A gruesome highway accident followed by months of pain and rehab. That's no laughing matter.
Not unless you're comedian Tracy Morgan, who's mining this ordeal for laughs with his "Picking Up the Pieces" stand-up tour. After its current warm-up phase, the tour officially launches Feb. 5 at the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Indiana, and continues through May. Among other dates, he will perform three shows in New Jersey, including a New Brunswick theater about 20 miles from where the accident occurred.
"I'm in a good place in my life," says Morgan during a recent phone conversation. "When I first got back on the stage, I had to work on my confidence. But I wasn't scared. I wasn't nervous. I was excited!"
It was June 7, 2014, when a Wal-Mart truck slammed into the limousine Morgan was riding in. The crash killed close friend and fellow comedian James "Jimmy Mack" McNair, and left Morgan with broken bones and brain damage. He was in a coma for two weeks.
"I was basically knocking on The Door," he says, but adds with undisguised gratitude, "I came back. That's the spirit moving me."
That was plenty impressive. But still it held no promise that Morgan, who has long scored laughs in concert, on "30 Rock" and "Saturday Night Live," would ever be able to perform again.
On the "Today" show last June, in his first public appearance since the accident, Morgan sat clutching a cane and, with a tear streaking down his cheek, acknowledged he wasn't "100 percent yet."
"When I'm there, you'll know it," he said. "I'll get back to making you laugh, I promise you."
He made good on that promise three months later with a surprise appearance on the Emmy telecast.
By then he had made good on a promise to himself to wed his fiancee, Megan Wollover, on his own terms: walking her down the aisle with no cane.
Then, in October, he returned triumphantly as guest host of "SNL," where he had been a cast member from 1996 to 2003.
"I felt so good going back home to 'SNL,'" he says. "It was like the first day I was there many years ago. That first time was crazy, but to have the opportunity to have the feeling all over again — wonderful, man! And I said, 'I want to (tour) again.' That was the end" of any doubts.
He admits to grave doubts during his long convalescence and therapy.
"I remember being visited by a good friend I've known all my life, and I said, 'Why did God let this happen to me?' And with the meanest look, she said, 'Never question God!'
"I said, 'I'm sorry.' And she said, 'OK, baby. That's all right.'
"Tough times don't last. Tough people do," Morgan sums up. "We're ALL here 'cause we're tough."
Morgan, 47, has made amusing use of a lifetime of tough challenges, including a harsh childhood and health issues that included a kidney transplant in 2010. So it's no surprise that he's dressing his latest wounds in humor.
"The accident was a setback, but, you know, in my world, a setback is a setup," he says. "You use things that happen in your life that weren't funny — tragedy turned inside out. If you don't laugh about it, you'll cry about it. And I'm tired of crying.
"But comedy doesn't just come from pain," Morgan adds. "It comes from joy, too."
Chief among his joys are his wife and their 2 1/2-year-old daughter, who, as Morgan speaks, can be heard chiming in with, "Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse," as she addresses Mickey's image on her iPad.
"Now you see what's important and what's not," declares Morgan. "I've learned a lot, man. I learned about life, about the things I used to stress out about, things we worry about on a day-to-day basis but aren't important — not when it comes down to life and death. I talk about all that onstage.
"But I talk about things that are happening right now, too. I look back. But I look forward, too!"
One thing he's looking forward to is a pilot deal for a prospective series that he would star in. To be developed in partnership with Jordan Peele ("Key & Peele"), the new FX comedy would cast Morgan as a career criminal released from prison after 15 years who finds himself flummoxed by the modern world he's re-entering.
It could begin production as soon as this summer. But Morgan says little beyond "it's gonna be incredible." His current focus is on his tour.
"I've tapped into something, man, that nobody else can talk about," he says of his near-death experience. "I went to the other side and came back bearing gifts, and I'm gonna share all those gifts with my fans. I got a whole bag full of funny for you, a truckload of funny coming your way."