Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why Tracy Morgan doesn't owe me an apology (or anyone else, for that matter)

In the documentary Joan Rivers:  A Piece of Work, a heckler confronts Rivers over comments the comedian made during her act concerning her intolerance for the deaf community by yelling out to her, “That’s not funny! Not if you have a deaf son.”  Rivers, from the stage, is quick to defend herself, explaining that the joke is funny and that “comedy is to make everybody laugh and deal with things, you idiot.”  I tend to agree with Rivers’ perception of comedic humor, and I’ve been reminded of it several times while hearing about a recent incident, concerning Tracy Morgan’s highly publicized homophobic comedy routine on June 3 in Nashville, Tennessee. 
All month, I’ve been either reading or hearing about Morgan’s apology for his rant against homosexuals, and though I haven’t actually heard any audio from the performance, like everyone else, I’ve read details that were posted by Kevin Rogers, a gay man who attended the show and felt offended by Morgan’s comments.  I also saw a segment with Rogers being interviewed on CNN and describing the event and his impression of Morgan’s statements.  My first reaction to the story, even before knowing what Morgan had supposedly said (Morgan hasn’t denied any of the statements attributed to him by Rogers), was that Morgan should not have apologized for his remarks.  After reading the details of Morgan’s rant, I still don’t believe an apology is in order (and neither does Rivers, for that matter, when she was asked her opinion on the fiasco).  While I found Morgan’s routine to be offensive, in bad taste, and poorly timed for the location in which he delivered his rant, I don’t think he’s guilty of anything more than pushing an envelope too far or failing in an attempt to create shock value humor—which almost all comedians have done at some time or another in their careers.
Yes, Morgan may have gone too far in his comedy act, but I’ve watched other comedians do the same thing in their own routines, and in each case, the results have ranged from audience applause to a room of shocked silence.  Comedians will often take chances or use edgy material in an attempt to get a laugh; that’s just what they do.  Sometimes, their efforts work and other times what they say just isn’t funny or it offends people.  But I don’t expect a comedian to apologize to me or to the audience as a whole for material that falls short of drawing laughter.  After all, I expect any comedy act to be an experiment:  the comedian sees what he or she can get away with by gauging the audience’s reaction to each joke.  When the comedian pushes too far, the audience will typically react accordingly and the comedian knows either to step back or tread carefully.  Other comedians have made careers out of finding that zone of discomfort for an audience and hammering away at its boundaries.  Personally, that’s not the type of humor I care for, but I remedy that by avoiding those comedians and their shows. 
Just because Morgan’s rant was in bad taste should not require an apology for it, either.  A number of popular comedians rely unapologetically on bad taste and insulting comments for their humor—Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Lisa Lampanelli, and Shirley Q. Liquor immediately come to mind here.  Each of these performers have drawn large audiences for their off-color humor styles that have included scathing remarks directed at various racial and ethnic groups, religions, disabilities, political parties, and even sexual orientation.  But despite the directions of these performers’ comedy, they have large gay followings that have never required an apology for the comedians’ barbed comments, even when they’ve been directed at the LGBT community.
So why, then, is an apology expected of Morgan for his own distasteful humor?  Is it because, unlike the previously named comedians, Morgan is not considered a gay icon?  As audiences, we tend to give a bit more leeway to comedy acts that go too far if the comedian is considered part of (or a supporter of) the group targeted in the routine.  Concerning my earlier example from the Joan Rivers film, Rivers further defended her jokes about the deaf community to her heckler by proclaiming that her mother was deaf.  As a member of the group, she then gains some right or access to poke fun at it.  Roland S. Martin even mentions this protected status in his contribution to the Morgan debate, drawing comparisons between the inappropriateness of Morgan’s words with a non-African American using the N-word.  Because Morgan is neither a member nor vocal proponent of the LGBT community, he has no clearance from the group to disparage them in a comedy act.  Perhaps Morgan’s disconnection from the community makes his comments about it seem more insensitive, but that still should not merit an apology from the entertainer for delving into such territory.
