Sad circumstances have forced “Saturday Night Live” to offer too many bittersweet tributes to fallen cast members, from John Belushi to Jan Hooks, during its 40-year history. But Saturday’s installment marked an uplifting “SNL” first: the return of a show alum who battled back from the brink of death to make us laugh again.
Tracy Morgan capped his comeback from near-fatal injuries he suffered in a June 2014 auto accident to deliver a hosting performance that, in keeping with his scattershot, unpredictable comedy approach, traveled a labyrinthine route – with stops at poignant, irreverent and inspiring – on the way to funny.
“I’m so lucky I have my comedy family,” Morgan declared in his opening monologue.
That comedy family included his own “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” producer Lorne Michaels, the current “SNL” cast and Morgan’s “30 Rock” co-stars, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Jane Krakowski and Jack McBrayer, who showed up for reunion skit. Other surprise guests included Larry David, playing vocal doppelganger Bernie Sanders, and an antsy camel named Elizabeth – both of whom threatened to upstage Morgan.
But it was clearly Morgan’s show from the opening monologue, which he started by offering stilted thanks in a monotone voice that suggested he hadn’t fully recovered from brain trauma. “Nah, I’m just playing,” the 46-year-old comedian said, quickly shifting into more familiar tones.
The bit, in dubious taste or otherwise, dissipated any tension surrounding the long-awaited moment – signaling that the old Tracy Morgan was back and determined to defy tragedy with humor both edgy and self-deprecating.
“People are wondering, ‘Can he speak? Does he have 100 percent mental capacity?,’” Morgan said. “But the truth is, I never did. I might actually be a few points higher now!”
He scored points throughout the show, with the revival of his shouting, over-enthusiastic animal lover Brian Fellows (“I’m Brian Fellows!”) and his lonely and libidinous stranded spaceman, Astronaut Jones. Morgan gelled well with the current cast – going face-to-face with Taran Killam, playing a tough guy who wants to dance the tango, and tangling with Leslie Jones in a “Family Feud” takeoff.
Morgan ended his performance surrounded by his comedy family, along with wife and toddler daughter, on the stage at 30 Rockefeller Plaza’s Studio 8H where he got his big break nearly 20 years ago. Unlike many family reunions, Tracy Morgan’s homecoming proved a triumph – a tribute to his grit, talent and spirit that spurred hopes for more visits to more stages by this resilient son of “SNL.”
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.