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The history of Saturday Night Live is filled with African-American performers who failed to make much of an impact on the venerable comedy institution, but subsequently went on to much greater success, from future superstars Damon Wayans and Chris Rock to rock-solid comic character actor Tim Meadows. But few black SNL alumni blossomed as spectacularly or unexpectedly as Tracy Morgan, who morphed into a lunatic comic genius on 30 Rock, playing a hard-living movie-star-turned-sketch-actor who's part Martin Lawrence, part fearless self-parody. In a cast filled with brilliant comic performers, Morgan tends to get the biggest, most consistent laughs, and his eminently quotable bits have become catchphrases, like "Live every week like it's Shark Week," "mind grapes," and "I love cornbread so much, I want to take it behind a middle school and get it pregnant."
Morgan's 30 Rock buzz has helped secure him some high-profile film work as well. He co-starred with Ice Cube in the churchy broad comedy First Sunday and plays a prominent role in David O. Russell's disaster-plagued upcoming satire Nailed. He's also, curiously enough, hosting the new season of SCI FI's horror prank show Scare Tactics. The A.V. Club recently spoke briefly with the actor and comic about pranking and getting pranked, playing a character whose asshole falls off, and returning to Saturday Night Live to endorse Barack Obama.
The A.V. Club: How did you become involved with Scare Tactics?
Tracy Morgan: Oh, you know, I was always a fan of it. I watched it. I love it. And besides, they called my people and they asked me, would I do it? And I said, "Absolutely, yes." Cause I'm a big fan of The Twilight Zone, too, so I see that as running along the same lines. So this was my chance, my opportunity, to be like Rod Serling.
AVC: What did you like about the show?
TM: It's funny. It's fun to watch other people get frightened like that. It's fun. It's not happening to me. [Laughs.] I enjoy watching it. It's great entertainment. It's good TV.
AVC: How do you see this incarnation of Scare Tactics being different from the older ones?
TM: Well, I can't say now. We just have to wait for the results, you know? We just hope that the people love it. I don't want to prejudge it or anything, but we have to wait for the people to watch it, and enjoy it, and love it.
AVC: One of Scare Tactics' signatures is that they exploit people's worst fears. What are you afraid of?
TM: What am I afraid of? The IRS. That's it. I don't want those people knockin' on my door, man.
AVC: Is that something you're worried about?
TM: No. But I just never know. People make mistakes. There's writing errors, there's typos, and you know, you don't want them knockin' on your door.
AVC: Are you a fan of prank shows in general?
TM: Yeah. Well I was a part of Crank Yankers, so it was an opportunity to be a part of that again.
AVC: And you got punked on Punk'd.
TM: Yeah, I don't know why that happened to me. So it was my chance, my opportunity to get back at people.
AVC: What was it like getting punked yourself?
TM: Well, it was real! I didn't know what was happening. And then when I realized that I was being punked, I was happy. It was great TV. An opportunity for my fans and people out there to see that I'm human too. It was a chance for them to see that the crazy things that happen in this world can happen to you, too.
AVC: For people who haven't see that episode of Punk'd, could you talk a little bit about what happened and how they set you up?
TM: Well I parked my car in the Valley, and then when I came out, they said that my car was being towed like four hours away to a tow-in. And they rolled my window down and put fake glass in it and made it seem like it was real. It was real elaborate. They set me up good.
AVC: How much of Crank Yankers was improvised, and how much was written?
TM: It was all improvised. It was all improvised. It was all me. We called people, we dialed the phone, they'd answer, and I took over.
AVC: Was there a lot of the real Tracy Morgan in the character Spoonie Luv?
TM: No, that's not Tracy Morgan. That was just a character I was playing. I don't get on the phone and prank people and things like that on the phone with people, no.
AVC: Did you ever feel bad for the people you were pranking?
TM: No, man! It's a TV show. It's a prank! Why would I get emotional about things? That's just a TV show. It's fun. Why would I feel bad or guilty about anything? It's just a TV show. Those people are on Crank Yankers. They were famous for a little while. We gave them their little 15 minutes in the spotlight.
AVC: You're scheduled to play a major role in Nailed, David O. Russell's next film. What's your character like?
