This could be the week that determines the rest of Tracy Morgan’s career.
Since the “30 Rock” actor was quoted making numerous homophobic remarks during a stand-up appearance in Tennessee last week, he’s been blasted by gay advocacy groups including GLAAD. But Morgan moved quickly to issue an apology, which triggered statements from “30 Rock” star/executive producer Tina Fey and NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt that criticized him but essentially offered absolution as well.
Having both of your bosses–one who happens to be an openly gay network chief, the other one of the country’s most beloved comediennes–in your corner may be enough to make the hubbub die down. And yet as Rep. Anthony Weiner is learning the hard way these days, media-driven controversies can take some unpredictable twists and turns–the kind that could ultimately cost Morgan his job if he’s not careful about his next moves.
From a public-relations standpoint, the problem is Morgan is at a damned-if-he-does-or-doesn’t juncture. The smartest thing the comedian could do right now is nothing; perhaps his silence will help the whole episode blow over and become just another misstep in his already checkered career.
But wishing this all away may not be so easy given GLAAD has recommended he meet with the victims of violence against gays to gain the kind of perspective that would make him think twice before making such ill-advised remarks. Inaction on his part could prompt additional pressure from the groups already criticizing him, which could foment further outrage by those in the public that he offended–and suddenly this will go from a minor headache for Morgan to a migraine.
No doubt Morgan’s handlers may be contemplating putting Morgan out in front of the public again to clarify his actions, perhaps in an interview on a news program. The wisdom of doing this rests entirely in how well Morgan can handle himself in such a scenario. As we’ve seen with Weiner, saying more can just dig a person in deeper, and the damage doesn’t have to come from words alone. If he seems insincere, no matter what he said specifically, it won’t matter.
Of course, whether Morgan’s rant will continue to haunt him isn’t entirely up to him, either. As we’ve already seen, the debate over whether Morgan crossed the line or not has drawn fellow celebrities to either his defense (CNN’s Roland Martin) or criticism (Wanda Sykes). In one notable case, Morgan got both: Chris Rock tweeted a defense of Morgan, only to follow up with more comments that were interpreted as a retraction of that defense.
All it takes is one prominent figure to call for Morgan’s dismissal, and the media will run with that in a way that could paint NBC or Fey into the kind of corner where making Morgan go away is the only solution.
Another way gasoline could pour onto this fire is if additional instances of Morgan’s comments come to light. This isn’t the first time Morgan has been quoted making homophobic remarks–the more a pattern of misbehavior is established, the worse it looks for him.
Morgan should be thankful there was no recording of the comments he made, which would have made this scandal the kind of viral phenomenon that dogged “Seinfeld” star Michael Richards when he launched into a racist tirade during a stand-up comedy act back in 2006. And yet the absence of video evidence didn’t matter for former “Grey’s Anatomy” star Isaiah Washington, who saw his own career derailed by uttering a homophobic slur on the set of his series.
It’s worth noting that the trouble Morgan is in comes from the memory of one man in attendance at the Tennessee performance, who posted his recollection of the remarks on his Facebook page. Even if he somehow managed to get down what the comedian said word for word, it can’t convey the tone of his remarks.
To which many would respond that tone doesn’t matter when the words Morgan uttered were so vile that they are reprehensible in any context. It’s a fascinating issue, one that will no doubt serve as fodder for Fey to turn into a great “30 Rock” episode. Whether Morgan will be around to be a part of it depends on how he handles himself going forward.