Tracy Morgan is explaining his comedy universe as only he can.
"I'm the Luke Skywalker of comedy!" he shouts by phone from his home in New Jersey, as his 3-year-old daughter, Maven, plays in the background. "Richard Pryor's Obi-Wan Kenobi! Eddie Murphy's the Jedi master, Yoda! Saturday Night Live was the Dagobah system! That's where the training went down!"
Okay, so in this scenario, who is Princess Leia?
"Who's Leia? My wife, of course! She called me a scruffy-looking nerf herder last night!"
Ah, it's good to hear that mad, manic voice again.
Five years ago, I interviewed the Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock star by phone before a concert in Tampa. It was a wonderful interview, one of those epic conversations that bounced up, down and all over the comic's wild psyche. He sounded then just like he does today: Open, playful, confrontational, hilarious, even a little spiritual.
But life has completely flipped since then for Morgan, who performs Friday at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. In 2014, he and some friends were returning from a gig in Dover, Del., when a Walmart semitrailer truck collided with their bus, killing one passenger, injuring several others and putting Morgan into a coma. Morgan and the others settled with Walmart for millions, but for a while, his comedy career looked very much over.
Last fall, however, Morgan returned to TV to host Saturday Night Live; his winning performance was nominated for an Emmy. He has films in the works with Ice Cube (Fist Fight) and Ed Helms (Tag), and is shooting a TBS sitcom with Jordan Peele. And he has embarked on his largest standup tour since the accident, which he speaks about freely on stage.
"The two biggest car accidents in history were mine and Princess Diana's," he says. "Everybody else around me is curious about it, so as long as they ask me about it, I'm gonna talk about it."
The tour, which will be documented in a forthcoming Netflix special titled Stayin' Alive, recently brought him back to Dover Downs, the venue he played the night of the crash.
"I was happy to be back and finish the job," he says. "People welcomed us with open arms, and it was really emotional. … I felt very fortunate to be back there, and the one that we lost, he was there with us, too."
Thursday is Morgan's 48th birthday. No longer the wild man who wanted to take the world around the back of a middle school and get it pregnant, he says he just wants to celebrate quietly, "something simple at my house with my family."
"I feel supreme," he said. "I love the age that I'm at. I love the things that I know. I love the life that I've lived. I don't live with regrets. I love it. I'm sitting here playing with my daughter, relaxing, not anxious about my birthday. I don't do the foolish things others do — they get sad, they get depressed. I've lived the life I've lived. I'm looking forward to being with you guys. I don't take this for granted."
The feeling is mutual. In preparation for our interview, I dug up my old 2011 chat with Morgan. Funny thing about that interview: It never actually saw the light of day. A week before Morgan was set to play Tampa, the gig was canceled due to a schedule conflict. The story's been sitting on my hard drive ever since.
But with everything Morgan's been through, I pulled it back up. I want to hear how different Tracy today is from Tracy back then, so I ask if I can read him a few quotes. Turns out he's into it.
"Some people ask stupid questions, they get stupid answers," he says. "You seem like a very insightful and engaging person to me, with stimulating conversations and stimulating questions. And I love that."
Aw, shucks, Tracy. It's good to have you back.
I don't remember you ever breaking character on SNL.
It's no secret, just discipline. Growing up in the ghetto, you have to master your poker face. You have to master your bluff. Sometimes the bullies could be really mean in the schoolyard, so you mask all of that stuff.
You've had to let the real Tracy come out in different ways over the last five years. Do you still put up a good poker face to the world?
I'm a different person than I was five years ago. I'm a different person than I was in the schoolyard. I don't feel the need to have a poker face, because I'm not in that position anymore. You'll know how I feel, emotionally, psychologically. I'm evolving. I was 180 degrees from good. I'm all good now.
I'm a different person than when I did that interview with you. I'm a different person than I was five seconds ago. You're a different person, because you know a lot more about me now than you did before this phone call. So we're all that and then some now.
You've had a lot of drama the last couple of years — you've been divorced, you've had a kidney transplant, you've had health problems.
Life is all about crisis management. We all have crises, but we manage them. And I think I'm doing well, with the kidney transplant, with the divorce, with everything. I think I'm handling all of it great. The success, the failures, everything.
It's funny —the things we were talking about five years ago, we're no longer talking about.
Now we're talking about how it feels to get hit by a f---ing truck. Things change.
Is your standup stream-of-consciousness, or do you have a set?
Sure, it's stream of consciousness! I'm in the moment constantly. Buddha says stay in the moment, so I'm staying in the moment. I have an idea of what I might want to talk about, but anything can happen, from right now to the time they say, "Give it up for Tracy Morgan!" and I touch the mic.
Is that still how you approach standup?
That's still how I approach life. Anything can happen, dude. I was coming home from work that night. Next thing I know, I was waking up out of a coma. That's a moment that I'll never remember.
You never see me writing nothing down. But you always see me with a set on stage. That's the difference between being talented and being gifted. You got a talent, you gotta go work on your talent. But when you got a gift, that's a gift."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.