Soon after the news broke, in June of last year, that Tracy Morgan had launched into a homophobic rant during a stand-up performance, it occurred to us that the incident might turn up in the next season of 30 Rock. Over the years, the show has often addressed real-life controversies involving its cast — a great episode last year, for instance, tackled a dizzying array issues related to women in comedy, from the double-edged sword of Jezebel (known in the episode as “Joan of Snark”) to female comedians who infantilize themselves and use their sexuality to get ahead.
So we weren’t surprised when, earlier this month, we learned that Morgan’s outburst would indeed be worked into the 30 Rock plot. “They’ve incorporated [Morgan's rant] into the Tracy Jordan storyline,” MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts, who is gay, told The Huffington Post. “Liz Lemon writes Tracy’s apology on the show and says he’s not a homophobe, he’s an idiot. That offends idiots, so while NBC is being picketed by the LBGT community, now it’s also being picketed by idiots led by Denise Richards. She’s the leader of the idiots.” That’s a fairly accurate summary of what happened on 30 Rock last night, but to be honest, the episode sounded far more satisfying when I first read Roberts’ description than it actually turned out to be.
It’s not that I found the way the show addressed Morgan’s rant offensive; it just seemed a bit perfunctory, and way too safe. For a series that’s pushed boundaries in the past, it was surprising to see the extent to which 30 Rock toned down the comedian’s routine for primetime. In the episode, Jordan’s routine went as follows: “Being gay is stupid. If you wanna see a penis, take off your pants. If I got turned into a gay, I’d sit around all day and look at my own junk.”
Sure, the joke is mildly homophobic, implies that one can be “turned into a gay,” and isn’t at all funny. (In fact, it’s basically a rehash of a standard “If I were a chick, I’d grope myself all day” bit that Z-list comedians and bro-friendly sitcoms have been recycling for decades.) But it has absolutely zero to do with what Morgan actually said. Here’s how Kevin Rogers, a gay man who was present for the performance, recounted the rant: “He said if his son that was gay he better come home and talk to him like a man and not [he mimicked a gay, high pitched voice] or he would pull out a knife and stab that little N (one word I refuse to use) to death.” Rogers also noted that Morgan said homosexuality was a choice because “God don’t make no mistakes,” in a not-so-clever inversion of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.”
There’s no reason 30 Rock should have to stick close to real-life events, but the difference between Morgan’s rant and Jordan’s silly joke allowed the show a too-easy route to making amends for its actor’s behavior. Liz Lemon does indeed issue a public apology for Tracy; what appears to be a high-school yearbook photo of Tina Fey runs on MSNBC alongside the statement: “Tracy’s co-workers are gratified that he’s apologized for his remarks. The man we know is not capable of hate. He’s just an idiot who doesn’t know what he’s saying.” It’s an appropriate response to Jordan’s performance, but as a thinly veiled acknowledgment that Fey, et al, were mortified by Morgan’s comments, it was mild and somewhat off-target. The real comedian was undoubtedly being “stupid” when he told a whole crowd he’d kill his gay son for acting effeminate, but he was also being hateful, and even a fictionalized apology that doesn’t address the difference between ignorance and hate feels inadequate.
The episode was even more disappointing as comedy. 30 Rock works best when — as in the Joan of Snark episode — it uses its absurd sense of humor to dissect real-life issues and invert or subvert received wisdom about them. The show isn’t always satire, but that’s the style of comedy it does better than almost any other current sitcom. What made its treatment of Tracy’s homophobia seem so perfunctory is Fey and her writers’ decision to stick so close to the surface of the controversy, offering no illuminating analysis or entertaining twist. There was nothing daring or original about the storyline, which circled back to Jordan’s Denise Richards-led idiot protest and the revelation that Liz would have to ingratiate herself to the idiots because they made up TGS‘s core audience, leaving us with the oft-repeated take-home that “outrage is outrage is outrage.”
I love 30 Rock and can’t recall a single episode that I haven’t enjoyed at least a little bit. Last night’s was no different. But I expected that if the show was going to address the Tracy Morgan controversy, it would do something better, smarter, and more subversive with it. Of course, the episode did end with “To Be Continued…” — and while the homophobia commentary gave way to the idiot stuff midway through Thursday’s half-hour, I haven’t given up hope that 30 Rock will come up with something brilliant to say about Morgan’s debacle.
Watch the episode below, and let us know what you think of it in the comments.