Tracy Morgan cries for his mom -- and we cry, too

The zany "30 Rock" comedian breaks down in tears on NPR's "Fresh Air." Is there a punch line in that?

By Jami Attenberg

Published October 23, 2009 2:24PM (EDT)

Twelve minutes into his "Fresh Air" interview yesterday, "30 Rock's" Tracy Morgan was in tears. The rambunctious, notoriously volatile Morgan had been recalling his troubled childhood in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. -- he was both wistful and angry talking about his father, who returned after five tours of duty in Vietnam with a heroin addiction he eventually kicked -- but the conversation turned painfully emotional when Morgan explained how he left his mother to live with his dad, returning a year later to get his siblings.

“It was a terrible situation,” said Morgan. “It wasn’t my mother’s fault. Something just went off on me. I wanted better for me. That was the hardest day of my life, and I heard my mother cry. It just broke me down, and I think about it now. I never meant to hurt my mother.” Morgan’s voice cracked, and he began to weep.

The normally placid Terry Gross, who had sounded cautious from the get-go, was on high alert now. It was a nerve-wracking moment, hearing the tough-guy facade fall away to reveal that deep-down, childish, clichéd longing: He just wanted to talk to his mom again. Practically every male comedian ever has mommy issues, but this was incredibly touching: We hate to see a grown man cry, except when we love to see a grown man cry.

“Are you OK to keep going?” said Gross. Morgan agreed that he was. (Meanwhile, some of us at home were yelling into the radio, “For god’s sake, give the man a hug, Terry!”)

“In the book you discuss how you and your mother never reconciled,” said Gross, referring to Morgan's new memoir, "I Am the New Black."

“One day we will,” said Morgan. “Maybe one day she’ll pick up this book. Maybe she’ll read it.”

Gross said, “Do you intend part of it to be a way of saying to her, ‘Let’s talk’?”

“When you talk to someone they can just argue with you, and shut you off, and walk out the room. When you talk to someone on the phone, they can hang up on you. But when you write them a letter, they have to read that letter. They just have to read that letter. Me, I forgive my mother, and I moved on. That’s for me. My mother had to forgive herself. I understand, Mommy. That’s all I’m saying. I understand the position you was in, and why you did what you did. I love my mother,” said Morgan.

The best comedy has a layer of sadness behind it, and Morgan's sadness, perhaps unsurprisingly, is layered thick. His character on “30 Rock,” as written by the mothership of all girl crushes, Tina Fey, plays on his vulnerability as well as his "ghetto comedy" zaniness. But a man who misses his mother and isn’t afraid to say it in public is more than funny -- he is fearless.

But will this book help to reconcile Morgan and his mother? (And why do we sense an Us Weekly cover story coming down the pike?) All we can hope is this is one letter that gets sent. And forgive us now, because we’re going to go call our own mother. 

Jami Attenberg

Jami Attenberg's fourth book, "The Middlesteins," will be published in 2012.

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