence. "Maybe I'll compromise—I'll go to the party, cut off my foot, and drink all I want!" Jordan exclaims in "Ludachristmas." And when Morgan got in hot water—even with his 30 Rock cast mates—for comments he made about gay people during a stand-up set, he let the show turn the controversy into the plot of an episode. In it, Jordan apologized to a customer service employee from Glad, the trash bag company, instead of GLAAD.
"I thought it was hilarious," GLAAD’s Senior Director of Programs Herndon Graddick told the New York Times after the episode aired in 2012.
Morgan is far from perfect, but he's himself, and he's always taken responsibility for the moments when some of his rawer traits have prevailed; he's always let Tina Fey prove him wrong. And no matter what it's been, in everything Morgan has done, there's an overwhelming sense of the joy he gets from being funny. Humor is a defining characteristic for him, and the audience can feel that genuine love he has for making people laugh. "There are some people who the audience is just happy to see them, and you can’t buy that, and you can’t force it," Fey told the Times in 2008. "He’s like a raw piece of wood—there are scratchy parts, and there are splinters coming off it, but you’re seeing its natural beauty."
On Saturday that natural beauty will officially be back (it's really just a kickoff of things to come—Morgan's also set to star in Fistfight with Ice Cube and Charlie Day), very appropriately making his triumphant return on the stage where so many of us came to know and love him. He'll probably do Brian Fellow, maybe we'll even get an Uncle Jemima commercial. It might feel stale, the writing might fail his talent, as SNL has been known to do lately, and he might have to salvage the entire show himself, maybe by taking off his shirt. But that doesn't even matter, because Tracy Morgan will be in front of a camera again, right where he belongs.