I’m a stand up comic. I like many others, have said things that would be considered “edgy” or cross the proverbial line either on stage or via some form of social networking. That is the job of the stand up comedian community and has always been. However, there is definitely a right and wrong way to do it and CNN’s Roland Martin doesn’t seem to understand this concept. Well as a stand up comic Roland, allow me to explain.
For those of you who don’t know, Tracy Morgan went on an anti gay tirade at a recent show in Tennessee about killing his son if he told him he was gay and the media firestorm ensued. Syndicated columnist and CNN contributor Roland Martin seemed to rush to Tracy’s defense before getting into a twitter debacle with Wanda Sykes, Keith Boykin, and other LGBT twitter folk.
In a nutshell, Martin’s argument is this; Tracy shouldn’t be judged so harshly because comedians are inherently allowed to say things in show that they would never be allowed to get away with off stage and we have adored and laughed hysterically. He uses the examples of bits like Chris Rock’s “OJ I understand” which seems to glorify murder, Robin Harris talking about wanting his wife to die, Steve Harvey describing how a laid off black man would would go on a murderous violent tirade, and Bernie Mac calling his six year old nephew a faggot and we didn’t get angry about it. He also references George Carlin’s “N-word” bit as use of inflammatory language from a white man with no repercussion from anyone.
Now here’s why he’s wrong. Yes, all of those bits allude to the acceptance of implicit actions they’re speaking of, but what Roland Martin fails to realize is the reason people are laughing at those jokes is because WE DON’T TAKE THEM SERIOUSLY. Jokes are funny because they’re a play on the truth, not THE truth. We don’t walk away from the venue going “I can’t believe Chris Rock thinks its OK to kill his wife” because the irony of him not truly feeling that way is what makes the joke funny. after all, Rock’s exact words were, “I’M NOT SAYING HE SHOULD HAVE KILLED HER, but I understand”. We laugh because of the words in caps Roland.
We know that it’s highly unlikely that Chris Rock truly stands behind OJ killing two people and he doesn’t support murder. We know that George Carlin was telling a joke about “the use” of the N-word, not on stage calling people niggers in the crowd like Michael Richards. It’s highly unlikely that at his core, Robin Harris would be happy if his wife died. As comics we tell edgy jokes because they are the things that go commonly unsaid in society but the reason you laugh is because you assume at the end of the day, were only joking. In almost all cases we are.
There’s a difference between standing on stage in a state that is very anti-gay, saying you would kill your gay son in the era of gay bullying and suicide when people are actually out there attacking and killing LGBT people, and telling a joke about “understanding” why OJ would kill his wife. I’ve told jokes about taking my ex girlfriend to the beach on her period in hopes she would be attacked by a shark. Did it get laughs? Huge ones. Did I or would I actually do it? No. That’s why it’s funny.
When someone stands on stage truly trying to justify murder, violence, homophobia, or is truly being racist, audiences can tell — they aren’t stupid. Most people can distinguish a joke from the true essence of any of those elements, which is why comics like myself get to stand on stage and say damn near anything we want.
Joking about killing someone for being gay isn’t funny when you can find multiple instances of it within the last month alone. If a comic got on stage in 1950 and said “We need to hang more niggers! if my daughter brought home a nigger I’d beat her and shoot him!”, he would have never gotten away with that(from civil rights activists at least) you know why Roland? Because that was the era of racism, discrimination, and bigotry publicly and outwardly directed at black people. Those words would only inflame an audience who at that time would most likely have agreed with him the same way there are many people who unfortunately agree with Tracy’s words today.
So no Mr. Martin, I won’t say you’re a bigot or that you’re defending Tracy because he’s black– I’m smarter than that. And I will think for a moment at all the times I’ve laughed at comedians based on the things they had to say and ask myself “why did I laugh?”. The reason I laughed is because when they told their jokes about murder, violence, and inflammatory words, I didn’t believe they were truly justifying or would commit those acts. The same way I don’t believe Michael C. Hall is out tracking down and killing criminals because he plays Dexter on Television. Context is key.
The Bottom line is people laugh at comedians and pay to see us because we take reality, stamp it with our own brand of humor, and present it in a funny manner. All under the assumption that we’re entertainers giving a “performance”– as in NOT REAL. Which is why it’s referred to as an “Act”.
If Tracy Morgan as you put it Roland, is “keenly aware of what society actually thinks”, there is no way in hell he would ever get on stage, in Tennessee of all places, and advocate the murder of gay children– Period. Because half of society doesn’t think very highly at all about gay people. Take it from someone with that same “license to say anything”. It wasn’t funny, it was irresponsible and stupid. And though that’s a great Bernie Mac quote, sometimes Roland, it doesn’t matter how you say what you said, you still shouldn’t have said it.
update 6/15/11: This is pretty sweet from someone who’s work I admire greatly. Thank you Keith.Follow @Travon