Thursday, June 16, 2011


How interesting that suddenly, Tracy Morgan, a sort of second-string comedian, is all over the headlines. Oh no, it’s not because of his middling performance as alter-ego Tracy Jordan on the NBC sitcom “30 Rock.” It’s all about his throwback standup comedy act, which hit a wall in Nashville recently after he reportedly “joked” that he would “pull out a knife and stab that little nigger” if he found out his son was gay. It turns out an audience member was so taken aback by Morgan’s inane rant that he posted a piece about the Morgan show on Facebook. As is our cultural way here in 2011, the piece went viral, got picked up by national media and a firestorm ensued, causing Morgan to come forward to say how much he loves everybody. Right. Then comes news that Morgan is going to do some kind of something with GLAAD to show how much he really, really loves everybody. Right.

The upshot of all of this is a national discussion that is flooding the blogosphere, the airwaves and even good old print journalism about the extent of comedic license available to standup comedians. How much is too much? Is too much an oxymoron when you talk of standup routines? Is this a first amendment issue or rather a common decency issue? If you talk about your own son as a “little nigger,” is it hate speech or is it your divine right as a parent? When Morgan rants about stabbing his own son, is it funny or is it a desperate reach for a laugh when his audience has paid $86 a seat to laughs? And in a culture that decides to delete an Anthony Weiner from the public stage, why is it that a man who insults the gay population and the black population in one fell swoop is still front and center on one of the most highly-praised television shows on the air?

Whew! That’s a lot of questions, right? But doesn’t something like this merit a lot of questions? Didn’t we learn anything from the Michael Richards debacle back in 2006 at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood? That was the night Richards (below) got mad at some black hecklers in the audience and threw a temper tantrum in which he used the word “nigger” six times. Here’s how stuff like this works in our culture today: Richards, despite his very public apologies and mea culpa appearances on shows like Letterman, has had exactly four professional entertainment jobs since 2006, according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). Nobody is denying Richards his first amendment rights. But the American public has made it clear they can’t find much to laugh about when he speaks anymore. Once you do what Richards did, maybe you have to turn in your funny card and do exactly what he did next – retire from show business and take an extended trip to Cambodia. Really.

The issue here is not comedy. It is not Tracy Morgan. It is not how many people are offended. The issue here is respect. Comedians are divided on how to react to Morgan’s behavior. Some, like Louis C.K., came forward to say that Morgan was just “fucking around” and didn’t mean what he said. Said Louis, "Tracey Morgan said something wrong, evil, cruel, ignorant and hilarious. He was on a comedy stage, not at a pulpit.” Implicit in his remarks is the thought that since Morgan was on a comedy stage, respect for his fellow human beings is not required. Others, like Chris Rock (above, right), who initially defended Morgan’s right to say whatever he wants to say on stage, later came back with, “Wow, I get that shit wasn’t called for and I don’t support it at all.” And then there was Joan Rivers: “He’s lost his gay fan.” And, “I’ll tell you, the biggest crime of all is that Tracy Morgan isn’t funny. You know what he should be apologizing for? For charging $86 to see him.”

Indeed. But what no one seems to be addressing is the assumption among comedians that no matter what they say, who they hurt, how grotesque the images they put forth, they get a pass because it’s “comedy.” Here’s the thing: Comedy is cultural commentary. That’s really all it is. Comedians basically do the same thing that Rush Limbaugh, Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olberman, Glen Beck and all the other talking cableheads do. They offer their take on the current state of our culture. As I see it, Morgan’s take on the current state of our culture is that gay people are somehow “less than,” and that probably they should be eliminated. And as I see it, Morgan somehow still believes there is a place in our national conversation for the word “nigger,” a stupid, throwback, throwaway word that we have been trying for decades to evolve out of the English language.

You know, besides the fact that Morgan appears to be somehow surviving this ridiculous tirade, with even his “30 Rock” boss, Tina Fey still somewhat reluctantly embracing him, (below, left) here’s what bugs me: The historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville (which used to be the home of the Grand Ole Opry), where Morgan had his comedic tantrum, seats 2400 people. Let’s do the math: 2400 x $86.00 = $206,400. After paying the venue, the promoters, the tour expenses and his agent, manager, etc., let’s say Morgan gets 40% of the gross. That means that for denigrating millions of Americans in the name of comedy, Morgan earned upwards of $80 grand that night. And it gets worse: For those Americans who vaguely knew who Morgan was prior to the Nashville performance, now every American who has been conscious the last week or so knows who he is. You know the old, “I don’t care what they say about me, as long as they spell my name right” routine? My biggest concern here is that now Morgan is a household word whose ignorant cultural trespasses may imprint him on the American psyche as a “bad boy comic” who just said some stupid stuff once in Nashville. All that, and here I was hoping he'd go be Michael Richards' roommate in Cambodia.

So, in the end, does it all simply mean that in America, saying you will cut up your “little nigger” kid with a knife if he says he’s gay is worth $80,000 and an ongoing national television career. How did we get here?

1 comment:

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