Saturday, June 11, 2011

Planned and Deliberate - Comedic Violence in the First Degree

Comedy wouldn't be what it is if those who engaged in it weren't a little outrageous. But are there no limits to how far one can go? Who decides what those limits are and when they apply? In some or perhaps many jurisdictions, the laws of the state may overtly prohibit the type of speech that comedians can engage in, especially when the comedic speech concerns those with power. In other ("relatively freer") jurisdictions, the restrictions may be those imposed by members of civil society and people within the entertainment industry, rather than by politicians. Norms are temporally and culturally contingent. Jokes that target individuals from a particular community may be acceptable at one point in time, but moving forward in time may be rejected and excoriated.

The recent heterosexist and homophobic comments made by comedian Tracy Morgan in Tennessee are examples of jokes that are viewed as unacceptable in many contemporary North American cultures (amongst others). At a show earlier this week, Morgan made jokes stating that homosexuality was a choice and if his son chose to be gay, he would take out his knife and stab him. Kids who were being bullied for acting gay, he admonished, should stop whining and essentially "man up". The outpouring of condemnation has come from a variety of sources, including the Human Rights Campaign and Morgan's own 30 Rock co-star Tina Fey.

All of this criticism and denunciation is well-founded. Morgan, like other comedians do not operate in a social and cultural vacuum. They are aware of the mistreatment that many LGBTQ youth face, even if he chooses to minimize it. Furthermore, we have to recall that this likely wasn't a spontaneous discriminatory utterance - he wasn't for example responding to a heckler (although it would hardly be justified even if that was the case and it wasn't justified when Michael Richards resorted to racial epithets). If it was part of a stand-up routine, it might be fair to say that this was planned and deliberate "discrimination in the first degree." While portions of a comedian's act may be improvised (e.g. when a comedian engages in some impromptu colloquy with an audience member and usually at the latter's expense), there are many other portions that are clearly worked out in advance and form part of the overall sketch. It is considered and deliberated upon - in other words some time is spent contemplating what goes into the sketch and what stays out - pros and cons are weighed as to what will have the greatest impact.

Without a doubt, had Tracy Morgan made these jokes as late as the early 1990s, he might not have faced much hostility of any sort. Back in those days, a number of comedians made jokes about gay people, including Eddie Murphy in his film "Delirious" from the early 1980s. You could hardly imagine Mr. Murphy doing that kind of sketch today. Times have changed, norms have changed - for the better. When comedians like Tracy Morgan violate these norms, the result may be scorn and denunciation with a potential for loss of job opportunities. Although, there may be limits to that too - after all, Mel Gibson is still acting in or directing films.


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