TM: Well, I play a guy that has an anal prolapse. And we're like a political version of The Wizard Of Oz. And I'm like the lion, and Jessica Biel is Dorothy, and Kurt Fuller is the Tin Man. And we just head off to the government to get health care for everybody. [Laughs.] All three of us have health problems, health issues, and we couldn't get health care. So we travel to the government to get health care. And things happen along the way.
AVC: What is an anal prolapse?
TH: It's where your asshole falls out. When you push too hard, it prolapses, it falls out. I'm lifting weights and I happen to catch a prolapse. Yeah. If you go online, you can see it. It's really crazy.
AVC: So are you trying to get a new asshole? Is that what your character is seeking?
TM: Yeah, I want 'em to fix it.
AVC: Did you do a lot of research into anal prolapses for the role?
TM: No, dude! No, my asshole's never really popped out. [Laughs.] It's a character, dude.
AVC: David O. Russell is known for having unconventional working methods. Did you find that to be the case when you were working on Nailed?
TM: Yeah, he can be. But we all had the same goal in common. We all want great stuff. It's a great movie at the end of the day, so we didn't mind. We went along with it, his methods. We went along with everything he's doing. We know he's a genius, and that was all that mattered.
AVC: What did you do during the writers' strike? How did you fill the days?
TM: I felt bad because it meant that everybody wasn't working. But it needed to be done, and I just hit the road and started doing stand-up. That's it.
AVC: As a performer, what do you get out of stand-up that you don't necessarily get from acting?
TM: Stand-up is my foundation. That's where it started at. And I love it because it's personal. It's mine. It's all me. It's my experience in life. So I get to share with my audience. So I can be Tracy Morgan from day to day.
AVC: You recently retuned to Saturday Night Live to do your "black is the new president, bitch" thing on Weekend Update. How did that come about?
TM: Lorne Michaels called me and asked me to do it, and we did it, we wrote it, and it was great. And it was my chance to endorse my candidate, Obama, cause of his policies and everything. I was glad to be able to plug it.
AVC: What was Tina Fey's response?
TM: She loved it. Tina Fey's my sister. She loved it. She thought it was brilliant.
AVC: One of the running jokes on 30 Rock is Tracy Jordan's films. If you could star in any of Tracy Jordan's films, which would it be?
TM: Who Dat Ninja. 'Cause he's an action figure. He's action!
AVC: Is that something you'd like to do more in the future? Is that a genre that appeals to you?
TM: Yeah! I would love to try that genre. I would love to try action films.
AVC: You had a little bit of that in Superhero Movie.
TM: I think I got a little G.I. Joe inside of me. I think I could get in shape. Take a month off and get in shape and get ready for it.
AVC: Of the films you've appeared in, which are you proudest of?
TM: Well, I wouldn't leave none of 'em out. I love all of 'em. But I love First Sunday, 'cause I love Ice Cube and I got to work with him. I'm a big Ice Cube fan. I love David Talbert, so I just got to work with my favorites.
AVC: That was one of the only films where you've had a lead role. Is that something that appeals to you?
TM: Well, I have a lead role in this David O. Russell movie. And I had a lead role in a couple other movies, but that was my favorite.
AVC: Tracy Jordan has some of the most quotable dialogue in television history. Is there a specific Tracy Jordan line you're particularly fond of?
TM: Yes. "I wanna take it out behind that middle school and get it pregnant."
AVC: Why do you think that line has taken off the way it has?
TM: Because I love the word "pregnant." The word "pregnant" is funny.
AVC: Do you get people quoting dialogue to you on the street?
TM: That's awesome! It's just, people recognize you for your work, you know? They love you for your work, and they judge you for your work. It's awesome to have people quoting you. I love it.
AVC: There's a great 30 Rock scene where Alec Baldwin is acting out all the different roles in your life: He's your mother, he's your father, he's all these different things. You're playing the straight man and he's doing crazy voices. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like filming that particular scene?
TM: Just me and Alec having fun. You know, I love Alec. Alec loves me. That's my boy, and we were just sitting down having fun with it, you know? We just relaxed. I love working with Alec Baldwin. He's one of the five greatest actors ever to live.