a few thoughts on tracy morgan

I listen to and watch a lot of stand-up comedy. I'm kind of a comedy nerd, actually. I've even done a couple of open mic nights myself, and have plans to do more in the future. Which is to say, I enjoy it as pure entertainment, but if someone is really, really good, then I also tend to dissect what they do and how they do it. How they pace themselves, how they construct a bit as variation on a theme, how they set something up and come back to it much later in a way you don't easily expect, etc.

And personally, I don't have much patience for comics that just "tell jokes". In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of a (good) comic working today that just does joke after joke, with the possible exception of Zach Galifianakis (and even he takes a break from the one liners to do an awkward lip synch or piano bit.) But I digress; my point is, modern stand-up comedy as an art form involves exploring ideas, telling stories, and in some cases pushing right up against the bleeding edge of people's sensibilities.

Getting a laugh involves being willing to say what nobody--or at least most people--don't or won't say.

I really wish that Tracy Morgan's bit that has caused such an outrage was easily available, because I'd like to hear it in the context of his act. As reported, it doesn't sound like it was very funny. And indeed for many people, joking about violence against your (hypothetical) gay son is a bridge too far, because actual violence of that sort is just too common for this to be a laughing matter. Fair enough.

But I'm just too damn in love with comedy (and free speech) to say that any subject is always wrong, always off limits, always untouchable. Which isn't to say that some jokes aren't in extremely bad taste. Many are. Sometimes, this is what makes them funny. Sometimes, it's what keeps them from being funny. And the line there isn't all that well-defined.

Except...in one way it is. The thing that appeals to me most about stand-up is its purity. Success (and failure) in stand-up are completely unambiguous: either people laugh, or they don't. If you construct a highly conceptual, multi-layered bit with perfect timing, and it falls flat--you failed. If you tell a dick joke and get a laugh, you succeeded.

So I think it's important to keep that in mind when considering Tracy Morgan: he went to the edge, and fell off. It happens. But the difference isn't the words he used, or the subject, or even what's in his heart with regard to gay people. It's that the joke simply didn't work. People didn't laugh...and if they had, you'd never have heard about any of this.

I have no idea what Tracy Morgan really thinks about gay people. Nor do I particularly care. In any case, I hope he doesn't end up in "rehab".

Because that time would be much better spent working on better jokes.

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