When Tracy Morgan made a joke about killing his son if he talked to him "in a gay voice," it ignited a firestorm of controversy. But should it have? Morgan, an actor and comedian noted for his outrageous performance style, was doing a comedy set in front of a comedy audience. He was not speaking in public, from a pulpit or to a friend. He was on stage as "Tracy Morgan, Comedian"; the guy you should definitely "put the kids to bed" before watching.
Many comedians and fans alike, consider the comedy stage a sacred place, where the dark, offensive, sacrilegious and even stupid can and should remain uncensored.
The Morgan "homophobic rant" controversy drew very different reactions from the comedy community, from Tina Fey's simultaneous admonishment of and apology for Morgan, to Louis C.K.'s defense of the comedian's right to be funny and offensive.
Of course, this isn't the first time a comedian has gotten into hot water for something that happened during a show. The Michael Richards "n word" tirade is one of the most famous incidents. But as comedian W. Kamau Bell recently pointed out: "If that had happened five years earlier, nobody would have heard about it except for the people in that room. There was no cellphone camera, there was no internet, and it would have been a folk tale that comedians shared with other comedians. 'Did you hear that Michael Richards said the word 'nigger' on stage 8 times?'"
So what does free speech really mean in the age of iPhones, Facebook and YouTube accounts? Obviously, Morgan wasn't arrested for what he said, but he did find himself at the center of a PR nightmare that required a multi-faceted public apology. If the potential to lose your day job over something you said during a comedy set exists, how free is your speech?
Moreover, is apologizing for your material, however dark or upsetting, the antithesis of being a comedian? Is it the comedian's job to go too far?
These are some of the ideas we'll be exploring in HuffPost Comedy's new series, "Crossing the Line".
Through interviews with top comedians and writers, we will look at how these bastions of free speech are necessary parts of our culture. We will touch on topics like comedians apologizing for offensive material and why that should or should not happen, what the job of a comedian is and isn't, and how technology and social media are changing the way comedians perform. Is risk-taking diminished by the knowledge that anyone can be taping you at any time? Is a racial stereotype or gay slur the same thing when made in the context of a comedy club as it is when uttered on the street?
Our first interview of the series is with Jeffrey Ross, the "Roastmaster General," who had some extremely insightful things to say on the topic.
HuffPost Comedy: What's the relationship between a comedian and their audience? You're there to perform, they're there to see you. Is there an unspoken set of rules about what you owe each other?
Jeffrey Ross: That's a great question. There's probably a lot. I remember Buddy Hackett used to close his shows with, "If you treat every performer the way you treated me, you'll never see a bad show." So we really do come up to the applause. We listen to how the opener does, we listen to the rhythm of the room, then we hear our name. If people are excited, we're excited. If people are 'eh', we might get a little more aggressive to try to turn you around, so sometimes it's a bit of a challenge, but I feel like we have an obligation as comedians to not hold back. People don't want to see a watered down show or a censored show.
HuffPost Comedy: It seems like we've seen a lot of push back lately against the idea of not censoring yourself. As more and more people have access to what happens in live comedy shows, either via leaked footage or blogging, they find more things that offend them but have no context for what was said. You do a show for 300 people who had a great time and then one small part of it becomes news to people who weren't there. Is there any sort of solution to curb that trend?
Jeffrey Ross: I think if the fans can start treating comedians like artists... most of them do, but sometimes they try to call it something else, or treat us like we're role models or politicians. We can't be held to that standard. If Tracy Morgan flubs it's a lot different than if a politician flubs. Tracy's not running for office, Tracy's trying to make people laugh and give them an hour of mental vacation from their regular lives. I think comics should test people, I think it's our job to go too far. That way we know as a society what too far is. Where else are you going to hear it? I'd rather hear a racist joke in a comedy club and let it get an honest reaction than hear a racist joke mumbled to me backstage by a drunken audience member. When these things are in the hands of professionals, a joke about race and sex and politics, it brings people together. You all laugh or don't laugh together. As soon as it's whispered behind the scenes it's ugly.
