Tracy Morgan's comments and what civilians will never totally understand about doing standup comedy

The Tracy Morgan conversation has folks arguing about just how much the comedy stage should be a "safe space." When I hear civilians lashing out at words said onstage, I think there's something they miss. Until you've actually performed standup comedy and talked extemporaneously to a crowd, you'll never know what it's really like. Once you do, you can't help but empathize at least a little bit with someone who takes that chance and fucks up.

Improvising or writing onstage is a tightrope walk. And if you're talking about edgy/provocative topics, it can be even more dangerous. That's part of what makes it so thrilling to watch. Make it to the other side and it can be magical. Fall off and you wind up in a shark pit. (Is that a thing?)

Comics defend other comics for the same reason that cops defend other cops; We've been there before. When a civilian hears about an innocent suspect that gets gunned down, he's outraged: "How could this happen?" When a cop hears about it, he'll say something about the stress of being in the line of fire: "You'll never know what it's like to approach a suspect and not be sure if he's reaching for a wallet or a gun." Luckily for us, we don't actually kill when we "kill."

Personally, I take anything that is improvised on a comedy stage with a huge grain of salt. Because I've said plenty of in-the-moment things onstage I later regretted. As bad as Morgan or Michael Richards? Probably not. But there has definitely been plenty of stuff I'd have to apologize for if everything I said was reported by the media. Take chances onstage and you're bound to misstep occasionally. And once in a while, you may misstep badly. That's part of the deal.

(Note: I'd be more likely to condemn a written/planned joke than a riff. Malice aforethought, etc. But I'd still probably be way more lenient on that than an ordinary person. Also worth keeping in mind: I don't understand being offended.)

The conversation reminds me of Dave Chappelle's thoughts on Richards' meltdown at The Laugh Factory. While performing on the same stage, Chappelle explained how watching the whole thing made him realize he's "20% black and 80% comedian."

The black dude in me is like "Kramer, you motherfucker." I was hurt. And the comedian in me was just like "Whoa, nigger's having a bad set. Hang in there, Kramer. Don't let 'em break you, Kramer!"

Obviously Chappelle hates what Richards said. But he's been in the trenches too and can't help but identify with a guy who's losing it onstage while dealing with a non-receptive crowd. That's the empathy you get from walking in a comedian's shoes.

I'm not saying Morgan should have said what he said. I get why gay folks are especially pissed. I know the goal of those criticizing him is a noble one. But the road to neutered standup is paved with good intentions.

I believe the standup stage is a sacred space; It's one of the few places left where people are allowed to experiment, confront, and dance with ideas that society generally tiptoes around or avoids completely. That won't always go well. But if you try to take away the shitty part of that, you're likely to sacrifice the wonderful part of it too.


Jeffrey said...

We get to say anything we want as comedians. The bloggers and the critics get to say anything they want about our show. That's the deal we make. Comedians that get offended at offended bloggers (as some did) sound ridunkulous. And no, I don't get that you're one of the offended.

myq said...

Interesting comparison to cops defending other cops, which sometimes happens to the point of corruption and a shitty status quo.

Jeffrey's comment is a good one. People getting mad at Tracy doesn't mean he CAN'T say anything he wants, just that when he talks, people listen and they might not all like what he says. The more famous you are, the more people are listening, and the more people there are that might not like you. That's the risk vs. reward of being famous.

If you say things that might horrify millions of people but you're in a basement and you're not famous and you're only talking to dozens of people, you're probably not going to get into trouble.

That said, Louis CK is saying "inappropriate" words in his act and on his show, to many many people (more people than were at Tracy's show), and there's certainly been no backlash like this, because the context of what he's saying is different.

That's why I don't buy the argument some people are making that this sort of thing squelches the process or creativity or experimentation of comedians. This is PART of the experimentation. And nothing recently has stopped Stanhope or Burr or CK or Silverman from being themselves and saying exactly what they wanted to, even in the face of being criticized and protested by the media or public at times (Silverman, specifically comes to mind, when she used the word "chink" on Conan years ago, and defended it on Bill Maher's show, and then wrote about the whole experience in her book which is great).

Doing comedy is all about saying things to the public and getting the public's reaction. Certainly, it's supposed to be about the public that is THERE (and if people who aren't there don't have the proper context, then that is unfortunate), but I don't think that when comedians are saying what they really want to say, and stand behind it, any damage is being done by having some people not like it. Like Jeffrey said, in much fewer words. Good work, Jeffrey. Stop talking, Myq. Nice post Matt.

soce said...

Hey anyone can say whatever they want. But if they bomb, they bomb. And Tracy definitely bombed badly.

To me, doing a joke where no one laughs isn't so terrible. But doing a joke that makes people feel that their safety is threatened... that's a bad joke.

I'm not offended to the point of hating Tracy. I'll still enjoy 30 Rock, and I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and realize that we all make mistakes.

He certainly has the right to say whatever he'd like. But hey if you are continuing to bomb in the bad way that he did, most comedians would change their style up and find jokes that go over better, or at least ones that will not get them damaging, negative press.

Kevin McCaffrey said...

I think, mainly, Jeffrey got it right, in much fewer words than I'll use.

I agree that it's silly for comedians to get so upset about people being upset about Tracy. We can't say people shouldn't be offended, and then get offended about people being offended. It's a snake eating its own tail.

And at the same time, I agree with Matt, that I don't really get "being offended" in most cases. You know what you should do? Not care. Comedians don't legislate with a joke. If you want to get something done, there are better people to fight.

I do think bombing hatefully (as I think Tracy did -- being hateful is different than not being hateful, it's not all just equal art independent of the content of the words you speak), is worse than bombing not-hatefully. But if you really think Tracy Morgan is the guy to rally against, you're not really focused on cause and effect, are you? You can decide to rally against him, but that's not really getting anything done. You can seem righteous by doing it, but he's not stopping anyone from doing anything. Not really.

I want to know...does anyone think Tracy said anything funny in that run? I have yet to really hear that anyone thinks he did. It seems he was lazy, and decided to be mean as a throw in. That's pretty bad. It's cheap, and it seemed amateurish. Cheap, hateful, and really, without a point. It was hack to the point of the kind of crowd work that ends in: "Nice shirt...FAG!!!"

So if nothing else, I think he sucked. As a comic. As a guy, he wasn't any better that day.

Mike Lawrence said...

I don't think he was riffing, as I've heard he's said a lot of these comments before, probably to laughs. He just did it in a crowd that really didn't like it and wanted to do something about it. Just odd that it was Nashville, Tennessee of all places, which I suppose has become more Dixie Chicks and less Toby Keith.

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