After surviving a near-fatal 2014 vehicle crash that left him in a coma for two weeks and killed a friend, Tracy Morgan is a big believer in second chances. And as part of his new TBS show, The Last O.G., about an ex-con rebuilding his life after prison, Morgan, the show and network did a remarkable thing: they tried to give some other people a chance at a better or at least a rebuilt life.
By David Bloom
“It’s not just giving back,” Morgan said. “It’s me giving back in a real way. It’s me showing my face. Maybe it can spread around the world. You drop a pebble in the pool, you don’t know how big the (waves) are going to be.”
The comedy – co-starring Tiffany Haddish and Cedric the Entertainer and executive-produced by Jordan Peele – set ratings records for TBS when it debuted. A second season is now being shot.
In between, the network and the show invested substantial sums in a variety of projects in the Brooklyn neighborhoods where the show is set, and with groups closely aligned to the show's own themes of redemption. It was a happy mix of feel-good difference-making and promotional opportunity, executives said.
“We knew we could not only do good but also do some good business,” said TBS Chief Marketing Officer Michael Engleman, who estimated the network invested between 10 and 15 percent of the show's marketing budget in the community-outreach initiatives.
"In this instance, Tracy as a human being and Tray the character have lots of natural connections to thinking about things like second chances, human capital and struggle and making a life for one’s self post-incarceration, social balances and imbalances that come from gentrification," Engleman said. "Those are themes that are important to Tracy Morgan as a human being and we saw it as an opportunity to do something really positive for the world, and for the community that is the backdrop of the show."
Lots of companies, including in Hollywood, do corporate-social-responsibility initiatives these days. But such CSR efforts through an individual show are highly unusual, in part because networks usually hire someone else to produce those shows, said Adlai Wertman, who heads the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at USC Marshall School of Business.
"It’s been historically one of the biggest challenges for the studios doing their social-responsibility work because they don’t make most of the shows," said Wertman, a former investment banker and homeless-services agency executive. The Last O.G. "did the right thing to make sure that it wasn’t just taking, but it was about giving back to the community. This goes the next step, which is really putting money back in. Without a doubt, this should be the M.O., standard operating procedure for every production."
“A lot of (corporate-responsibility) work happens at the corporate level,” Engleman agreed. "But on a show level, it is fairly unique to launch a pro-social initiative that is pretty directly related to a show's (intellectual property). So we’re thinking about how do we uplift the community.”
So even before the show debuted, Morgan and show creators worked with the Fortune Society, a New York non-profit that helps 7,000 people a year transition from prison or jail back to normal life. After meeting with some of Fortune's program participants, Morgan and Cedric co-hosted a comedy night during the New York Comedy Festival that raised more than $14,000.
When TBS and the show creators first reached out, “Our reaction was this is really an opportunity to amplify and humanize the experience of thousands and thousands of men and women,” said Fortune EVP Stanley Richards. He said more than 600,000 people are released from U.S. jails and prisons every year.
The Last O.G. arrives in a time of considerable policy ferment around the country’s complicated relationship with the incarcerated. As nearly 30 states have legalized marijuana and parts of the Drug War have been rolled back, even conservative heavyweights such as the Koch Brothers have pushed for sentencing reform and prison alternatives.
While Fortune Society has worked with celebrities before, “This is much different,” Richards said. “Richard Pryor came by as an individual. This is the first time we had a relationship with the show and Tracy. The original plan was for Tracy to do a tour and talk. He ended up staying about four hours, and we had a really good conversation about hope versus hopeless. It was just a powerful conversation.”
Merge that experience with the connection key show creators felt toward the neighborhood, and the initiatives started coming together, said Jorma Taccone, an executive producer who directed two episodes. Taccone lives in Brooklyn, and months before the show started, had begun working with an art collective in the Gowanus projects.
“After the show was done," Taccone said, "I felt very strongly that it was necessary to give back. It’s what the show is about, and who’s involved in it. It’s a pretty no-brainer kind of thing. There’s a healthy amount of, I don’t want to say guilt, but understanding that you’re telling people’s stories and need to give back. They were very receptive to this."
Morgan said when he talked with show and network executives about the outreach initiatives, “I was excited. I’ve always wanted to take my prestige that God has given me and do something positive with it, do some guidance in my community of people.”
He cited an old Bruce Lee saying that was a favorite of his father’s, “If you can’t make a positive impact on someone’s life, then the life of 1,000 years is nothing.”
For the show's debut at the SXSW Festival and in other promotions, it commissioned Greystone Bakeries to make thousands of brownies, bagged with Morgan's face and the show's logo. Greyston CEO Mike Brady, whoseOpen Hiring practices make it far easier for former prisoners to get jobs there, estimated the project generated 300 hours of work for his people.
“You can solve a lot of problems with business,” said Brady. “I give TBS and (marketing agency) Mirrorball a lot of credit for doing this. The show talks about the dignity of work, and having an opportunity to contribute in the community. I've been really pleasantly surprised with the way the show takes on topics that need to be taken on.”
Connecting with Morgan made an impression on Greyston's workers too, said one of them, Dion Drew, who previously served four years on a drug charge.
Drew, who with Davis has spoken at the TED conference, called himself “a big fan of Tracy Morgan,” but said he’d only seen a couple of show episodes because it “comes on kind of late” for someone who gets up at 4:30 am for work.
Nonetheless, “The experience was crazy to meet someone you normally see on TV and movies standing right next to you,” Drew said. “I got to experience a lot of different things.”
The show also partnered with State Bags, whose Brooklyn-based co-founders follow the Tom's model of giving away one of their backpacks or other products for every one they sell, In an event at a Red Hook school, the show and State provided $8,000 worth of bags, each containing socks, snacks and show T-shirts.
State had previously done charity work with celebrities such as baseball pitcher C.C. Sabathia, actress and activist Jessica Alba and singer Beyonce, but never a project with an entertainment property, said co-founder Scot Tatelman.
“I think what they’re doing is trailblazing,” said Tatelman. “It’s a new way of launching entertainment types of things: When you put something out there, give something back. It’s how all types of companies, shows, startups, are starting to look at their model. We're in a time now where you have to think about how you’re giving back.”
And then there was a $215,000 refurbishing of basketball courts and a street-art mural at the Marcy Playground, where Morgan played as a child and, after a run-in with a broken bottle back then, left some of his blood. A separate smaller makeover was done at the Gowanus Playground, by the housing projects where the show was partly taped.
The outreach came in part as TBS’ marketing mindset has shifted in a new era of TV, Engleman said.
The old approach relied on ad buys and in-channel promotion to talk would-be viewers into tuning in or sticking around for a network's next offering. In an era of ad-skipping and near-infinite, on-demand entertainment options, that approach doesn't work, Engleman said.
Networks have to do find ways to turn viewers into fans who have long-term, sustainable relationships with specific programs and outlets. One way to do that is to be better.
"We’re informed by science, but we need to behave humanly and create experiences and content that connect with a, quite frankly, experienced and cynical universe of consumers,” Engleman said. "The way you do that is behave decently. We happen to have a star and a show that really have a value system that’s really worth amplifying and able to make really authentic connections. You have to embrace those moments in your career."