October 6, 2003
Making his presence felt through his absence

Still waiting for "Nummer and H-Bomb" of Whatevs to do their Saturday Night Live wrap up for this week's season premiere, but I've been thinking about it and I have a couple of opinions. Mostly opinions about what's missing, more specifically, opinions about how Tracy Morgan is missing.

Friends know that I am a Tracy Morgan fan like no other. I really feel like he's some sort of comedic savant, a sui generis talent like Andy Kaufman who can't easily be fit into the confines of a poorly-written six minute sketch. While SNLers like Darrel Hammond or Chris Parnell are smart, workmanlike mimics and straight men, Tracy is—quite literally—comedy: he moves comedy, he talks comedy, he thinks comedy, and while I try not contemplate the gastrointestinal goings-on of celebrities, I'm sure he shits comedy regularly.

Yes, he flubs lines. Yes, he does that annoying Brian Fellows character. (Incidentally, was Antoine "That tiger's crazy!" Yates a Fellow's fan?) But this is a guy who took the SNL role with the least juice possible (token Black guy) and grew over several seasons into a confident, hilarious central cast member. SNL has a pretty weak legacy writing characters and scenes for Black cast members (I guess those Harvard Lampoon writers on staff don't know too many African Americans), so to see someone like Tracy flaunt his considerable gifts in that lily-white context is impressive indeed.

Tracy provided the show with the very real (and very funny) frisson of race and masculinity. In a cast full of overgrown manboys like Jimmy Fallon and the mercifully-retired Chris Kattan, Tracy could be counted on to bring power and menace to his roles. Tracy was a man among a cast with nary a chest hair among them (except for Horatio Sanz, who also brings ample back hair) and because of that, he stood head and shoulders above the rest. Some might say Tracy relied too heavily on racial stereotypes for his humor (he certainly was fond of pretending to hit on white women hosts like Charlize Theron or Julia Stiles), but those who say that miss the point entirely: when Tracy entreated the "thick" NBC page to holla back, or (with Tim Meadows) played one of the most menacing Harvard-educated lawyers in the world, he was subverting and reconfiguring the racial stereotypes that have constrained Black comics from Steppin' Fetchit up through Martin Lawrence and making them mere playthings for his imagination. No stereotypes could contain Tracy; no reductive interpretation could trap him.

Sometimes when I see Tracy, I think of something Norman Mailer wrote about Muhammad Ali in The Fight:
[He] played with punches, was tender with them, laid them on as delicately as you put a postage stamp on an envelope, then cracked them in like a riding crop across your face, stuck a cruel jab like a baseball bat held head on into your mouth.

Replacing Tracy on SNL is a guy named Finesse, but no one embodies that word better than Tracy. Without him, SNL will be so much the worse. But, good news is on the horizon: Tracy is currently developing a midseason sitcom for NBC loosely-based on his own life. Here's hopping he doesn't go all soft in the middle like the once raw and deleriously funny Eddie Murphy: I don't think I could take it if Tracy starred in the sequel to Daddy Day Care.

Earler SNL thoughts on low culture

Posted in a Shallow fashion.

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