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30 Rock Tackles the Culture of Outrage

30 Rock is always up for mystery, and last night’s episode, “Idiots Are People Two!”—a two-parter concluding next week—kicked off with a good one. It began with Kelsey Grammer (sure, why not?) barging into Liz’s office to alert her to a crime scene of sorts: Pete was unconscious in a custodial closet, his pants around his ankles, a bra catalog on his chest, and a plastic bag on his head. To the casual observer, it was a cut-and-dried case of auto-erotic asphyxiation gone awry. (Or was it?) But all of that was just window dressing to the episode’s main event: “Idiots” addressed Tracy Morgan’s big gay controversy from last summer, the one where he told a Nashville audience he would "pull out a knife and stab" any son of his with an effeminate voice. Morgan drew a lot of heat for that joke and was paraded by GLAAD to a series of press appearances to register his profound remorse over having uttered it.

Which is fine, except the line was spoken during Morgan’s stand-up act, i.e. he was making a joke, and whether or not you find the joke funny, it’s still his right as a comedian to make it. And since none of us were there, we had no real context for it. The whole affair really started to leave a bad taste in my mouth after Morgan issued an apology and it still dragged on. Morgan is a big, lovable, weird, and uncensored dope. He’s not an enemy to the gays. But whatever, it happened, people were angry, Morgan did his penance, and you’d hope people would be able to move on and find some other doorstep on which to wave their pitchforks and torches.

I mention all this as a means to introduce the question of whether or not this was really an appropriate topic to explore on an episode of 30 Rock. I get that Tina Fey and the production crew were probably annoyed with Morgan when the story first broke, but it happened last June, and dredging it up now felt, more than anything, a little dated. Like, “Oh, right. That story.” I realize it touches on a lot of 30 Rock’s recurring themes—media-spinning, liberal guilt, Tracy Jordan as simulacrum of Tracy Morgan—but to tackle the subject well, the show needed to have a strong take on the controversy. It didn’t, unfortunately.

For starters, the joke that kicked off the firestorm in the episode was completely neutered: “Being gay is stupid. If you want to 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.” That's far less offensive than the real-life original, so the angry gay protests that accompanied it (which were definitely funny) came off as strangely overblown. Was there a way around that problem? Not really, because if 30 Rock had used a joke as offensive as the original, the show would have just invited real gay outrage all over again.

So what does 30 Rock think about the Tracy Morgan controversy? The answer lies in Liz’s first confrontation with Tracy, and specifically in Liz’s line, “Look, you’re a public figure, and believe it or not, the dumb things you say may influence or hurt people. You need to apologize.” But earlier in the scene, she made another point:

Liz: “The Gays are the most organized of all the communities. They make the Japanese look like the Greeks!”
Tracy: “How is what I said offensive and that’s not?”
Liz: “Because no one heard me say it!”

This exchange acknowledges that we ascribe to certain flexible standards for what is considered acceptable speech in the private vs. public spheres. But 30 Rock writers, much more so than the general population, know just how flimsy, or even downright imaginary, those standards can be. This is a show that has long delighted in pushing the limits of political correctness and social acceptability, after all. It seems disingenuous for the writers to suddenly draw a line in the sand and make a big stink about how Tracy has crossed it.

Later in the episode, Tracy mounted a counter-protest on behalf of wronged “idiots.” It left me wondering what that development was supposed to add to the conversation. Was it just for the satisfaction of seeing Denise Richards identify herself as an idiot, and utter the phrase “for all intensive purposes?” Or was it a larger commentary on the folly of the Culture of Outrage, in which we increasingly divide and cluster ourselves beneath the comfort of labels, lying in wait for a reason to pounce?

Comments (23)
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Who cares about this show? No one watches it. It iasn't funny, it is pathetic!
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Meh. I really don't care either way about Morgan's "controversy." If you feel offended by something, or you say something that makes other people offended, there isn't anything to change that. Freedom of speech goes both ways... Tracy is "allowed" to make comments that may outrage some; those outraged are "allowed" to hold fairly pointless protests.



