Comedian and 30 Rock star Tracy Morgan has become the latest B-list celebrity to offend the moral sensibilities of the American public, with homophobic comments he made at his June 3 standup show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The liberal blogosphere is now seeing its most traffic in several scandals, and sanctimonious pundits are topping each other left and left in the umbrage department. Even among his comedy-world colleagues, Morgan doesn't have many vocal supporters.
Standup comedian Nick DiPaolo, however, offered a few harsh words for Morgan's critics to The American Spectator. DiPaolo, a Comedy Central and Howard Stern regular, frequently delivers his conservative viewpoints as a guest-host on Dennis Miller's radio show or as a talking head on Fox News programs like Hannity. "I have to defend Tracy right now," DiPaolo insisted. "This whole thing is just insane."
Morgan began his Nashville routine mocking President Obama's "It Gets Better" anti-bullying campaign, implying that it's a fatuous diversion from real social problems (not a bad opener). But as the crowd grew restless, Morgan quickly reverted to homophobic jokes and crude suggestions of anti-gay violence. He reportedly incited a chorus of boos and caused segments of the Ryman audience to walk out in protest.
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) struck next. GLAAD president Jarrett Barrios, a Massachusetts state senator, openly condemned Morgan's actions and called for an "investigation" into his conduct. But no investigation occurred. Barrios could sense that law-enforcement officials, handcuffed by bureaucratic red tape and the fact that no crime had actually been committed, would be useless. If he wanted to take down Morgan -- a pretty-boy celebrity protected from on high by the First Amendment -- then he would have to take matters into his own hands. He soon announced that he was launching his own investigation, which would presumably employ tape recorders, some newly minted summer interns, and a couple of Matt Drudge hats.
By the end of last week, Tracy-Gate had effectively taken a census of all the LGBT activist groups in the country (even the folks at "Truth Wins Out" got their names in the paper). Morgan has apologized profusely and agreed to meet not only with gay youths in Nashville, but also with homeless gay youths in New York. But DiPaolo doesn't think Morgan should have to apologize. "A comedian making a gay joke on stage does not then lead to a gay kid getting beat up," DiPaolo asserts. "Those things are mutually exclusive."
DiPaolo grew up in blue-collar Danvers, Massachusetts, only an hour away but also a few tax brackets down from Barrios' legislative district in Middlesex County. He cut his teeth on the Boston club scene in the '80s and then gained traction in New York, where Morgan was also distinguishing himself against a backdrop of booze, hecklers, and cutthroat competition. "You worked fast or else they ate you alive," DiPaolo recalls of those boisterous East Coast club crowds. "If you didn't make them laugh, then you didn't get paid."
As he progressed in show business, encountering subtle double-standards and the fast-talking men who sustain them, DiPaolo leaned more heavily on his political conservatism. He remembers the rise of the P.C. Movement in America and its seismic effect on the comedy scene in the early '90s. "It was a confusing time," DiPaolo says, recalling how he found himself fighting for the right to use ethnic humor on stage even as he was regrettably playing the "Dumb Italian" role on a network sitcom. "To me, comedy is about finding the truth. Well, there's no truth in political correctness."
Morgan got famous first, in the mid-nineties, when he was cast on Saturday Night Live (a Harvard Lampoon-dominated show that DiPaolo loathes for "conditioning America to safe, liberal comedy"). On the show, Morgan played bowdlerized variations on stereotypical African-American characters. The viewing public grew accustomed to him. Even as he vaulted to superstardom on 30 Rock, his edginess was always tempered, always played for self-defeating laughs. So, what happens when a live audience sees a familiar performer like Morgan expressing himself, without the Clorox?
"It goes over their heads," says DiPaolo. "People today don't have any context. They're all raised on college speech codes, and a little alarm goes off in their head when they hear something that they know is 'supposed' to be offensive. I mean, Tracy has different personas on stage. We don't necessarily know what was happening at that show."
Maybe Morgan was practicing his own spin on experimental comedy, that vogue late-'70s phenomenon that modern comics like Michael Richards conveniently invoke when they get in trouble?
"It doesn't really matter what he was trying to do," says DiPaolo, sounding less like Sam Kinison and more like Murray Rothbard. "As long as he has the right to do it. Let the market decide what it will and will not tolerate. But don't censor the product."
The Nashville marketplace seems to have rejected Tracy Morgan, at least for the time being. Let's see what the homeless youths have to say.