Look Before You Laugh

Tracy Morgan made a joke about gay people. Everybody pretend to be offended.

“I don’t f—ing care if I piss off some gays,” Morgan allegedly said, “because if they can take a f—ing d— up their a–, they can take a f—ing joke.” The Saturday Night Live alum explained that should his son tell him that he is a homosexual, “he better talk to me like a man and not in a gay voice, or I’ll pull out a knife and stab that little n—– to death.”

Morgan being on stage in a comedy club makes me think that perhaps he was joking. Some are taking the 30 Rock star’s routine too seriously.

“Tracy Morgan exercised extremely poor judgment and he did the right thing by apologizing,” a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign noted. “But that’s just not enough.”

It never is, is it?

The laugh police read Tracy Morgan’s stand-up the way fundamentalists read the Bible. When Freddie Mercury sang, “Mama, I just killed a man,” the cops didn’t rush the stage to arrest him. No district attorney introduced the Death Wish films as evidence in a murder case against Charles Bronson. Art isn’t meant to be taken literally.

Liberals grasp artistic freedom when Robert Mapplethorpe submerges a crucifix in urine. Why do they seek to illiberally suppress Tracy Morgan’s expression? Withholding government funds from the likes of Mapplethorpe makes you a rube who doesn’t understand art. Petitioning a private broadcast network to fire Tracy Morgan from a television show makes you enlightened.

Harping about equality, while demanding exemptions from punch lines, is a sure way to get neither. When a stuffy person says, “That’s not funny,” we laugh louder. Taking a joke enhances fraternity. It ingratiates us to our peers. Bad sports about humor invite ostracism—and more jokes.

That’s not what the laugh police wants for homosexuals, is it? 

“Differences in sex, age, color, race, religion, physical ability, and strength lie at the source of probably the majority of jokes since the beginning of human self-consciousness,” Paul Johnson writes in his recent book Humorists. “And all jokes are liable to provoke discomfort if not positive misery among those laughed at.” He contends that political correctness tabooing such jokes proves “fatal to humor.” Perhaps, but one could also argue that preachy scolds are an indispensable comic tool.

Humorists always poke fun at authority figures. Watch an old episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for instance, and you’re bound to see the sextet skewer Church of England vicars, upper-class businessmen, or bobbies wielding billy clubs. Tracy Morgan operates in this tradition. He correctly identifies the cultural guardians as self-righteous buffoons easily targeted for a laugh.

The exception to this rule is totalitarian societies, where humor, like everything else, becomes a weapon of the state. And even there underground humor operates as it does in a free society. Authority figures escape the humorist’s wit only in public channels. We’re not near there, but political correctness embraces this style of pushing an “official” humor while pushing funny underground. Despite the wishes of the guardians, there is no laugh track cuing us when it is okay to respond to comedy.  

What a culture considers obscene tells us much about a culture. Tracy Morgan’s F-bombs and graphic descriptions of unpleasantness do not raise eyebrows. He profanes liberalism by ridiculing one of its protected targets. How dare Tracy Morgan make fun of anyone save evangelical Christians and rural yahoos? Hasn’t he learned from Bill Maher and Janeane Garofalo that laughs come from ideological solidarity, not comedic talent?

We are really lame.

We look before we laugh. We tell jokes in whispers. If commissars don’t roam in our midst, we imagine that they do. Permissible jokes become fewer by the year. That’s a shame. The times demand more laughs.