Groundbreaker Garrett Morris on Battling Racism on ‘SNL,’ Overcoming Addiction and Why Dave Chappelle Is a “Comic Genius”

He faced lots of resistance as part of the original cast of ‘Saturday Night Live,’ but he credits producer Lorne Michaels for having his back, praises Richard Pryor and, when it comes to comedy, thinks everyone just needs to relax.

Garrett Morris was a 37-year-old playwright and singer performing on Broadway in Porgy and Bess when he took a long-shot meeting in 1975 with a 30-year-old Canadian producer looking for writers for a new late night NBC variety show. That producer was Lorne Michaels, and the meeting led to a coveted spot as a founding member of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players on the inaugural season of NBC’s Saturday Night Live.

Over the next five years — alongside such legends as John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman and Chevy Chase — Morris would become a household name with characters like the Dominican Mets player Chico Esquela (“Baseball been berry, berry good to me!” was his catchphrase) and a “Weekend Update” segment “News for the Hard of Hearing.”

That he was the first Black castmember on SNL is of no minor significance; Morris came out of the gate shattering barriers, confronting racism and busting taboos.

Now 84, Morris, who lives in Los Angeles and since SNL has maintained a busy acting career — he was a series regular on CBS’ 2 Broke Girls and more recently appeared on NBC’s This Is Us and HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show — sat down with THR at La Piazza restaurant, his favorite terrace at The Grove, for a frank, fascinating and hilarious conversation about the business of comedy, then and now.

How did you break in to show business?

I had graduated from Dillard University [in New Orleans]. I didn’t graduate summa cum laude or magna cum laude. I graduated “Thank you, lawd!”

I left New Orleans in 1958 and came to New York City.

My first month and a half in the city, I was homeless. I got picked up twice, once by a Black cop who was very empathetic. But the next time, his white sergeant caught me and sent me to jail. That’s when I saw something I didn’t think existed: I saw a Black judge. 1958.

He sent me to his [chambers], comes in, ignores my crying, goes to the phone and calls the YMCA. The executive director of the YMCA agreed to let me stay there until I got a job.

A lucky twist of fate.

So I’m rehearsing in the YMCA, in the auditorium, and sure enough, a member of The Belafonte Folk Singers [an all-male folk group that sometimes backed Harry Belafonte] also rehearsed there. That led to an audition with them, and that’s how I got my first job in the business, as a singer-arranger for The Belafonte Folk Singers.

How did you go from singing to SNL?

By the time I got to Saturday Night Live, I had written two plays, one commissioned by the city of New York. New York asked playwrights from each borough to write a play for each borough, and I wrote a play for Brooklyn for schoolkids called Stagger Lee. It was about an ice cream demagogue. The other play was about a Black cop who infiltrates a Black Panther-like group. I wrote this in 1968 — way before Judas and the Black Messiah.

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