Defending Tracy Morgan

Tracy Morgan made a comment within the context of his stand-up routine for an audience which paid to see him. Now we have a slew of groups who never should have heard the joke anyway up in arms about it.
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I've been trying to figure out how best to approach the subject of Tracy Morgan, the comments he made during a recent show, and the angry reaction to them. I'll try to tread carefully since it's safe to say that every facet of this ugly miasma has a certain amount of importance and therefore deserves as much thoughtful consideration as possible.

Obviously, what Morgan said was pretty vicious and I see how it could be interpreted as cruelly homophobic to the point of earning him a rebuke, or at the very least a conversation that begins with the words, "Dude, did you really mean that stuff?"

Where the angry hordes who've chosen to take up Morgan's statements as a cause lose me, though, is when they demand something more than simply the apology that they've already gotten. I get that forcing someone to say that he's sorry should immediately make the sincerity of that apology suspect, which is why I've never understood why people instinctively make such demands in the first place. But if you receive a very public mea culpa, doesn't that accomplish the goal you're supposedly aiming for, namely to show the world that the offense had a far-reaching negative impact even if there wasn't one intended?

Tracy Morgan made a comment within the context of his stand-up routine and in front of an audience which paid to see him that at least one guy in the crowd was appalled by; my position remains that Morgan is a crazy person and that everyone in the crowd should have understood going into it what they were in for, but this guy decided to take the joke far beyond the confines of the comedy setting for which it was specifically intended. He was offended, and so he told the world about it -- and a bunch of other people who were never supposed to be exposed to the joke in the first place suddenly got to not only hear it but to react indignantly to it, as if Tracy Morgan had come to each of their homes and insulted them personally.

And so now you have groups like PFLAG, very concerned celebrities like Nia Vardalos, and average armchair pundits chiming in to demand that Tracy Morgan be made an example of as an object lesson to the rest of society. Because that's really what this is all about: It's not about forcing Morgan to understand that what he said was hurtful and crossed some line in the sand; it's about teaching everyone else that crossing that very subjective line will not be tolerated and will be met with the severest possible punishment short of having you arrested. You say something we deem unacceptable, even in the context of a joke, and we'll take away your livelihood and make you the cultural pariah you deserve to be. Because intolerance will not be tolerated. The desired outcome is nothing less than a chilling effect on what you say and how you say it.

Sorry, but that shouldn't stand.

Tracy Morgan wasn't attacking an audience member, a la Michael Richards, and he wasn't speaking as a representative of NBC or as his character on 30 Rock, so running to his "parents" and commanding them to discipline him -- demanding that NBC fire him outright -- is an abusive overreaction and a slightly underhanded move. As ridiculous as it was that Don Imus was fired by MSNBC for making an ineffectual and hilariously archaic comment about the Rutgers women's basketball team, at least that comment was made while he was on the air at MSNBC so it was within the network's purview to take action. Morgan was doing a comedy bit during his personal stand-up act; his role as an actor on an NBC show, working for a Broadway Video production, had no bearing whatsoever on it and should remain a separate matter. It's, quite frankly, not the network's business what Tracy Morgan does or doesn't do during his gigs. Likewise, there's an argument to be made that it's not really anyone's business who didn't buy a ticket to that show that night what Morgan said or didn't say.

One last thing: My history here at the Huffington Post and at my own blog shows that I tend to defend comedians pretty fiercely. There's a reason for this: They're the vanguard of our right to free speech, the canaries in the coal mine; they're the ones we count on to be able to push the envelope, challenge our sensibilities, even offend us occasionally because it's necessary for us as a culture. More than that, the interpretation of what they do is entirely subjective, and it simply isn't your right to tell me what is or isn't funny -- just like it isn't my right to tell you or anyone else what's funny. The world would be a much more tedious place without comics willing to truly put themselves out there and take risks -- to make fun of the sacrosanct and vilify the revered when necessary -- and their ability to do that should be protected at all costs. Making them grovel before the altar of political correctness, in the end, damages all of us.