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?

Like TV.com on Facebook