Before he was garnering laughs as his own bizarre doppelganger on 30 Rock, comedian Tracy Morgan was a cast member on Saturday Night Live. From 1996 through 2003, Morgan popped up in skits performing a variety of unique characters, often standing out as an anarchic element amidst his more conventional co-stars. There were other skits, and there were Tracy Morgan skits, and Tracy Morgan skits, though occasionally repetitive, rarely played it safe.
Morgan was a natural for the Best of SNL DVD series, and the compilation Saturday Night Live - The Best of Tracy Morgan was released in 2004, just after he left the show. Now that collection is getting a reissue, and it's basically the same program, just given a new cover and I guess a renewed marketing push to capitalize on Morgan's upswing in popularity. The only added material is in the bonus section, pulling from Morgan's later guest appearances on the late-night show. I am not sure that was enough for a re-release, honestly. Especially when there are other performers to be honored in this way. Like, where's my Best of Maya Rudolph?
Of course, none of that is Tracy Morgan's fault, and barring such caveats, the actor has himself an excellent compilation here. Fans of his SNL characters will be glad to know his two most famous, Astronaut Jones and Brian Fellows, are represented on The Best of... with two sketches each. We also get a variety of the comedian's one-off concepts, like playing Shaquille O'Neal's father and talking back to the screen while watching The Pianist in a movie theatre with the late Bernie Mac, and a few of his "Weekend Update" monologues in the guise of stoned-out veteran Larry Smith, Black James Bond, Dominican Lou, and poet Maya Angelou. Not everything hits its mark--a skit with Morgan and Jim Breuer as ex-porn stars trying to work a normal job is pretty bad and I don't know why the producers decided to show a 30-second clip of Morgan's parody of Star Jones instead of the whole "View" sketch--but the hit-to-miss ratio here is otherwise pretty fantastic.
I wouldn't necessarily say Tracy Morgan has a formula, but I would say he has a style. The standard Morgan character is someone who outwardly projects innocence and sometimes is a little effeminate, a perception the performer consequently bursts with a profane punchline, revealing that the character is perhaps a little crazy and even dangerous. This is the basic premise of Astronaut Jones, represented on the DVD in sketches with Britney Spears and Brittany Murphy, with the latter also featuring Garrett Morris and rapper/singer Nelly. The Rat-Pack spaceman at first appears to be a harmless retro-lounge invention, but the skits always end with him saying something rude to the female aliens he meets. Brian Fellows also projects a sweet demeanor but is totally off his nut, convinced that animals are out to get him. (The two "Safari Planet" segments feature the Rock and Matt Damon.) Even one of his lesser characters, the insane homeless man Woodrow (on the disc in a bit with Kate Hudson), has a sweet side, and these sketches often end on a sad note. (Too bad they aren't funnier; I don't really like Woodrow.)
In addition to the guest stars mentioned above, Saturday Night Live: The Best of Tracy Morgan also features appearances by John McCain, Alec Baldwin, Jon Stewart, Garth Brooks, and Salma Hayek. Actor Vince Vaughn appears in one of the best surprises on the DVD, a segment called "Pimp Chat" that features Tracy Morgan and fellow cast-member Tim Meadows as two hustlers filming a talk show in their limo. Vaughn joins them as the Caucasian pimp, "White Chocolate." Meadows also teams with Morgan for the one commercial parody included here, "Uncle Jemima's Mash Liquor."
The set ends on a high note, one of those bittersweet, out-of-leftfield comedy bits that usually get buried in the last slot of the program, just before 1 a.m. "On the House" stars Morgan and Maya Rudolph as two barflies who have been offered any drink they want as a Christmas present. Dreaming of unexplored alcoholic territory, they sing a wistful song of all the drinks they could drink. It's a routine with real heart, something otherwise missing from Saturday Night Live: The Best of Tracy Morgan. I could have done without having the credits rolling over the top of it, but maybe that's just an added facet to the imperfect world Morgan so accurately depicts. His characters rarely end up where they intend to go, and the humor comes from their insistence that it should be otherwise.
Produced for television in the days prior to high-def and widescreen, this compilation is in full screen 1.33:1, and all the sketches look really good. The program has been put together from strong source material, and so everything looks as clean and clear as when first broadcast live.
The audio tracks are remixed in Dolby Digital 2.0 and have great clarity, though the mix is otherwise nothing special. The soundtrack is of standard television quality.
Closed Captioning is also available for the deaf and hearing impaired.
The 2004 original issue of The Best of Tracy Morgan had several extras, and those are all carried over to this new edition. They are:
* Audition footage - a surprisingly unfunny but physical routine with Morgan pretending to be a little boy named Biscuit and talking about sports and getting arrested
* A dress rehearsal of a cut sketch with Queen Latifah
* A blooper reel
* Two appearances on the old Conan O'Brien show (the first appearance includes some of the same jail jokes he did in his audition)
* Photo gallery
The "more sketches" section holds all of the material that is new to the 2010 release of The Best of Tracy Morgan. Some of this is from when Morgan hosted the show in 2009, including his monologue and a "Scared Straight" scene with Kenan Thompson (2009). The other bits are random walk-ons by the actor: namely, an Easter song with Horatio Sanz, Chris Kattan, and Jimmy Fallon, a redo of "I Wish it was Christmas Today," with an appearance by Simon Cowell (2004), and a Weekend Update routine where Morgan and Thompson play tourist representatives from Skull Island (2005). There are also two linked Weekend Update bits from separate weeks: first, Tina Fey making an appearance to declare "Bitch is the New Black," and Morgan following up a few weeks later to declare "Black is the New Bitch." Both were recorded during and refer to the Presidential race between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Though largely a recycled disc, Saturday Night Live: The Best of Tracy Morgan is funny enough on its own to warrant a place in most DVD libraries. Whether a fan of SNL or just a comedy connoisseur, there is plenty of great material represented on this compilation, and all of it showcases Tracy Morgan's unique personality and performance style. If you've laughed at him on 30 Rock, you'll probably laugh watching this older material, too. Highly Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.