Although Morgan should not have to apologize for his poor attempt at humor, I do believe his choice of material was poorly timed, given the location in which he delivered it.  Prior to Morgan’s performance, Tennessee had attracted national attention for its legislatures’ passage of a law prohibiting the word “gay” from being used within the public school system.  The state’s apparent disdain for homosexuals already creates a homophobic atmosphere in which Morgan’s comments about attacking his son should he claim to be gay could only exacerbate an already hostile environment, especially for the state’s gay youth.  Comedian Wanda Sykes echoed that sentiment in her Twitter post, stating that “for any youth in TN or any numerous place [sic], Tracy just yelled ‘Fire,’ in a crowded theater.”  While Morgan’s comments certainly don’t help the situation in Tennessee, it could still be regarded as a comedian’s attempt at edgy (albeit, in this case, failed) humor using current topics as material fodder. 
Did Morgan push too far then?  Most definitely; if delivered as Rogers described it, Morgan’s routine was both offensive and in poor taste, but he’s not the only comedian to have done so, and he certainly won’t be the last.  I personally don’t feel as insulted by his comedy performance as I am by his decision, in the face of social pressure, to conduct at Apology Tour, in which he has most recently met with homeless gay youth to discuss their issues.  The move seems less like a learning opportunity for Morgan than it does a publicity stunt that will more likely exploit those he encounters than truly benefit them.   
           Another possible reason for demanding Morgan’s apology appears to be the apparent seriousness with which he delivered his rant, but his true intentions would be very difficult to assess accurately.  When asked by a CNN reporter about Morgan’s attitude while making the comments, Rogers, who first posted about Morgan’s tirade on Twitter, stated, “I could tell that it seemed to go from a joking demeanor to ‘this is a point in my show to where I’m very serious about what I’m saying.’”  I don’t question Rogers’ perception of events, and Morgan may very well have become more serious in this portion of his routine, but even that is not necessarily a true reflection of the performer’s attitude toward the subject.  Comedians often convey various types of emotions while telling their stories or setting up their punch lines.  They will even feign frustration at groups or specific people to create a suitable atmosphere in which their material might succeed, but if we require a comedian to apologize any time his or her act appears too serious or potentially offensive, then I believe we risk unnecessary censorship.  People are going to say things that are offensive, and those things may or may not still be considered humorous.  Martin best sums up this concept in his own piece, in which he states that we’re all guilty of laughing at something that disparages other people or groups, sometimes even groups in which we include ourselves.  If we’ve laughed at similar jokes that have a sexist, homophobic, or even racist overtone, then we are (at least equally) guilty of promoting the comedy that many have been so eager to have Morgan apologize for having attempted in Nashville.

Reference Links
Kevin Rogers interviewed by CNN
Tracy's Bizarre Apology Tour
Tracy Morgan and the limits of comedy, by Roland S. Martin
Wanda Sykes discusses Morgan's Rant

1 comment:

  1. In his wonderful biography of vaudeville, "Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace," former vaudevillian Joe Laurie, Jr. discussed how so many comedians in vaudeville often played on racial and ethnic stereotypes. Weber and Fields, among others, were known for their German and Dutch acts while a host of famous comics from Lew Dockstader and Marie Dressler to Eddie Cantor and Bert Williams performed in blackface. Laurie explains that much of this humour, while now considered very offensive, was a way for Americans to acclimate themselves to the new immigrants as well as African-Americans.

    Granted, some of the historical humour was meant to degrade and demean but not all. While Morgan's humour was in bad taste, I don't really think it was meant to degrade and demean. If we generalize and say all humour that is based on stereotypes is degrading and demeaning, despite the intent of the performer, we might as well get rid of all comedy and never laugh again for fear of offending someone.

    Excellent post!