Tracy Morgan, in his 2017 Netflix standup special, spoke about the horrific road crash that nearly killed him three years earlier.
"I saw the white light," he said in a raspy voice. "But I didn't go to it, because I thought it was the police."
The line delivered the best of the old and the new Tracy Morgan – still irreverent and funny, but now propelled by a defiant resilience that keeps him a laugh ahead of death.
The special, aptly titled "Staying Alive," marked a milestone in Morgan's return to performing. He takes his next big step forward April 3, with the premiere of his new TBS sitcom, "The Last O.G."
But Morgan, who turns 50 this year, is less an old gangster than a comeback kid.
It's been more than two decades since Morgan established himself as a high-energy presence on "Saturday Night Live" – most prominently with his boisterous, self-taught zoologist character, Brian Fellows. He turned non-sequitur declarations of "I'm Brian Fellows!" into an unlikely punch line.
He buoyed "30 Rock," Tina Fey's fast-paced sitcom about life at an "SNL"-like show, by playing an exaggerated version of himself – spouting inspired absurdity like, "I watched ‘Boston Legal' nine times before I realized it wasn't a new 'Star Trek.'"
U.S. & World
Morgan's TV fame drew crowds to his stream-of-consciousness standup act, always profane, occasionally profound and sometimes controversial (he apologized in 2011 for an uncharacteristically cruel homophobic rant).
He was returning from a club date on June 7, 2014, when a Walmart truck plowed into his vehicle on the New Jersey Turnpike, killing his friend and fellow comic James McNair. Morgan, who was critically injured, fought back to the point where he could joke about the tragedy.
"When in I was in that wheelchair, I still shopped at Walmart," he noted during his Netflix special. "You still can't beat their prices. After my (legal) settlement, everything went up a penny."
In his new TV show, Morgan plays Tray, who returns to a gentrified Brooklyn after 15 years in prison and finds he's a Walmart customer in an Amazon world. "Girls Trip" breakout star Tiffany Haddish portrays his ex-girlfriend, who is married to a successful white guy and raising twins Tray didn't know he had fathered.
It's a promising premise, one rooted in unsettling change – something Morgan's experienced plenty of on a far more dire level. Part of recovery is finding strength in old routines.
"I missed doing this," Morgan told the audience during "Staying Alive." The rare serious moment followed an unprintable bit about breast milk.
Comedy is Tracy Morgan's sustenance, which he gets and gives with every laugh he earns.