Tracy Morgan has never been politically correct. Yet when the live-wire comic spouted off homophobic comments at his Nashville show last week, the controversy that followed was fast and furious.
Some called for his head, as is always the case. Other reactions were more complicated. Chris Rock, for instance, defended him, but then reneged, writing, “after reading everything tracy said. wow i get it that shit wasn’t called for and i don’t support it at all.” And then there were those, like 30 Rock co-star Alec Baldwin, who chalked it up to the bad behavior of wayward child. “Oh that Tracy,” he tweeted.
Among Morgan’s most upsetting comments, according to audience member Kevin Rogers, who relayed Morgan’s rant via a Facebook post, was (Rogers paraphrased) that Morgan said that gays were not “born this way,” and lesbians don’t really like women, they just hate men.
Finally, Morgan made the weirdest statement of the evening. If he found out his son were gay, he would pull out a knife and stab the “little nigga” to death.
Morgan’s indiscretions, for which he’s now apologizing, over and over (and over), are once again bringing the debate of what is acceptable to say in the confines of a comedy act to the forefront— a quandary that’s more confounding when you’re talking about a comedian who is considered a little loony to begin with.
“I think he’s pretty random,” said Marga Gomez, a gay comic based out of San Francisco, of Morgan. “That’s part of the reason, I’ve enjoyed watching him on Saturday Night Live—because he just seems crazy.”
“I think the debate now about Tracy Morgan is, ‘Do comics get a pass to talk about anything?” she said. “No, they don’t. … Any person who has hate in their heart could just say, ‘I’m a comedian now and now I’m gonna say you should kill fags and kill brown people.’”
Harvey Fierstein, who posted a litany of Morgan-related tweets, wrote: “And if you feel the need to defend him as a comedian expressing himself freely in a free country... That's just sad.”
And: “I'm still wondering where the real rage is against the hate speak of Tracey Morgan.”
Just a few years ago, though, Morgan’s statements wouldn’t have caused as much of a controversy. According to comedian (and Daily Beast contributor) Dana Gould, “Homophobia is one of the last tacitly accepted prejudices in Western culture to crumble. Up until only very recently, male comedians could discuss being homophobic and it was completely fine,” he said. “Now it seems creepy and lame. That's a good thing.”
There’s been an ongoing debate around the sensitivity over gay jokes, particularly after the high profile suicides of bullied gay teens. But Morgan’s use of his son (presumably in a metaphorical way) to make his ultimate point, which was that he would stab him if he found out he were gay and was being bullied and whining about it, is more disturbing than a run-of-the-mill homophobic comment—it’s taken the what’s-acceptable question even further.
Nor were Morgan’s words artful or thoughtful, it seems. As Gomez sees it, “If you’re talking about something that is really controversial, that’s taboo, and you’re pushing the envelope, you are supposed to spend six months trying to figure out how to refine that and have a purpose to it.”
But that might be expecting too much of Morgan. As with Alec Baldwin’s reaction, much of Hollywood has been treating him like a moron who barely knows better. Tina Fey, Morgan’s employer (for now), implied that he was essentially too dumb to know what he was saying, calling him “much too sleepy and self-centered to ever hurt another person.”
Legendary comic Joan Rivers put it even more succinctly. “He’s not a Mensa comic. He’s not the voice of this generation.”
Rivers has been where Morgan is standing before, having famously made a career of being an equal opportunity offender.
“At the very start of my act, I say, ‘Calm down. We’re gonna get everybody.’”
Not surprisingly, she thinks we’ve gotten too sensitive. “For God’s sake let’s go back 20 years ago. You couldn’t have All in the Family on now,” she said.
And, as with everything in comedy, said Rivers, things can be blown out of proportion. “Every idiot in this day and age now has a cell phone and they can take things out of context.”
“My act, when you really listen to it out of context is so offensive, I would sue myself after every show,” she said.
Indeed, a further complication here is that the only account was from a lone fan in the audience, not a professional journalist. There wasn’t even a YouTube video—which, in the case of Michael Richards, allowed people to see that his outburst was really weird hate speech (not some bit that happened to bomb).
And unsurprisingly, the gay black community’s reaction has diverged from the mainstream media’s in several ways. They are less perturbed by the homophobia than the use of the N-word. Part of the issue is rooted in the deeply conflicted views of the African American community towards gays and lesbians. Cleo Manago, National Director of the Black Men's Xchange, an advocacy group for gay and bisexual African American men, released a lengthy statement. Morgan’s comments about stabbing the “little nigga,” he explained, was about “[Black] masculinity and manhood. Morgan correlated having a 'gay voice' with being vulnerable or feminine, a common perspective in communities of color.”
“By using the Phrase ‘...stab that little n***r to death,’ Mr. Morgan clearly was making an anti-Black comment. But for white controlled mainstream media this clearly is not an important issue.”
(Indeed, even the unflappable Joan Rivers was put off by this. “I’m shocked that we aren’t upset that he said ‘I’ll stab that little n***r,’ that to me is offensive,” she said.)
It’s still not offensive enough to get him fired, thus far. NBC Entertainment’s new Chairman, Bob Greenblatt, issued a statement that said, in part, “we do not condone hate or violence of any kind and I am pleased to see Tracy Morgan apologizing for recent homophobic remarks in his standup appearance.” It also said: “…we have made it clear to him that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated.”
Still, the lingering notion of Morgan as a cuddly ne’er do well is a bit condescending, but it means that many people are giving him a pass. That’s not gone unnoticed by his peers in Hollywood. As comic actor Jay Mohr tweeted: “If I said what Tracy Morgan said, I would DEFINITELY be out of a job monday morning. #Fact.”
No, Morgan is not out of work. But he is on an apology tour, working with GLAAD and plans on going back to the scene of the crime to make amends. All of which Rivers says is pure hooey.
“He shouldn’t apologize. Gay fans? What are they doing seeing him anyhow? Why aren’t they watching me and Kathy Griffin? What are they doing at this show?”
She laughed. “He’s lost his gay fan.”
Even if is the apologies are a rotten PR stunt, as Bret Easton Ellis tweeted Gomez doesn’t care.
“I’m all right with that,’” she said. “If they can actually get Tracy Morgan to be coherent and talk against homophobia even if he doesn’t mean it, I think that’d be all right. Because there are people even dumber than Tracy Morgan, who look up to Tracy Morgan as an ignorant role model.”
“I’ll tell you, the biggest crime of all,” said Rivers, “is that Tracy Morgan isn’t funny. You know what he should be apologizing for? For charging $86 to see him.”