Comedians: say what you want. Just be prepared to deal with backlash
Just how far should comedians go? 30 Rock star Tracy Morgan has been the subject of much debate over the past week, after an attendee of his stand-up gig in Nashville last week reported on the comedian’s colorful remarks about homosexuality. In a Facebook post by Kevin Rogers – the offended patron at Morgan’s show – he detailed Morgan’s rants about how homosexuality being wrong because “God don’t make no mistakes.” Morgan also said that he would stab his own son if he started speaking in a high-pitched voice.
This story, of course, set Twitter and the Internet aflame in controversy. No stranger to offensive jokes himself, Chris Rock tweeted “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in world where Tracy Morgan can’t say foul inappropriate shit.” Sure, Morgan’s comments were horrendously over-the-top and ill-advised, but Rock is getting to the bigger issue here: should there be restrictions on what comedians are allowed to say? Comedian and fellow button-pusher Louis C.K. chimed in via his Twitter account as well, saying the following: “Tracey Morgan said something wrong, evil, cruel, ignorant and hilarious. He was on a comedy stage, not at a pulpit”. C.K. also said that “you have a right to be offended, sound off. As a man who hates violence and discrimination against gays or anyone, I was not offended.” Echoing the sentiment put forth by Rock, C.K. also expressed his disfavor of censorship: “If every word a person says has to be right and balanced and fair, I will jump off a tall thing onto a hard place.”
Frankly, Rock and C.K. are right, to a degree. It’s a good thing comedians are allowed to say whatever they want. For decades, they have made a living on their ability to push buttons. George Carlin famously coined the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine, which has since become legendary. His was a response to Lenny Bruce’s arrest on obscenity charges in 1961. Bruce was acquitted, but the fact of the matter is he had been arrested for using dirty words. Society has relaxed a bit in the time since the tight-laced era in which Bruce tried to make people laugh with four-letter words. Now, comedians have the freedom to say all the shits, pisses, fucks, and bitches they could possibly want to say. Some current comedians like Ron White make a living off of the kind of humor that would have resulted in jail sentences a few decades ago.
And yet, Tracy Morgan talked his way into a PR disaster with this one. His 30 Rock co-star Tina Fey publicly slammed his comments, saying that they were “disturbing.” Fey mentioned that comedians do have the right to work out “new,” “raw” material in the live setting, which Morgan may have been doing. But that’s still not really any excuse for Morgan’s hateful words. Still, the fallout of Morgan’s ranting has many people asking if NBC should fire him from the show. That would certainly turn some heads, but what kind of precedent would it set for comedians? It’s a dangerous thing to think about, and hopefully the NBC executives don’t think they have to fire him in order to save face.
It’s not as if comedians don’t have to suffer the consequences when they say something they end up regretting. Remember how Michael Richards dealt with that African-American heckler? People didn’t let him live it down. That incident haunts him to this day, as he hasn’t really been in the public eye very much since going on that racially-motivated tirade. Comedians DO have to deal with the backlash. Just as Richards was a few years back, Morgan is now in the defensive position. He has plans to return to Tennessee and meet with people offended by the “jokes,” as well as shoot a public service announcement denouncing the kind of thinking he expressed at the comedy club. These are the sorts of things comedians have to do when they say things they shouldn’t under the guise of “comedy.”
Simply put, there shouldn’t be “restrictions” on what comedians can and cannot say. Censorship is bad. We do have freedom of speech, after all. The key here is this: you have to be prepared to deal with it when people get upset about your words. This could end up ruining Morgan’s reputation, sure. But firing him from 30 Rock? That would put forth a pretty dangerous precedent for comedians. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
Tracy Morgan crossed the line
Sure, comedians should be given a pretty loose leash when it comes to their routine. Get on stage, make fun of some people, push buttons, get some laughs, and go home. There’s a difference between sophomoric sex jokes and just being flat-out hateful and cruel, though. Tracy Morgan crossed that line with his recent anti-homosexuality rant in Nashville, and it’s a line comedians shouldn’t ever cross.
Saying that homosexuality is wrong because “God don’t make no mistakes” is deplorable. Not only does that bring religion into the issue, but it’s also a form of bullying. People (some of them gay, such as Kevin Rogers, the enraged comedy club attendee who posted Morgan’s comments on the Internet for all to see) paid money to see a comedy show. They didn’t pay for a hate-fueled rant. Saying that you would stab your own son if he came home and started talking in a high-pitched voice isn’t comedy.
Why Tracy Morgan would allow himself to drift beyond the bounds of “offensive comedy” and into the realm of anti-gay bullying and vitriolic hate is a mystery, but he’s definitely dealing with the consequences now. The media and Twitter frenzy erupted in the days after the Facebook note was publicized by various news outlets, and with good reason.
Should Morgan be fired from 30 Rock for his statements? That’s for NBC to decide. If they keep him on the show, they are willingly looking the other way. CBS had no choice but to get rid of Charlie Sheen, the star of the network’s #1 show, Two and a Half Men, because of Sheen’s PR nightmare over the past few months. They decided to pull the plug rather than allow his distractions to dictate the future of the show. It’s unlikely that Tracy Morgan will ever make any more statements like the ones he made in Nashville now that this has created such a controversy, but NBC has to make the decision if they should continue giving him a job. It’s an unfavorable decision for NBC to have to make, but it’s there.
Of course, Morgan is now apologetic for his tirade. He’s going to meet with gay youth in New York and then go back to Tennessee for a meeting with people offended by his remarks and a public service announcement shoot. These are all admirable, but they’re also obviously just damage control. The reality is, Morgan cannot go back in time and retract his comments, so he’ll most likely have to deal with them for the rest of his professional career.
It’s one thing for comedians to push buttons. It’s an entirely different issue when they choose to step down from the pedestal of “funny person” and start spewing hateful, mean-spirited comments about a particular group of people. Tracy Morgan is now dealing with those consequences, but there’s no denying the fact that he definitely crossed the line between comedy and hate with his anti-homosexuality rant.