In Defense of Tracy Morgan



Louis CK elaborates:

Well I've said a lot of things that were worse than what he said. I have my things that make it OK for people when I say them. I have my irony and different levels that I'm working at, so that makes it OK for people around me, for people that come to my shows. And people heard this Tracy shit mostly third-hand. He didn't stand on a public stage and say this stuff. He didn't make these announcements: "Here, America, are my views." 

Where you say something makes a huge difference about what you say and what it means and what you let yourself say. There's a lot of times when I let myself channel bad ideas as a way to do comedy. I think it's something that's a healthy thing to do, honestly. And I think the person who really fucked people up and hurt people with Tracy's words was whoever took it out of that Nashville club and put it on the national stage--whoever called Huffington Post or whoever started this shit, and said, "Guess what Tracy Morgan said," and announced it to the rest of the world. He wasn't trying to say it to the rest of the world. 

So when I read stuff like, How are gay people going to feel when they read this? Well they didn't have to read it! They weren't part of that show. Maybe there were gay people there who were laughing. You don't fucking know. Nobody gets to say that they represent anybody and they're offended on behalf of the whole world. You can see this shit really bothers me. I didn't carefully inspect what he said. 
I heard some of it, and it made me laugh. I didn't get the context, but I have to defend it, because if I was in his role, if I was in his situation, which I might be someday--which I already am for having said something on his behalf--I would want someone to step forward and say something. This is a freedom that I live off of. I think, whatever, if Tracy made a mistake, he certainly didn't deserve all of this. 

And I don't know him well, but he's a good guy. So I'm using that judgment, of just, hey, 
I met him and he's a good guy. And I get a sense of him as a father, and there's no way he would stab his kid. It's a dumb thing to take at face value. You'd have to be a moron. And if you do, you are not allowed to laugh at any more jokes. You are not allowed to laugh at any jokes that have any violence or negative feelings attached to them, ironically or otherwise. 

I think there's a lot of hypocrisy in that. If anybody thinks that what he said is true and there's no comedy in it, don't come to my shows. I've said to many audiences that I think you shouldn't rape someone unless you have a good reason, like you want to fuck them and they won't let you. That's worse than what he said! And I didn't wink and say, just kidding. I just said it.

Not that he cares, but I like Louis CK. A lot. I think his show is weirdly, borderline genius and has a kind of introspective brutal honesty that I find really courageous. I think that last joke exhibits what I'm talking about. It sounds like a statement about women, but in fact the absurdism of the claim reveals CK's on-stage persona as the joke's target. 

Very few people would (publicly) claim that there are "good reasons" for rape. Many people on the other hand, do believe, and do publicly claim, as Tracy Morgan said, that gay people are not "born this way," that anti-gay bullying is insignificant, and that if gays can "take a dick up the ass...they can take a joke." Moreover, those people tend to hold political power in states like Tennessee. 

I think it's also important to understand precisely how this story came out. Kevin Rogers, a fan of Tracy Morgan's, who happens to be gay, went to Morgan's show, was offended by his act, and via Facebook, posted a write-up of what he saw. Louis CK admits that "he didn't get the context," and is upset that "people hear this shit mostly third hand." But Rogers isn't reporting third-hand. He was there, saw the context and was offended.  From the write-up:

The sad thing is that none of this rant was a joke. His entire demeanor changed during that portion of the night. He was truly filled with some hate towards us. As far as I could see 10 to 15 people walked out.

Now perhaps Rogers overreacted and missed the joke, but he was present for it. Moreover, Morgan himself apologized and has not challenged Rogers characterization of the actual events. 

In terms of those events, I fail to see why CK is any more qualified to say what happened than the "third-hand" listeners he's inveighing against. Louis CK, himself, is a third-hand listener. The person "who fucked up" is not. The person "who fucked up" is a gay man living in a state where the government is actively trying to make it easier for gay kids to get stomped out at school. 

All together, I think this defense has a lot more to do with Louis CK than it does with Tracy Morgan. CK makes a living saying impolite things, which by his lights, take us to "scary places." He's damn good at it, but I suspect he could easily see someone taking one of his bits and either out of ignorance, or out of malice, causing him a lot of pain. I understand that fear. 

But I also think it's worth pointing out that America is not exactly starved of dissident humorists who take us to those "scary places." This is not 1956. South Park is in its fifteenth season. Sarah Silverman is a star. The right to say impolite things is sacred and essential. Unfortunately, the right to not be misinterpreted is not.

Finally, I think it's worth flagging CK's point that Morgan is a "good guy" and the attendant notion that the only case for offense is rooted in an obsessive literalism. The "good guy" excuse for homophobic utterances is a cousin of the "good guy" defense for racist utterances. The implicit idea is that only orcs and child-molesters exhibit hateful bigotry. It's a deeply self-comforting line of thought, that allows people to excuse all sorts of evil, unintentional and otherwise, in their midst.

I am sure that Michael Richards is a nice guy too. I'm also sure that he wouldn't actually lynch someone. Does that then make it OK? It's just jokes, right? Mickey Rooney was a "nice guy" too. He still fucked up one of my favorite movies.

MORE: There's also this kind of credentialism which holds that, somehow, real comedians know what Tracy Morgan meant, and as CK says, only "morons" would be offended.

Here is Wanda Sykes:

I fault the TN lawmakers. They've created an anti-gay environment. Don't believe Tracy would be so ignorant in LA. I do believe in free speech, but for a youth in TN or any other numerous place, Tracy just yelled, 'Fire,' in a crowded theater. 

 Ro, [Roland Martin] I love and respect you, so I feel that I can tell you that your column is some bullshit. We can do better. Tracy has the right to say whatever he wants to say, just like we have the right to say, not acceptable. and WE as a country. We used to picnic to watch public hangings, but WE figured out, that was some sick shit. 

I wonder what would have happened if, say, Larry The Cable Guy had said this in Tennessee. I'd be very interested in who would line up to defend him.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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