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Tracy Morgan and Hollywood's nasty comedy habit

Why do so many writers and stand-up comics use homophobia for cheap laughs?

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Despite what Tracy Morgan apparently said in his Nashville stand-up act June 3 — that he would stab his son if his son acted gay — I’m certain that the comedian and star of 30 Rock does not actually believe gay people should be stabbed. I’m also certain that Tracy Morgan is very, very sorry for saying it. In his various public apologies, he has insisted that he is ”not a hateful person.” He now says he supports same-sex marriage. And he’s working with GLAAD to speak out against bullying. Still, I’m chapped that I’ll no longer be able to watch my favorite show without imagining Tracy Morgan stabbing a gay kid.

In a statement, NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt said Morgan’s remarks in Nashville reflect badly on the show and the network. But the remarks also reflect Hollywood’s nasty habit of turning homophobia into punchlines — many of them less incendiary but more insidious than Morgan’s. In January, a chuckling Jay Leno asked Amy Poehler if her husband was ”concerned” that her son might be exhibiting gay behavior. Recently Blake Shelton tweeted (and later apologized for) some jokey song lyrics that were widely interpreted as antigay. And calling a straight dude gay (how hilariously humiliating for that red-blooded heterosexual!) is a comedy staple in TV and movies — the go-to gag for lazy writers.

It’s not that gay people (yep, I’m one) can’t take a joke. The Ambiguously Gay Duo? Funny. Laughing at our collective obsession with musical theater? Priceless. Homophobia, however, is a dangerous, ugly, and tricky business, so turning it into comedy requires a lot of brains and talent. South Park has proved (brilliantly) that it’s possible. But most others repeatedly make the mistake of treating homophobia as nothing more than a quaint, acceptable human flaw.

When Vince Vaughn insults something by calling it ”gay” in The Dilemma, or when Bradley Cooper says ”Paging Dr. Faggot!” in The Hangover, the filmmakers still expect us to find these characters lovable, and even be amused by their sophomoric schoolyard mentality. Morgan’s hideous joke about stabbing his gay son is just an extreme example of this pervasive isn’t-homophobia-cute kind of humor — at least he seems aware of the lethal consequences of bigotry. If he crossed a line, it was a line already drawn way beyond the boundaries of reason, cynically put there to accommodate Hollywood’s need for easy laughs.