Tracy Morgan

15 Jun

I know I’m a week late on it, I never claimed to deliver up-to-date commentary, but this Tracy Morgan thing has been sticking in my craw. I know I also end up talking about it in the upcoming episode of my podcast which features guest Ron Krasnow, but since recording it I’ve had a little time to think and develop my own opinion on the matter after seeing everyone else comment. Most comedians are defending him, saying a comedian should not have to apologize and that forcing him to is tantamount to censorship, which, I agree, is bad. Even Louis C.K. sided with Morgan, saying that people should have clearly seen the humorous intent. Despite C.K. being one of my favorite comedians, I think my opinion diverges with his a little.

Now, ultimately, I do believe Morgan, or any comic, or any person, should be allowed to have the right to say what they want without recourse, but I suppose the thesis of my opinion is this: just because you’re a comedian and are saying something onstage does not make what you said a joke; an entertainer, even if having the liberty to say whatever, should take responsibility for what they say; and a destructive mindset is still a destructive mindset, even if it’s masked in humor.

I haven’t seen any tape of the performance in question, and am relying on the above AP report and other news reports, so maybe my facts are wrong, but apparently he said on stage that he would stab his son if he found out he were gay, and there was no punchline to that, at least none is given to show it was an attempt at a real joke. I think it’s evident that if the audience that paid to see him got offended, then it was a joke that didn’t work, and you can’t blame an audience for not getting a joke. That’s something I do because I’m a shitty open mike-er who blames his audience because he thinks he’s smarter than everyone. I don’t think that’s acceptable for a national headliner. The audience took it for what it seemed: a statement of belief. Plenty of comics will say things that are just plain statements and not jokes. Was Bill Hicks joking when he told a woman heckling him to get the fuck out and “go see Madonna?” I would assume not since the heckler was thrown out. So why are we supposed to just trust that Morgan was joking when he said what he said?

This is also something I bring up on the podcast, but I think an apology doesn’t have to be the career-destroying move of surrender people thing it would be. One point that Alex brings up that I think is right, though, is that, chances are, the advocacy groups and the media will want him to surrender and do everything possible to prove that he’s recanted any homophobic thoughts or tendencies as well as harmful words, which I think is silly, because, ultimately, you can’t force an individual to change what he thinks. However, as an entertainer, you are obliged to entertain your audience, so if they’re not entertained, you should at least acknowledge that you failed to do so. You can still stick to your guns in doing so.

I actually got mad at Jeff Dunham for something like that a while back. Apparently an ad for a ringtone featuring his character “Achmed the Dead Terrorist” was banned in South Africa because they thought the ad “mocked Islam.” Now, if Jeff Dunham had said “Yeah, the character is a clear caricature of Islamist terrorists, as evidenced by the beard, turban, and misspelled Arabic name, but despite the fact that it purposefully panders to my middle-America audience’s prejudices against Muslims, it should be taken with humorous intent, and humor should not be censored, even if it offends,” I would have respected him and thought that, while I dislike his politics, he had some kind of integrity and consistency.

Instead, he plaintively threw up his hands and said “the character isn’t Muslim! It can’t be offensive to Muslims when the character isn’t Muslim!” He is, of course, referring to a joke in his act where Achmed says he’s not Muslim because it says “Made in China” on his leg (a joke which fails factually since there is a rather large population of Chinese Muslims), a joke that is only funny because the character is so clearly meant to be Muslim, so to take this defense is a cop-out and cowardly. So, in the same vein, I would totally respect Tracy Morgan if he said something along the lines of “I don’t think I should be persecuted for my beliefs, just like people shouldn’t be persecuted for their sexual orientation, so I will acknowledge that my remarks offended people and I regret that, but ultimately I ask that people who would be offended by things I say to not buy tickets to my show.”

But, of course, as Alex said, that’s not what would happen nor what would be accepted, and that falls into the realm of hypersensitivity I also detest.

Now, while I support people’s rights to say whatever they want, I still think that comedians should give a bit of thought about what attitudes and ideas are reflected in their material. Any entertainer, especially someone who performs for audiences across the nation and appears on TV, does have some power to influence their audience, and thus if a bit represents a destructive point of view, it can say to that audience that it’s okay to think that way. Now, as I said, he has the right to do that, but I have just as much of a right to think he shouldn’t.

Let’s compare Morgan’s remarks to, say, Louis C.K.’s bit about the word “faggot” that he does at the beginning of his special “Chewed Up.” C.K. is dealing with a word, which, in and of itself, is destructive, but he plays with the context, and clearly shows that he doesn’t hold the attitudes that make the word destructive, and he wouldn’t throw it around with the intent to be destructive. He’s not saying it’s okay to use the word that way or think that way. When you just go up on stage and say you’d stab your son if you found out he was gay… You’d have to be really good at vocal delivery to convey any intended irony, otherwise it just comes off an an affirmation.

There’s an open mike-er I won’t name who once had a bit about different ways to wear a scarf in New York that included a bit about “how the homosexual way to wear it” was. He insists he’s not a homophobe, and I believe him because he is a nice dude. The thing is, the joke is still constructed in a way that marginalizes and marks a group as “the other” to be ridiculed, so even if it’s humorous, it’s still destructive. To laugh at that joke it to support the marginalizing of that group. All jokes are built on a certain point of view. It’s why you can get away with telling jokes about “jigaboos” at a Klan rally and not at an NAACP meeting, even though in both situations the joke would supposedly intend to be humorous.

Okay, so I had a thesis statement, now I need a conclusion. How about this: ultimately, Tracy Morgan should be able to say what he wants, but that doesn’t mean what he did was acceptable, but the only punishment he should be given is that people don’t consume his product and don’t pay attention to him, because that’s the worst punishment for an entertainer. Neither free speech nor a comedy stage should be impenetrable shields to hide behind to say things that are hateful and marginalizing, at least from a social standpoint if not from a legal standpoint. Comics are still people, and as people, we should aspire for better, and even though ultimately we deconstruct the world around us to fit our perspectives, we can still do that while reassembling it into something positive.

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