I have always had a hard time figuring out Tracy Morgan’s success. I have never liked his stand up comedy – it is that magical combination of vulgar and irrelevant, with a splash of outdated hackiness. I never understood why people found him funny on SNL. And his movies speak for themselves (e.g. Cop Out). But he found magic on 30 Rock and I will give the Devil his due. He is funny on that show. I think that is primarily because Tina Fey must be the Vulgar Hack Whisperer because it is her and her staff’s words that bring Tracy Morgan’s Tracy Jordan to life. But the success as Tracy Jordan has undoubtedly brought Tracy Morgan’s wealth, fame and exposure to new heights. With that has brought a new scrutiny to his stand up. And all of it is misplaced.
He said some things that were hurtful to gay people – stabbing his son to death if he turned out to be gay. Then he made some jokes about “retard strength” at Caroline’s this weekend in New York City (by the way – this has been a common joke for as long as I’ve been watching comedy, let alone performing it). I would like to first say that I think everything he said is fair game at a comedy show. The only thing in recent memory I would call out of bounds was Michael Richard’s impression of Howard Dean as Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. That was out of bounds because it was meant to offend only. It was not said within the context of jokes (bad jokes should be protected). And after watching all 9 seasons of Seinfeld recently I am ready to forgive Kramer (damn good on that show).
The problem is that Tracy Morgan is not a good enough or respected enough comedian to become the free speech martyr/test case for comedy. Some may not be aware of this, but Rosa Parks was not an accident (yes I am drawing a very loose parallel here to Rosa Parks). The plan was for another woman to test the bus seating rules, but the original woman had a child out of wedlock, if I remember correctly, so she did not make a perfect test case. However, Rosa Parks was a sweet woman without blemish so she made the perfect person to take a seat on the front of the bus and be the title of an Outkast song; only a pure racist could raise issue with Rosa Parks’ right to sit where she wanted.
Similarly to the failed Rosa Parks, Tracy Morgan is not an artful or brilliant enough comedian to be the one to stand up for free speech in comedy. But the reason he is in this case in the first place is because his success and fans come from his non-stand up exploits. Guys like Patrice O’Neal and Louis C.K. say many things that you would not want to hear in polite company, but they are so skilled at their craft that they are both good enough to attract big crowds and only attract real comedy fans who know, understand and appreciate the rules of the game. Tracy Morgan attracts lots of people that want Tracy Jordan and are very shocked and offended when they don’t get that. Some of his fans are the fame-fuckers that I have repeatedly argued will hurt comedy and true to my words these are the people that want to sanitize comedy when it is not the comedy they want. Sadly, the comedy business wants their money so the comedians-in-title-only will be here to stay as long as the business model encourages more Tracy Morgans and fewer Patrice O’Neals.
I have said things at open mics and in bars and clubs that I would not say outside of the club (at least the way I phrased things), but I have the knowledge and comfort that when I say things on a stage that I can be given leeway, not on the humor quality, bit on the delivery. 99.9% of the things said on stage should be judged on humor only. If we chill that ability then great on-the -edge comedy will die. Some black people were offended by Chris Rock’s Classic “Niggas vs. Black People” bit as he worked it out across the country. Had the outcry been bigger would comedy be better off if he had caved to pressure? Of course not. I am not saying that Tracy Morgan was working out classic bits, but if casual comedy fans are allowed to inject their agenda whenever they are offended, great comedians will eventually suffer the same fate as Tracy Morgan. Also, as the Tracy Morgans grow in number and begin to fill more and more weekends at comedy clubs and the fans continue to show up for their comedy the misguided complaints will continue to make headlines. It will feed itself.
So instead of having meetings to help the healing with whatever community is offended this week, just stay the fu*k out of comedy clubs. That goes for Tracy Morgan and the people he offended.