I don’t like the word “faggot.” I’ll use it—in context or, very rarely, to make a point—but I don’t think it’s worthy of reclamation. It’s a term with a violent, hate-charged history, and I loathe hearing it. That having been said, I would never suggest a comedian not use it. You can’t censor comedy—I mean, you can, but you shouldn’t. If someone wants to use “faggot” or “retard” or the N-word (I’m still not comfortable typing it out) for comedic purposes, that’s his or her prerogative. If I don’t like it, that’s on me.
I bring this up because Tracy Morgan has come under fire lately for comments he made during a live show. It’s been called a “homophobic rant,” but I’d label it severely misguided comedy. Morgan essentially said (joked?) that queer people should stop being “pussies” about getting bullied. If his son were effeminate, he continued, he would stab him to death. Ha ha? It’s horrifying and, worse, it’s not even a little bit funny. But who cares? While Morgan should know better than to tell “jokes” so grounded in hate, I don’t think he would seriously kill his kid for being gay, nor do I think he was trying to incite his audience to violence.
Does it rub me the wrong way? Definitely. Will I ever see Tracy Morgan live? No, but I probably wasn’t going to, anyway. You have to look at the comments in context, as part of his set, not as a political statement. It’s ridiculous to call a bit of comedy a “homophobic rant.” I look at the jokes many of us write on Twitter—I know they’re supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but they could easily be condemned as sexist, racist, ageist. Maybe some of them do come from a place of genuine ignorance or prejudice, but no one wants to be labeled a monster because of a bad joke.
Remember when Michael Richards got in trouble for using the N-word repeatedly during his set? (If you don’t, he’s TV’s Kramer!) That was a case of very real and very blatant anger, as Richards launched into an attack on the hecklers at his show. There was no joke there, poorly conceived or otherwise. He was pissed, and that’s the worst word he could think to use. And if Morgan had singled people out in his audience, incessantly screamed “faggot” at them with no trace of irony, I probably wouldn’t be as quick to defend him.
And let me clear about my “defense”: I don’t think Tracy Morgan is funny, and his gay jokes were in the poorest of taste. It’s also disconcerting to hear that people in the audience were cheering him on, if only because it’s unclear they appreciated his tone. Violence against gay youth is a very serious issue, and there are certainly parents out there who believe they can knock some sense into their fruity kids. But does that mean comedians can’t joke about it? Of course not. We don’t have to like it, but evangelical Christians probably don’t like it when I joke about Jesus’ washboard abs. And I don’t plan on knocking that off any time soon.
Everyone is offended by something, so while I find Morgan’s material to be especially abhorrent, I’d feel like a hypocrite if I agreed that he should have apologized. What’s especially disconcerting is that he was forced to do this because he’s on a TV show—NBC had to publicly condemn his jokes, as though they represented his official stance on homosexuality. Comedians should be able to aspire to greater career heights (you know, like a TV series) without worrying about having their comedy neutered. Morgan isn’t a mouthpiece for 30 Rock or the Peacock. Comedy isn’t a PSA. The more you know!
So why is GLAAD wasting its time with this? Because what GLAAD does best is take everything way too seriously. Look, I recognize the harm of hate speech, but I’m also pragmatic about it. I don’t give a shit about what Tracy Morgan says, especially when there are legitimately dangerous anti-gay politicians in power. We’ve got another major election next year: we continue to fight for our right to marry, and to defend our right to serve in the military. Why are we wasting energy on this?
For all its good work, GLAAD frequently seems to miss the point. Let everyone take Morgan’s jokes as they will, but don’t tell him what he can’t say. And don’t tell us what we should be offended by. I’m too busy fearing every word that comes out of Rick Santorum’s mouth to concern myself with a comedian. Now, if Tracy Morgan decides to run for president, we can revisit the issue.
Crossposted to Huffington Post Entertainment here.