As for the episode, I thought it was fun. As soon as I saw Tracy leading a protest of idiots, I expected a "real" person to make a cameo... Denise Richards filled the idiot role nicely for all intensive purposes. Jack and Jenna were particularly funny.
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At least he didn't say he could have stopped the plane that flew into the WTC.
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Get over it ! Jesus, useless political correct approach.
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Get over it. What a useless article.
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There are usually a lot of gay jokes in 30 Rock, so this shouldn't be a surprise that it wasn't any different. At least they acknowledged that Tracy did this, and it was sort of an apology. What do you want, a press release?
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Pete was in his office when Tina saw him, not in the custodial closet, Kenneth & Jenna rolled him into his office.
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This episode had a lot of mixed messages regarding the Tracy situation. Personally I think the guy should been fired after he originally made the 'joke.' Liz Lemon is right, public figures need to realize what they say can and will be used against them when they say stupid things.
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Come on. He was kidding! It was a JOKE in his STAND-UP routine!!! I'm not saying it wasn't offensive, but did you hear it in context? It is nothing like what Mark Whalberg said, which was far more offensive.
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Yeah, 30 Rock has been getting sloppier and more toothless with age, and this episode really didn't know what it felt about the situation, so it just threw flacid, aimless jokes everywhere.
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Great article Seth, really thought-provoking. I barely heard about the controversy when it happened and didn't put 2&2 together so I just enjoyed the episode from a this-is-what-tracy-would-do kinda level. It was a good episode and had a strange tone to it that I liked.
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I have to admit that I truly enjoyed seeing Denise Richards come "out of the closet" with her idiocy. If that's not art imitating life, I'm not sure what is.

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Well I'd never heard of the whole debacle until you mentioned it in this review. When I watched the episode I just thought they were making fun of the whole 'angry mob mentality' and how people get offended over everything nowadays. I found it really funny, just another great episode :)
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"dredging it up now felt, more than anything, a little dated" I don't think it would have been dated if 30 Rock was actually able to start last September...
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They all knew it wasn't going to start though, it was postponed for Tina to have her baby.
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I had no idea of the whole back story to this episode, but I thought it was really funny. Jenna was incredibly funny,, kenneth, liz, ... all of them,,, laughed my ass of, with the japan greece comment,,, p.s. this was funny because Tina Fey is actually part greek (her real name is Elizabeth Stamatina Fey) on and all,, 30ROCK is a great show!
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I think Jenna had the best lines in this episode, for example:

- "Jenny McCarthy died? But who could have been slowly poisoning her? Was she poisoned? I have no way of knowing because I'm just hearing about it."

- "I'm well aware of that Kenneth. I faked mercury poisoning to get out of my contract with Trivial Pursuit the Musical."

- "I'm going to tell you what I told Phil Spector: It's gonna be OK, baby. We just have to get some trash bags and get back here before anyone is the wiser."

This kind of dialogue is why I like shows like 30 Rock, Community, Parks & Rec and Archer. They make references to real life events in the same way that Jenna's two last lines above do. Many comedies don't bother to do clever verbal jabs like these. You know which shows I'm talking about.
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I feel this is the worst episode they've done since the fourth season. It was not the usual 30 Rock experience.
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I felt that way about both episodes so far. It feels like they are trying to change the tone of the show. They are portraying Liz as smarter and more confident, and more the central character of the show. Which would be fine, but the reason the show works is because everyone is equally nuts, including Liz.



With her reacting so rationally to the situations and people around her, it makes everyone else's crazy behavior seem kind of jarring - and less funny.
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Does it really matter? Tracy having that counter-protest is just typical Tracy-behavior. "You're calling me an idiot? I'll give you idiot!" I thought it was funny they mirrored the Tracy Morgan-controversy, it made for a wacky episode. Although I must admit I don't live in the USA, so any 'social commentary' (if there was any) might be lost on me...



Also, those are two pictures from (I'm guessing) next week's episode.
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Those are pictures from the 19-Jan episode.



The second pic is from early in the episode, where Liz was coming in the morning of Tracy's incident hitting the press. She made a quick apology and then asked the group out front if she was pulling off the hat / look. They all screamed NO



The first pic is from around 50% or 75% through the episode, Liz made an apology on behalf of the show calling Tracy an idiot... so Tracy got a group of "idiots" together (including Denise Richards) to protest Liz's apology.
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Staff
Good eye. We swapped 'em out.
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