Tracy Morgan is one of the few Americans who could give "going rogue" lessons to Sarah Palin -- a woman who, by the way, happens to have been one of his most controversial comedic targets. He's glibly riffed of his penis's resemblance to a "Star Wars" character and threatened that he's "getting all the basketball wives pregnant." And generally, when he's been very bad, he's been very funny.
But last week, he drew gasps instead of laughs during a gig in Nashville. As audience member Kevin Rogers wrote in an explanatory "Why I no longer 'like' Tracy Morgan" post, Morgan peppered his set with anti-gay remarks, including the assertion that "all this gay shit was crazy and that women are a gift from God and that 'Born This Way' is bullshit, gay is a choice, and the reason he knows this is exactly because 'God don't make no mistakes' (referring to God not making someone gay cause that would be a mistake)." He also reportedly said that his son "better talk to me like a man and not in a gay voice or I’ll pull out a knife and stab that little nigger to death." Rogers says that "As far as I could see 10 to 15 people walked out. I had to fight myself to stay seated, but I knew if I got up ... he won."
His story gained traction this week, when the LGBT organization Truth Wins Out picked it up, with a message from its director of social media Evan Hurst that "The last year has seen far too many reports of gay or gay-perceived youth either attempting or completing suicide as a result of anti-gay bullying. If Tracy Morgan indeed did say these things, he needs to respond immediately with either an explanation or a contrite apology ... Comedians have long pushed the envelope in tackling controversial subjects. Indeed, it’s part of their job description, and good comedians are able to do this and keep everybody laughing at the same time. However, abject hatred directed at vulnerable kids is not comedy, by anyone’s definition." On Friday, the Human Rights Campaign issued a similar statement that "Hateful remarks that mock youth suicides and the very real emotional and sometimes physical bullying LGBT kids face on a daily basis have no place in a comedy routine."
After initially issuing a "no comment," Morgan today issued a statement that "I want to apologize to my fans and the gay & lesbian community for my choice of words at my recent stand-up act in Nashville. I’m not a hateful person and don't condone any kind of violence against others. While I am an equal opportunity jokester, and my friends know what is in my heart, even in a comedy club this clearly went too far and was not funny in any context." Well, sure, what could be hateful about saying you'd stab your own child if he were gay?
Here's the thing. You can be wildly offensive. You can joke about gays or "the N word" or any damn thing in the world. But when you're truly hateful, it poisons the humor. And when you're seemingly completely oblivious to the real violence gay and lesbian youth face, to the epidemic of bullying that's killing kids, it just makes you seem like a crass bigot.
If there's any good to come out of Morgan's completely boneheaded behavior, it's that he was called out for it and he issued an apology -- something that one might optimistically view as a teachable moment. And more than that, it's opened up the conversation about the issue of sexual orientation and nature vs. nurture. An astute exchange on Jezebel Friday asked, Why should it matter? As one commenter wrote, "I've always said that the unspoken underpinning of the 'born this way' argument is that it tacitly legitimizes the idea that if people chose to be gay, hating them would be justifiable. Instead of, you know, hateful."
During his set last week, Morgan reiterated an old, self-justifying gag of his, that "if you can take a dick, you can take a joke." But whether you're born this way or find yourself along the way doesn't matter. You can take a joke without taking abuse.