HuffPost Comedy: It's more true that way, like, "Oh you actually are that person who thinks like that."
Jeffrey Ross: Right, as opposed to me, who's on stage kidding. If I make a joke about Steve Jobs, which I'm going to do a bunch tonight, rest assured I'm kidding.
HuffPost Comedy: Yea, that's the thing, we're not comfortable with kidding anymore. That's a really great point about not being role models. It's as though we expect everyone in the public eye to be a role model, a very specific kind of role model.
Jeffrey Ross: Bad taste is not illegal. I always got my first laughs as a kid by saying inappropriate things. That's always how we're going to get our laughs as comics. I'm hitting the entire country [on tour through March], not holding back. It's almost like running for anti-President when you're on the road as a comedian. I would love to see as a prerequisite to get a nomination in this country, you should have to get roasted. Could you imagine me and the roasters taking on the GOP field? It would be the greatest show ever. Prove that you can take a joke. Prove that you're a man or woman of the people. Prove that you're not above criticism even in the form of a backhanded compliment.
HuffPost Comedy: That's what the White House Correspondents Dinner is supposed to be and people still get angry off about it even though they know.
Jeffrey Ross: Right. It's so funny how people can get upset by that. I always thought that if George W. had been laughing at Stephen Colbert, that would have played a lot different. Maybe he wasn't bright enough to get it, but if he had been, the move would have been to laugh uncontrollably and be in on it instead of the butt of the joke. Nobody likes a bad sport, no matter what the circumstances are.
HuffPost Comedy: What's the difference, if any, between the Michael Richards situation and Tracy Morgan?
Jeffrey Ross: I got a question from a reporter when the Michael Richards thing happened, where he wigged out at the Laugh Factory and said the n-word over and over. And a reporter said, "Were you offended afterwards with the fallout when they took the Michael Richards' picture off the wall at the Improv?" And I said, "Quite frankly, I was offended when they put it up, because he's not a stand-up in the traditional sense. He's an improvisational actor. A brilliant actor, but not a writer, not a comedian, not like we are. And you have to be careful where you're getting your comedy. You want the real comedians to tell the real story.
To me the issue there is the club and how they promote it. If they're honest about it, then you don't have a right to be offended. Or, you have a right to be offended, but you don't have a right to complain about it to the public and make a big issue out of it. What Tracy did is not illegal, he didn't do anything to promote bullying, that's not what he was doing. He was trying to make people laugh over a cocktail.
HuffPost Comedy: Related to all of this is the world outside of the venue hearing or seeing some part of a set second hand. Do you see a lot of people whipping out their phones at your shows trying to capture something?
Jeffrey Ross: Yeah, that stuff always hurts comedians because you don't want your show taken out of context. And that's when you take it out of the comedy venue, AKA the temple of free speech, and you put it on the Internet in a 30 second smack. I think fans are disappointed because it's not shot well and you don't really see the context of the jokes, and it's a ripoff. You're ripping people off. You're ripping me off by putting it on the Internet for free.
HuffPost Comedy: That's obviously a problem for artists across the board.
Jeffrey Ross: Stuff leaks. We live in a leaky society right now where everybody's a photojournalist, and everybody's got a Facebook page, they can post whatever they want. So I think the venues have an obligation, I think the fans have an obligation, when they see somebody stealing footage from a show, they should say, "Hey put the camera down, we're trying to enjoy the show." And by the way, to help alleviate that I stay after every show to take pictures with people, just for fun, so they have something, because God forbid someone just repeats a joke to their friends. That's not good enough anymore. Now they need a picture to prove that they were there. It doesn't make any sense to me. People need pictures of everything or it didn't happen. People need to take pictures while it's happening instead of even enjoying it, digesting it, and then saying, "Oh, let me look back at that picture." Everybody needs immediate proof.
HuffPost Comedy: Why do you think we're seeing more of these comedy controversies: Tracy Morgan, Katt Williams, Dave Chappelle... Chappelle sort of purposefully bombed because he was being heckled and taped by the audience, and that became news and something he eventually apologized for.
