For his 2014 Comedy Central stand-up special, Bona Fide, Tracy Morgan took the stage at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn with a mic stand and an all-black, upholstered chair. His movements were quick, his reactions quicker, and his speech timed much in the same way 30 Rock and SNL fans have come to know and love. On Sunday, the stage at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre, where Morgan held three shows for his new Picking Up the Pieces tour, looked a lot like Bona Fide. A mic stand and another upholstered chair, albeit a white one, occupied center stage with a black stool. Yet when Morgan came out to a standing ovation, the chair and the stand’s true functions became apparent.
The 47-year-old comedian needed somewhere to sit for most of his hour-long set, and whenever he stood to emphasize a joke or a gesture, he could lean his weight on the stool. Sixteen months after a car accident on the New Jersey Turnpike left comedian James “Uncle Jimmy Mack” McNair dead and Morgan in critical condition, Morgan returned to the stage for the first and second times at New York’s Comedy Cellar and The Stand comedy clubs last October. Soon after, he announced the Picking Up the Pieces tour, which would begin in New Jersey in February and eventually spread across the country with additional dates and locations. By the time Morgan reached Boston the third weekend of February, where I caught up with him, the SNL alum had already performed several shows in Atlantic City, North Carolina and, Vermont. With more performances currently scheduled through May 28, Morgan and his openers will be keeping busy.
As any working comic will admit, new material takes a great deal of time and practice to craft what (they hope) will become a perfect tour. Morgan must contend with this aspect of the routine like anyone else, yet he also has other obstacles to overcome as his recovery remains an ongoing process. Aside from numerous rounds of rehabilitation for severe physical trauma, he’s also seen dramatic improvements after suffering a debilitating brain injury. Morgan was also in a coma for quite some time after the June 2014 accident, and his doctors initially didn’t think he’d ever perform again as a result. Yet just over a year and a half after the incident, there he was — making everyone in the 1,200-capacity venue laugh for the third show in a row.
Not that any of this was easy for him. Hence the constant sitting and leaning. Unlike Bona Fide and past stand-up specials, Morgan in Picking Up the Pieces isn’t quite the same comedian fans were first introduced to when he joined SNL in 1996. He’s far less physical than he used to be, and the snappy timing he once employed with ease now comes at a much more deliberate pace. Viewers were first treated to this new Morgan at his surprise Emmys appearance and his subsequent turn as the host of SNL. Post-accident Morgan has to be much more careful than he used to be. That being said, none of this proves detrimental to his stand-up.
Morgan is fully aware of his new operating procedures, and he uses them to his full advantage. As he wrote for WhoSay in early February, “I’ve used comedy to deal with anything that’s come my way. I figure it’s why God gave me my sense of humor. After all, if you don’t laugh, you’re going to cry.” He continued:
“So I decided to go back on tour. Even after everything I’ve been through, all those hardships, I knew it was time to go out there and feel the pulse of the people. And being back on that stage again? Ah, man, it’s like the first day I lost my virginity. Just incredible. It’s like a rebirth.”
A rebirth it most definitely is, though much of what made Morgan funny before is still present. His vulgar language, focus on sex, and penchant for outlandish storytelling are all very much a part of what will make Picking Up the Pieces a fantastic stand-up special once all the kinks are worked out. Morgan even joked about the process while on stage, tossing the first of two crinkled pieces of paper onto the floor and saying, “Everything on that one seemed to work!”
They did, especially whenever Morgan tied his comedy back to his first waking moments after coming out of the coma. The new hour doesn’t revolve entirely around the accident, but the comedian does spend a lot of time talking about the recovery process. It’s a serious topic, but because it’s being addressed by the same man who regularly jokes about getting everyone pregnant, the delivery takes the form of jokes. These include bits his grandmother praying over him and Morgan jerking off in his hospital bed due to boredom. Despite his obvious physical ailments and mental pauses, however, Morgan’s strongest quality never falters: his blunt honesty. Audiences respond to comic truthfulness, and Morgan doesn’t shy away from it now any more than before.
So, it came as no surprise when, after a few impromptu jokes with and jabs at the audience after their standing ovation for him, Morgan sauntered over to his chair and muttered into the mic, “We all know I got hit by that f*cking Wal-Mart truck.” The laughs were loud then, but they gradually morphed into admiration when Morgan changed his tone on the matter towards the end of the hour. With time, he said, he’d forgiven the Wal-Mart driver for everything. It was time to move on, and for everyone else to follow his lead.