When is Comedy Not Funny?

Taking Tracy Morgan to task

By the time comedian and 30 Rock star Tracy Morgan had finished his anti-gay rant during a live show in Nashville, the LGBT community was already trying to reconcile the seemingly lovable goof who made an anti-bullying PSA a very short time ago with the comedian who, on stage, said he would stab his son to death if he ever told him he was gay. In the now-controversial routine, Morgan went into a diatribe in which he called gay people “mistakes” and “pussies,” labeled lesbians as man haters and suggested that LGBT folks should stop whining about school bullying.

The question we’re asking is: Was that supposed to be funny?

Good comedy, when funny, has the potential to break down stereotypes, poke fun at serious issues and even make us rethink our notions about culture. Some of the finest comedians have gone where no man or woman has gone before – for a laugh. And it’s genius. But when it goes terribly wrong, as in the case of Morgan’s latest outbreak, it can land a comedian in a nasty battle between fans and foes.

Since bombing at that recent show with his anti-gay “jokes,” Morgan has since offered an apology. Turns out NBC – the 30 Rock network – was not too pleased about how Morgan’s behavior may have negatively reflected on the network. “Tracy’s comments reflect negatively on both 30 Rock and NBC – two very all-inclusive and diverse organizations – and we have made it clear to him that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated,” NBC Chairman Bob Greenblatt said in a recent statement. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

That may mean his 30 Rock family – and especially the gay community at large – may not be quite so forgiving of Morgan just yet.

The show’s creator and Philly native Tina Fey has perhaps responded best, saying, “I hope for his sake that Tracy’s apology will be accepted as sincere by his gay and lesbian co-workers at 30 Rock, without whom Tracy would not have lines to say, clothes to wear, sets to stand on, scene partners to act with, or a printed-out paycheck from accounting to put in his pocket.”

Fellow cast member on the show – and an out gay man – Cheyenne Jackson told Out magazine: “I am disgusted and appalled by Tracy Morgan’s homophobic rant. The devastating repercussions of hate-filled language manifest in very real ways for today’s LGBTQ youth. I’ve known Tracy for two years, spent long hours with him on set, and I want to believe that this behavior is not at the core of who he is. I’m incredibly disappointed by his actions, and hope that his apology is sincere.”

The Human Rights Campaign also weighed in, saying that while the comedian’s apology was needed, it’s not enough to make amends: “We are glad that he recognizes that he hurt and offended people. However, the questions remain.”

Chris Rock, a fellow comedian who is also known for pushing buttons for a laugh, came to Morgan’s defense on Twitter recently, suggesting that funny folks like Morgan should be allowed to say foul and inappropriate things for laughs. We couldn’t agree more. But the question is whether mimicking stabbing one’s gay son to death is really very funny. We can think of a dozen other ways to poke a little fun at coming out or even a conversation between a kind of meathead dad and his gay son – and funny ones at that. But when malice or even rage taints a joke – the end result can be pretty brutal for the audience and entertainer alike.

That’s why this situation begs the question of whether acts like these are really meant to be mean-spirited or was this simply a joke that went very, very wrong?

We hope that what Morgan’s cast mates and friends have to say about the goofy comedian are true, and that he really is a standup guy who cares about the LGBT community. Otherwise this rant could be to Morgan what the “N” word shocker was to Michael Richards. We haven’t seen much of the former Seinfeld actor ever since he went on a racist tirade five years ago. And Chris Rock didn’t exactly defend that sort of behavior when it happened, which is why he and other “hardcore” comedians might want to have a little more sensitivity when it comes to the gay community’s reaction this time around.