Two years ago, it seemed almost impossible that Tracy Morgan would ever perform comedy again: on June 7, 2014, he was critically injured in a car crash when a tractor-trailer struck the back of a luxury van he was traveling in.
A fellow passenger, James McNair (known as Jimmy Mack), was killed; three other passengers were injured; and Morgan was airlifted by helicopter to a hospital. A monthslong recovery process followed.
Incredibly, just over a year later, Morgan was back at “Saturday Night Live,” the NBC sketch comedy series where he broke through as a cast member in the late 1990s, hosting its broadcast of Oct. 17, 2015.
He revisited popular “SNL” characters he had performed in the past and reunited with his “30 Rock” co-stars Alec Baldwin, Jane Krakowski, Jack McBrayer and Tina Fey, the “30 Rock” creator and “SNL” alumna.
Morgan recently received an Emmy Award nomination as an outstanding guest actor in a comedy series for the “Saturday Night Live” episode he hosted. In a phone interview, he spoke candidly and emotionally about his road to this moment. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: How are you feeling today?
A: Kind of emotional. Very thankful. Just overwhelmed. I’ve been crying all morning. Because when I got the word, my whole last two years — my whole life, really — just flashed right before me.
It just brought to mind what my family went through, what the doctors went through, what my fans went through. What Jimmy Mack’s family went through. What everybody went through.
It’s been difficult. It’s still overwhelming to me. I’m trying to fight it right now. Win or lose, this one is for Jimmy Mack. This one is for my boy.
Q: What was it like to be asked to come back to host “Saturday Night Live”?
A: It wasn’t even like that. For many years, Lorne Michaels is like a dad to me. That’s just the way our relationship is. The minute it happened, Lorne called my wife a million times to see what was going on. He’s always been there for me.
I remember being in my car one day, talking to Lorne Michaels on the phone, and I just broke down and I said, “Lorne, I want to come home.” And he said to me, “The door’s always open.” And a week later, I got the call: You’re hosting on Oct. 17. I love Lorne Michaels like I love my daddy. He’s always taken care of me.
Q: Were you anxious on the night of your show?
A: It felt like the first day I was ever there. I was nervous. When you’re doing the dress rehearsal, there’s a wardrobe person — her name is Donna — she pulls you from set to set, because you have to change.
So I started to get in my own head, and thinking that the audience was looking at me like I was crippled or something was wrong with me. In between dress and air, I spoke to Lorne. I said: “Lorne, I don’t know if I can do this. It seems like the audience is feeling sorry for me.”
He said, “Tracy, they don’t care about the funny — they’re just happy you’re here.” (chokes up) In that moment, I shed my tears, and I said, I’m going to let go. This young cast is giving me 100 percent, and I’m going to give them 150. And we had fun.
Q: You’ve continued to perform standup comedy in clubs and theaters. How has that been going?
A: I just want to spread my love. God gave me a tool to do it, it’s called a sense of humor. You go down to Earth, and you spread your love with your comedy. Now I’m going hard, giving them everything I got, every show. The world that we live in today, we need it. We stop being angry and hateful and just laugh together.
Q: Is there rehabilitation work that you continue to do?
A: Every day. I just got out of the gym with my therapist just now, five minutes ago. Working on my legs. But more than that, it’s my emotions. I realized, and I told my wife, “Baby, that wreck made me an emotional wreck.”
I had to deal with that. People don’t deal with things, and then they explode later. It manifests itself in other ways, like alcohol and drugs. No! I want to deal with it! My sense of humor is my way of dealing with things, so I had to get back onstage.
Q: People sometimes say it’s an honor just to be nominated. I imagine you know what that feels like now?
A: You know, people don’t come back from an accident like that and host “Saturday Night Live” 16 months later. Most people that suffer the injuries we suffered are in vegetative states.
I’m very happy to be alive to see my daughter and my sons grow up. I’m just happy to here.
And for all the comedy gods that came before me, starting with Richard Pryor, Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball, Lenny Bruce, Flip Wilson, Bernie Mac, Robin Williams, Robin Harris, Joan Rivers. All of them. I love you. Please guide us and protect us. As long as I do comedy in the spirit of them, I know I’m protected. For me it is glorious. Thank you.