By Michael A. Lipton
January 12, 2004 12:00 PM

The oversize personality that Tracy Morgan brought to his gallery of Saturday Night Live character— moonshiner Uncle Jemimah, lustful Astronaut Jones, clueless nature-show host Brian Fellow—was in full bloom recently when, he took his three sons bowling on a visit home to New York City. Whenever he threw a ball down the lane, he made a point of screaming as loud as he could. And Dad urged his boys Gitrid, 17, Malcomb, 16, and Tracy Jr., 12, to do likewise. “You have to liberate yourself,” he explains.

Which is exactly what Morgan, 34, has done. After seven seasons as a repertory player on SNL, he quit to star in his own prime-time sitcom, NBC’s The Tracy Morgan Show. He plays Tracy Mitchell, an auto-repair-shop owner and devoted—if overly demonstrative father of two. “He is irrational at times,” Morgan concedes. “I’m a little bit calmer.” Sabina, his wife of 17 years, agree: Like his TV persona, “Tracy’s sensitive and caring, but he has it more together. He’s got a lot of patience.” And a deep appreciation for family, says Morgan’s former boss, SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels. His sitcom “fits him so well,” says Michaels, “because the role of father is the thing he’s great at. Maybe it’s because he lost his.”

Actually Morgan lost his dad not once, but twice. “My dad left the family when I was 6,” says Morgan, who grew up in a housing project in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the second oldest of five children of Alicia, a homemaker, and Jimmy, a drug-addicted Vietnam vet. When he walked out, “it devastated all of us, but I took it the hardest. That’s why I’m funny. It’s a defense mechanism.”

In 1985, when he was 15 and a sophomore at DeWitt Clinton High School, he learned his father had AIDS. In 1987 Jimmy took a turn for the worse. “He had to take care of his father,” says Sabina, whom Tracy had married that same year, “so he had to drop out of high school,” just four credits shy of a diploma. Jimmy died that November at 56.

Tracy and Sabina were already raising oldest son Gitrid. To supplement the family’s welfare income, “I started doing comedy on the streets,” Morgan says. “I was hustling. I would do a fat Michael Jackson from the projects. I was just working on pure imagination.”

Eventually he found steady work as a stand-up. Catching Martin Lawrence on HBO in 1992 “was total inspiration to me,” he says. “I thought, ‘He’s like me. I could do that too.’ ” Within months he had guest appearances on Lawrence’s FOX sitcom Martin, and in 1996 he earned a berth on SNL. “It was definitely a culture shock for me,” he says of the mostly white troupe. “But I had people like Lorne and Will Ferrell to guide me.”

Today, he says, “I feel like I’ve come into my own. I deal with things on a mature level instead of being emotional.” Not entirely, says Sabina, 38. “He has a sensitive side. He cries a lot. He cries at movies we watch.” And two years ago, she says, when “he came back and spoke at Clinton High School, they surprised him with an honorary diploma. He cried like a baby.”

He sheds no tears, however, about leaving New York. “I was ready to go to L.A.,” he says, where his show is taped and where his family has settled. “We have good weather,” he says. “I like waking up to 90 degrees. That’s all right.” He’s still not sure about L.A.’s nightlife. “I party,” he says. “I still go clubbing. In New York we get down. In L.A. everybody’s pretty much standing around like they’re at a keg stand. You got to get the party started,” he jokes, “so I just take my shirt off.”

Michael A. Lipton. Liza Hamm in New York City