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In the 3 1/2 decades since he found fame in the original cast of Saturday Night Live, Garrett Morris has gone on to regular and recurring roles on myriad sitcoms, including The Jeffersons, Martin and The Jamie Foxx Show. Originally trained in voice at New York’s Juilliard School, Morris started his career onstage, in Broadway musicals such as Porgy and Bess and Show Boat and in the dramatic plays Slave Ship and Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death. But it’s in comedy that Morris, 75, has been recognized as a master of the craft. Watch! sat down with SNL’s oldest living on-screen alumnus to ask his opinion of the laughs we’ve all shared.
Watch!: You’ve had such a long career in comedy, it must give you quite a perspective on the shows of today.
Garrett Morris: I like to approach comedy with the mentality that I don’t know anything—because if you’re a stand-up, you know that a joke can work one night and bomb the next. But as an observer, I do see a lot that’s changed. In the 1960s and ’70s, it looked like we were going toward a time where you’d have a lot of diversity in terms of types of comedy. You’d have something edgy like Saturday Night Live, but you’d also have Hee Haw.
Watch!: Is that different from what we have now?
Garrett: Audiences today have gotten so right wing and conservative that there are areas a performer can’t go anymore. If you’re up on stage, creating a character, you’re not always going to be playing a nun or an Amish person. Some characters will need to smoke cigars or curse or be a curmudgeon. Lately, people don’t like things that challenge their beliefs or faith, or address images they’re not accustomed to. They don’t want to admit these things are funny because they’ve been told we can’t laugh at Jesus. But it’s too limiting for actors when audience members refuse to leave their religions at the door. That’s a problem, and it threatens to affect the great stuff that 2 Broke Girls, Mike & Molly and Two and a Half Men are trying to do.
Watch!: And you say that as the grandson of a Baptist minister.
Garrett: That’s right—and I was raised by him, in a very conservative Southern Baptist household in Louisiana. He was a great preacher, and he spat when he spoke. If you were sitting within three or four yards of him, you got filled with the Holy Spirit and hit with the holy spit.
Watch!: To 2 Broke Girls’ credit, this is a New York with real diversity, with characters of different ages and ethnicities— unlike, say a certain ’90s hit from another network.
Garrett: Friends was the only show where in New York you actually found a white taxi driver. I’ve lived in New York City and I would never find one. In real life in New York, if you see a white cabdriver, you say, “Hey, there he is, over there!” On Friends, the times they had a chance to have diversity, they said, “[Screw] it.”
Watch!: It also seems rare that older people get the chance to be regulars on a sitcom.
Garrett: I do feel like I’m lucky to be working. And I don’t mean that I lack any confidence in my ability. I’m not pulling out the race card, but I see that the amount of spaces is so few if you are not a white actor. Age is again the same problem; I can’t say I know of a lot of older actors working. But if people were writing [older characters in] shows, audiences wouldn’t have a problem with it. Because families have not only kids and teenagers, but they have mothers and fathers and grandparents. Everyone can relate to a family situation.
Watch!: Even if subject matter is now more conservative, aren’t there are so many more words you can say today on TV?
Garrett: Yes. On SNL, in that sketch in 1976, where [as a royal messenger] I announced “Lord and Lady Douchebag,” people fell out, because people didn’t use that word except in some raw comedy skit. Now every other ad has “buy this douche.” And one of the most common ads is one in which a cartoon mama bear wipes fecal matter off the baby’s behind on TV. Am I lying? Thirty years ago, they wouldn’t have let you have an ad like that.
Watch!: What does that freedom mean to the show?
Garrett: 2 Broke Girls is great how it goes just to the line, and no further. I think right now we are taking a much more radical approach to double entendre than even Saturday Night Live. We show that you can actually relax and do jokes that people say sometimes. But a lot of them couldn’t have happened 30 years ago. And I credit that [courage] to [co-creator] Michael Patrick King. His mentality is groundbreaking. He is aggressively trying to create an art that is different. He deals with every line, every nuance. It feels like we’re really improvising with him, and I see his secret, because he’s always ready to exchange this joke for that joke, so it keeps you on your toes. There’s always a fresh energy. Just as Michael’s work on Sex and the City did, I think Michael and Whitney Cummings with 2 Broke Girls are setting a new standard for comedy. And I’m glad to be here to help them do it.