Jeffrey Ross: I think it says more about journalism than it does about comedy. Comedy has not changed. Comedy has not gotten more severe and hasn't gotten deeper, if you will. It's been this way for a long time. It's become more of a trend with the roasts and hardcore comedians going for it, but it's journalism. It's the fact that everybody has a blog. I happened to google Patrice O'Neal recently because I was thinking about him so much, and a blog, a TV review, came up, written last week about the Charlie Sheen roast. The woman had no idea he passed away in the article, just saying, "If he comes to my town I'm not seeing him. I'm offended." And I was like, "Anyone can be a blogger, a reviewer, a journalist, so you have to be careful what your news sources are more than who your comedians are. People love to make news where there's nothing. And I think that unfortunately Tracy got backed up against a wall with that. It's almost a trap.
HuffPost Comedy: Have you ever been in this situation and then did you apologize? Do you apologize? Is it detrimental to hold out and be like, "No I was on a comedy stage. I'm not apologizing for something I said on a stage."
Jeffrey Ross: I mean, I feel like people who come to my show expect me to go too far and expect me to take chances and test my likability, if you will. This is always tricky. As you become somebody with a following, your audience expects a certain thing, so every now and then somebody will be there by accident because they got free tickets or because they wandered past a comedy club and had nothing to do or because a movie was sold out, so they find themselves at a Jeff Ross show. I guess they could get offended, but I don't see it as a bad thing. You kind of want the hair to stand up on the back of people's necks. That's exciting. I remember Buddy Hackett once calling a woman a c-word at the beginning of one of his shows, in the very first minute. I didn't know him very well, and I was very disturbed and curious as a young comedian why he would sabotage himself like that. And I got to know him and ten years later I said, "Buddy you'd never remember this, but you had this moment in Atlantic City 10 years ago, why would you have done something like that? Why would you have upset that woman and called her out?" She was taking notes, she was a journalist, just by coincidence for a paper, and she probably wasn't credentialed, and he said, "Put your fucking pen down. This is my show, you cunt." I just found it hard to believe he would be so ungraceful about having her put her pen down, so when I asked him about it, he said, "I used to like to dig myself a hole just to see how long it took to get out of it." So comedians often set these challenges for themselves. I know Gilbert loves to be the first one to tweet about tragedies, and that's sort of his thing, and I don't think comedians can stop doing that. That would be a real state of affairs in this country, if comedians started putting a filter on our brains. It's nice to know that Gilbert takes the heat for all of us.
HuffPost Comedy: So how do most of your audiences feel about your material and what does that say to you about the importance of going for the jugular in comedy?
Jeffrey Ross: Well, I'm doing this tour and I'm doing the Steve Jobs jokes in Seattle, the Penn State jokes in Pennsylvania, the Schwarzenegger jokes in California, and the hooker jokes in Vegas. This is where you do them. You do them in the belly of the beast, you go for the heart, because that's where they get the best reaction. I remember, right after LeBron James dumped Cleveland and he went to Florida, I was there. I immediately called my agent and said "Cleveland, I want to go to Cleveland", because they really need a laugh. I came out and said something to the effect of "The city of Cleveland is 200 and something years old, which by the way is the same amount of guys who fucked LeBron's mom while he was playing here." And the place went crazy. Maybe it wasn't the kindest thing I could have said, but it was the right joke for the right moment for the right crowd. Taken out of context that's just a mean joke about a lady. But in that moment it made those people in Cleveland feel a lot better.
This is just the beginning of an ongoing conversation, and we want to know what you think as well as what you've experienced. Have you ever been to a comedy show that you thought crossed a line? How did you feel about it? Are you a comedian who works on darker material? How does the audience react? Do we need comedians to constantly be revealing where the line of good taste is? Does that help keep us honest?
Weigh in with your comments, and if you want to catch Jeffrey Ross on tour, here are some upcoming dates: