Tracy Morgan and the limits of comedy
By Roland S. Martin, CNN Contributor
Whenever there is an issue dealing with race, misogyny, sexual orientation or some other hot-button issue, we often hear the cry that we need to have a national discussion about it, whether in the media, in our homes or in our churches.
Yet what always seems to happen is that the discussion ends up being you take your side, I take my side, and we express our righteous indignation. Then what was supposed to have started as a conversation turns into a knockdown, drag-out fight, with folks cussing one another out, naturally causing others not to talk, to discuss or to think.
Case in point: Tracy Morgan's graphic and violent anti-gay "rant" or "bit" or "comic routine" or "meltdown" during a standup act last week in Nashville.
We haven't seen any video of the show or heard the audio, and are basing our judgments of what he said on the account of someone who was in the audience, was offended and wrote about it on Facebook.
I got wind of the issue when I read Morgan's apology for what he had to say. When I saw the CNN.com story, my initial thought was, "Damn. Talk about hateful, nasty and crude."
Yet as I followed the traffic of discussion on Facebook and Twitter, all of a sudden I began to see how folks were categorizing what he had to say and began to ask myself about the other implications of our reaction.
So I wrote a piece for my nationally syndicated column on that, and all hell broke loose.
"You hate gays." "You're homophobic." "Why can't you be on our side?" "Why are you defending Tracy Morgan?" "Comedians have a First Amendment right." "It's just jokes, folks!"
We had a strong back and forth on Facebook, Twitter and e-mail, and it was easy to see the passions aroused by what Morgan said and what I wrote.
My goal wasn't to defend Morgan, as some have said. What stirred me to comment was seeing someone say that, "Comedians should never joke about murder or bring harm and violence to children."
Someone else tweeted me, "Bigotry has no place in comedy."
So I cited examples of jokes about the murder of O.J. Simpson's ex-wife and her friend; a comedian joking he wished he showed up at home and his wife was dead; a ton of jokes about beating kids; hitting a 1-year-old in the throat or stomach; and many comedians who have used a gay slur incessantly in their acts, and presented stereotypes of how gays and lesbians talk and walk.
These aren't the same as what Morgan said, but they could easily be seen as offensive to many.
Yes, all of these come from popular comedians who are loved and adored by millions.
To the people who rightfully condemned Morgan's anti-gay comments, and to everyone else, I asked them to answer honestly: "Have you ever laughed at vile, nasty, offensive comics who told sexist, racist and homophobic jokes?"
The response? A resounding yes.
I can sit here and tell you with no uncertainty, that I have laughed hysterically at jokes based on sexist, racist, or homophobic stereotypes told by a litany of comedians. That's right. LOL. LMAO. ROFL.
Take your pick.
I've listened to Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Flip Wilson, Lisa Lampanelli, Bill Maher, Rick Ducommun, Bernie Mac, George Lopez, Martin Lawrence, Don Rickles, Carlos Mencia, Andrew Dice Clay, Kathy Griffin -- and the list can go on and on and on.
I've watched Lampanelli, marketed as the Queen of Mean, call a guy in the audience a Hispanic slur; rip someone as "a skinny Jew;" cuss out a guy by telling him she uses the N-word and doesn't care; and on and on and on.
Is there anyone or any ethnic group that Don Rickles hasn't insulted? And he's a comic legend!
So, I think we should make an effort to have a real discussion and not just a knee-jerk reaction when some of us say that the comedy stage has no place for sexism, racism and homophobia. Are we really being hypocritical?
Are we saying that as a society, when we have major social epidemics, those are off limits to the comedy stage? Just the other day I watched comedian Patrice O'Neal's stand-up act late one night on Comedy Central. He had a bit about how good sex felt for someone not wearing a condom. To a socially conscious person, that's an abomination when you look at the HIV/AIDS rates in America, especially in the African-American community. (O'Neal is black.)
When a prominent HIV/AIDS activist took me to task on my Morgan column, I asked her about O'Neal's bit, knowing the issue is her passion. I didn't get a response. Child abuse is a major problem in America. But don't let me pull out the video clips of comedians of all colors, genders and sexual orientations talking about beating a kid with anything they can get their hands on.
Are we saying that because it's a societal problem, no joking and no laughing are allowed?
When groups that have been oppressed begin to make sweeping pronouncements about what can or cannot be said, there are going to be the contradictions that have to be confronted.
I've had some long, running battles on Twitter, radio, TV and in person with African-Americans on the N-word. For me, I don't like it and I don't use it. On one hand, black folks will blow up when someone white uses the N-word. A lot of folks were offended when people who were not black used the N-word in "The Hangover II." But if that was a movie with a predominantly black cast? Nothing.
The NAACP had a bury-the-N-word ceremony at its national convention in Detroit a few years ago, but the NAACP Image Awards, which were created to promote the positive images of African-Americans, has honored comedians and musical acts that have used the N-word in their work.
So society says it's bad, but then for some it's fine -- so what's the mixed message we're sending?
Let's look at the gay slur, the F-word. When Kobe Bryant directed the F-word at a referee and he was caught on camera, there was a huge uproar. He was hit with a $100,000 fine, and the largest gay and lesbian civil rights group, Human Rights Campaign, issued this statement: "Hopefully Mr. Bryant will recognize that as a person with such fame and influence, the use of such language not only offends millions of LGBT people around the world, but also perpetuates a culture of discrimination and hate that all of us, most notably Mr. Bryant, should be working to eradicate."
I had a gay Twitter follower who said that Lampanelli is his absolute favorite comedian and he sent me a YouTube link to one of her standup acts. In the clip, she used the F-word with impunity while thanking her gay and lesbian fans for showing up. She had to have used it more than a dozen times.
So I asked this guy how he could say the F-word was wrong, but his favorite comedian used it with ease. His reply? She's a friend of the gay community and has donated money to gay causes.
So if the HRC says we're to eradicate the F-word from our language, just as the NAACP says we're to get rid of the N-word, then why do we allow the exceptions to the rule, and end up praising the offenders as friends of our communities?
In response to my Tracy Morgan piece, I had gays and lesbians write me saying that I didn't say the same about Michael Richards or other examples of people who have used the N-word. Even Keith Boykin, whom I have known for some time, took me to task.
But I told them, and him, that I said repeatedly on CNN that Richards' N-word blowup wasn't a part of his stand-up act; it wasn't a bit; it wasn't a routine; he lashed out at a patron. Is there a difference? You bet.
Who remembers when Duane "Dog" Chapman was caught using the N-word on his son's answering machine? I was on CNN and was asked if he should lose his A&E show. I said, not at all. He made these comments in private, was on his son's answering machine, wasn't in the workplace, and it didn't rise to the level of him losing his show.
Yep, the black guy who has called out racism said a white guy like Chapman shouldn't lose his show.
One gay blogger tweeted me and said I had been wrong to call for Don Imus' firing because he was a comedian like Morgan, and that I employed a double standard. I replied that Imus wasn't a comedian; he had a respectable morning show that attracted presidential candidates, members of Congress, media titans, authors, academics, you name it.
I said over and over that had Imus still been a shock jock, we would have placed him in that category because we're used to having them make sexist, racist, homophobic comments.
Are people shocked by anything that Howard Stern says? No. Think about the kind of stuff he has said about any group. What happens when we hear it? Our response for the most part has been, "Well, he is a shock jock." And we move on with our lives.
So if we're honest, we are known to make exceptions to the rule. Our society will have a different standard for a shock jock then we would for a traditional morning show host.
Our society will let comedians say things on stage that if someone else said them in the workplace, we would be filing lawsuits.
And what is so amazing is that this same society will pay to go be insulted, or laugh at a comedian insulting another group, and we will go home saying how great the show was. Then we turn around and say that bigotry has no place in our society. Really?
This isn't an attempt to muddy the issue of dealing with Tracy Morgan. Let's hold him accountable; let's all agree that what he said was vile and despicable.
But if we leave it there, and do not become more introspective as a society and confront our own contradictions on race, sex, homophobia and violence, we will have allowed the moment to go to waste and failed.
If all expressions of bigotry are wrong, then it's wrong on the comedy stage. If all sexism is wrong, then there isn't an exemption on the stage. If racism is always bad, then let's have zero tolerance. If all homophobia is unacceptable, then no one -- friend or foe -- gets a pass. If violence against women should never be joked about, then let's hold even comedians accountable. If we say that no one should ever joke about violence committed against children, gay or not, from this day forth, it ends.
Don't dismiss this. Think about what I'm saying. Think about what you accept and don't accept. For God's sake, don't just offer a surface rebuke of Tracy Morgan, think about how profound sexism, racism and homophobia -- and violent crime based on such bigotry -- is in our society, and how you are willing to deal with it.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland Martin.