Viewers who love Tracy Morgan’s new sitcom as well as anyone who isn’t so gung-ho can all agree on one thing: It feels mighty familiar.
Bingo, Morgan replies. That was the idea.
“I was thinking about old-fashioned television,” he explains, “when the whole family was in the living room: ‘It’s about to come on! It’s about to come on!’
“I’d been playing outrageous characters on ‘Saturday Night Live’ for (seven) years and I wanted to show the people something that’s close to me: ‘Wow, this dude is a father and a husband, as opposed to Brian Fellows and Astronaut Jones and all that.”’
His co-stars on “The Tracy Morgan Show” (8 p.m. Tuesdays on NBC) include John Witherspoon and Heavy D, who play mechanics at the garage Tracy’s character owns, and Katt Williams as a quippy layabout.
But every family man needs a mate. Tamala Jones was cast as Alicia, Tracy Mitchell’s charming, levelheaded wife and the mother of their sons, 13-year-old Derrick (Marc John Jefferies) and 7-year-old Jimmy (Bobb’e J. Thompson).
The show’s patriarch met Jones while they were filming the Chris Rock comedy “Head of State.”
“We kicked it off really well,” says Morgan, grinning at her seated beside him. “I had her laughing —”
“The whooole time!” she chimes in.
“—and she responded to my silliness. Then when we started the show, she said, ‘Well, how you want this done?’ I said, ‘You are the backbone of this show! You are the Queen Bee!”’
“I looked to see who do I know who’s the Queen Bee?” says Jones. First on her list: “My grandmother! And then I watched Alice on ‘The Honeymooners,’ Lucille Ball, ‘Claudine”’ — the 1974 film, a favorite of Morgan’s, starring Diahann Carroll as a single mother of six children in Harlem.
“I told her, ‘I want you to be a strong sister!”’ Morgan says. “When Tracy Mitchell gets a little out there, his wife brings him back. She’s his reason. Same as Tracy Morgan. My wife and my kids” — Morgan, 35, has three teenage sons with Sabina, his high-school sweetheart — “are MY reason.”
“I speak to Tracy’s wife quite often about how she would address certain situations with him,” Jones confides. “She says, ’Pop him up side of the head.”’
“Or give him a hug,” Morgan sweet-talks. “The show is set on Fordham Road in the Bronx ... but there’s love in the ghetto!”
“We live in the ghetto?” asks Jones, a Pasadena native, clearly caught by surprise.
“It sure ain’t the suburbs!” cackles Morgan, who grew up in New York’s inner city. Then, growing serious, he recalls, “When I was 6 years old, my dad left the house, left my mom with five kids to raise. One of the reasons why I got so funny is because, out of all my siblings, I think I took it the hardest. My sense of humor was a defense mechanism.”
“My father was not around at all,” echoes Jones. “My mom was a single mother and she had to work, and I basically raised my two brothers.”
“Now, Tamala has to deal with the fact that she has to trust me,” Morgan points out. “When a young girl’s dad is not there, it has a profound effect on every man she’s ever gonna have a relationship with” — even how she relates with her TV husband.
Jones nods in agreement.
“I’ve gone through a lot of self-help books,” she says, “to be centered and grounded and understand how that’s an issue that I need to change about myself. It’s therapy for me to play this role.”
“We’re gonna deal with that issue!” Morgan erupts. “The dads aren’t standing up! They’re running out on their kids! That’s why youth are the way they are now. Why they don’t trust us adults.”
That said, he spins out an episode he’d like to do: “There’s a knock on the door one day and my wife answers. And it’s her dad!
“Maybe we need to DEAL with it!”
But that will come later. “The Tracy Morgan Show” has wrapped production on this season’s 13 episodes.
“It wasn’t easy making 13,” says Morgan with a weary smile. “It’s family and when you got family, you got ups and” — his voice takes a plunge — “you got downs. We would GO at it!”
“I started cooking on the set,” Jones interjects. “You got to cook for a family.” She gestures at Morgan. “His favorite thing is gumbo.”
The thought of it makes Morgan moony-eyed. “When you were smart enough to think of THAT,” he tells Jones, “you was finding your way to my heart!”
“I sure was,” she laughs.
“We did 13 episodes like that,” says Morgan, “so we know we can do 89 more. Or 150 more!” He beams, looking pleased and confident. “ ’Cause now everybody done got everything outta the way!”