Comedy has long been accepted as a medium in which performers can push the boundaries of taste. The same way visual artists can show us something that both shocks and expands our sensibilities, comic artists, at their best, can tell us things that jar, surprise and even offend us — and make us reconsider thorny issues.
But that's not what Tracy Morgan, the comedian and star of the popular NBC TV comedy "30 Rock," did during a recent stand-up gig in Nashville, when he unleashed a rant against gays and said that if a son of his ever came home sounding effeminate, he would pull out a knife and stab him.
That wasn't pushing any new boundaries; if anything, it was a reversion to old ones. In the process, Morgan revealed that he's capable of frightening (and unfunny) invective, and left his audience wondering whether he is a garden-variety homophobe.
Morgan isn't the first public figure trying to be funny who crossed a line that seems fuzzy — until the minute you step over it. In a failed attempt to be amusing and irreverent during a news conference at the Cannes Film Festival last month, Danish director Lars von Trier rambled on about how he is a Nazi because of his German background, adding that he sympathized with Hitler "a little bit." When comic Michael Richards was unnerved by an African American heckler at a comedy club several years ago, he responded with a racial-slur-laced tirade. And Don Imus referred to the Rutgers University women's basketball team as a group of "nappy-headed hos."
Generally in such cases, the offender publicly apologizes and some degree of social shunning follows, at least for a while. Von Trier was banned from the festival. Richards issued his mea culpa on David Letterman's TV show as well as on the Rev. Jesse Jackson's radio program. Imus was fired (though he is now back on the air).
Morgan released an apology addressed to his fans and the gay and lesbian community. "I'm not a hateful person and don't condone any kind of violence against others," it read in part. Tina Fey, the executive producer and co-star of "30 Rock," released a statement admonishing Morgan for "the violent imagery" of his rant and saying she was "glad" he had apologized. Should she and NBC now fire Morgan? Only a few years ago, actor Isaiah Washington lost his job on "Grey's Anatomy," months after he reportedly used a gay slur in referring to a fellow cast member. But Washington was at work with his colleagues. Morgan was in a comedy club.
Morgan's future on the show is a call for Fey and NBC to make. There are plenty of ways to handle this situation. But when artists slip from funny to hateful, it's time to stop laughing and call them out on it. We all learn something from doing that.