Is Tracy Morgan's Scandal Killing Standup Comedy?

Comedy fans worry what Morgan's homophobic rant could do to standup

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Tracy Morgan's June 4 homophobic rant in Nashville, which sparked widespread condemnation and led Morgan on an extensive apology tour, is opening the door to greater scrutiny of the standup comedy world—to some fans of comedy, a worrisome trend. In an article titled "Let's Not Go Looking For Reasons to Be Offended by Tracy Morgan Now," Adam Frucci of the comedy website Splitsider notices the way Morgan's comedy is being received post-apology tour. Last week, for instance, Morgan finished giving cable news mea culpas and returned to New York to get back into his standup routine. "And wouldn't you know it, he said something that isn't politically correct! And now people are trying to get him to apologize again," writes Frucci.

In his act, Morgan said "Don't ever mess with women who have retarded kids. Them young retarded males is strong. They're strong like chimps." He also dropped lines about a teen romance he had "with a girl he described as 'a cripple' with a prosthetic arm, a mechanical larynx and a portable dialysis machine." The routine triggered outrage on Tuesday:

The Arc, a nonprofit advocacy group serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is already demanding an apology.

“Tracy Morgan should apologize immediately," Arc CEO Peter Berns, told E! News. "This quote is far too offensive to be excused as comedy, and it is very hurtful to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.

"Mr. Morgan has an incredibly powerful platform from which to fix this, and if he's learned anything in the last few weeks, he can't bomb this apology," Berns continued.

Frucci, who's made no bones about condemning Morgan's homophobic remarks, argues that the public scrutiny of Morgan's standup is being taken too far. "OK guys, that homophobic rant was not good, but these are jokes. If you start demanding formal apologies for use of the words 'retard' and 'cripple,' well, there will have to be a whole lot of apologies from a whole lot of comedians," he writes. "Let's let the man be who he is: crazy and sometimes offensive. He crossed the line and atoned for it, but don't expect the guy to suddenly turn into some squeaky clean comedian."

Frucci is not along in worrying about the chilling effect Morgan's homophobic rant could have on the comedy world. Comedian Louis C.K. sparked an unusual debate two weeks ago when he came to the defense of Morgan, even as Morgan was apologizing for what he had said (which, for the record, was that he would stab his son with a knife if he discovered he was gay):

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...

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.

C.K.'s defense of Morgan prompted input from The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, a self-professed C.K. fan, who disagreed with the comedian about the equivalency of the two jokes, saying "Very few people would (publicly) claim that there are 'good reasons' for rape," he writes. "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.'" Coates also pushed back against the idea that controversial comedy was under any sort of attack:

I... 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.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.