The audience at Harlem's Apollo Theater is notoriously, uproariously honest. Performers never wonder if they're liked.
Tracy Morgan, in a black velvet jacket, black silk shirt and jeans, strides across the well-worn floor to a standing ovation.
"The first time I played the Apollo, they booed me," he says. This performance, taped on a mild September night, will be combined with the next night's show for HBO's "Tracy Morgan: Black and Blue," airing Saturday, Nov. 13.
Morgan, 42, immediately mentions that he was Emmy nominated for his role on "30 Rock." He launches into jokes that include cocaine -- maintaining Ben Franklin and Abe Lincoln used -- and segues into a Michael Jackson line. "The day after Michael died, I had on a T-shirt: 'What about Tito?' " He talks about former President George W. Bush (not a fan), the Incredible Hulk ("not a superhero, just a guy with rage") and sex (major fan).Reared in the Bronx, and with a tendency to go off on tangents within tangents, Morgan answers Zap2it questions.
Q: When referring to Obama, you say you're "way blacker than him." You used to smoke Newports, drink Olde English and prefer government cheese. Have to agree about government cheese. What is it that makes it great?
A: Government cheese was the bomb, baby. They shut the program down. You can make all kinds of stuff with government cheese. Cheese in a black household is da bomb. You only need bread and cheese; cut the crime rate in half with free cheese -- pump up people, they'll be too constipated to hold people up. Instead of robbing somebody, they'll be thinking about sitting on the bowl.
Q: I saw you at the Apollo Friday night, and the crowd loved you. Is that a typical reception there?
A: Saturday's show was better. I was much more relaxed. The more, the merrier. I am pretty good in front of a big crowd. One on one, I am not that magnificent. I always get a good reception there because I am home, and there's nothing like playing a home game. I got my professional start on 125th Street (where the Apollo is) 18 years ago. Didn't know how to work the night.
Q: Was it amateur night?
A: It was ego night.
Q: What line won't you cross?
A: Nothing. I am totally uninhibited onstage. The one thing I won't do is engage in idle chitchat. If the conversation is going to move, and as long as it is moving (he's fine). The problem with the world today is there is no dialogue: No dialogue between white people and black people, no dialogue between rich people and poor people.
Q: Are your stories, say one about the disabled girlfriend, based on truth?
A: That was my imagination. I never dealt with anyone like that. The old Tracy Morgan, when I first started, that was with the propeller hat when I first started doing stand-up. Then I became an older man and older adult and more polished, and a lot was based on observation. Things you see and observe every day, you never run out of material. That writer's block crap is crap.
Q: Who influenced you as a comedian?
A: Many people, growing up in the projects, and my father. And then you had Richard Pryor and Eddie (Murphy) and Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason, after my father and uncles. Family on both sides is very funny. My father was Richard Pryor funny. All I understand is from me, me manifesting my pain and observations.
Q: Do you need to be upset to make something funny?
A: No. Comedy is a manifestation, like a reflex. You could talk about the joy, you could make fun of the joy, like the joy and sunshine you need to make a flower grow.
Q: What was your worst stand-up experience?
A: I have always approached it that even if I got booed, I loved it as long as the audience got off. If they booed me, you think I am funny. I got booed one time when I started, and that was funny, too, because I went down in flames. It was just a fight.I can react to a boo. I can fire back, and when they don't get it that hurts. Silence is deafening to a comic. That means they don't even understand what I am saying.
Q: Did you get in trouble at school?
A: I was always in trouble.
Q: Do you change your jokes depending on where you are working?
A: No, never compromise.
Q: Has anyone in your life complained about being in the show?
A: No. I never put anyone directly in the show. I never say my sons' names. Not my ex-wife's name.
Q: What were the circumstances of meeting President Obama?
A: The correspondents' dinner.
Q: Did you also meet Colin Powell and actually ask if he was your dad?
Q: What was his reaction?
A: He ran from me.
Q: Does the president have a sense of humor?
A: I didn't get to speak to him. But he knew my name and said, "Hi, Tracy." I started crying.
Q: What are some of your goals?
A: To change the world, because I don't have nothing to lose.