3Qs: When funny turns un-funny

Comedian Tracy Morgan, known for his role as Tracy Jordan on the sitcom “30 Rock,” was widely criticized earlier this month after he made homophobic comments during a comedy show in Nashville. Some argue that people shouldn’t be upset by comedians’ offensive remarks. Others find this kind of comedy anything but funny. Here, Northeastern communication studies lecturer William Lancaster sheds some light on why offensive comedy is so common — and what’s really wrong with it.

Isn’t this an issue of free speech? Isn’t it sometimes OK to be offensive during a comedy routine?

As a journalist and television producer, I would never advocate any sort of censorship. That said, the unwritten rule of thumb today is that it’s OK for comedians to make offensive jokes if they’re a member of the community that they are bashing. If you’re gay, you can make a gay joke, if you’re Asian you can make an Asian joke. There’s toleration for that, but when someone who’s not “a member of the club” makes a joke about that group, it’s considered offensive.

In general, people in entertainment have matured over the decades so that they know it’s no longer right to make an anti-black or an anti-woman joke. But it’s still open season on the gay and lesbian community. I think most Americans are centrist but slightly to the right on gay issues, and it’s reflected in entertainment.

Do you think that Tracy Morgan and Michael Richards thought their offensive comments would be funny? That they always intended them to be part of their acts?

I don’t think the slurs that came from Tracy Morgan and Michael Richards were part of their acts. I think they revealed their true personalities. In contrast, Chris Rock makes a lot of racial jokes, but his lines are thought out, well crafted. These other guys are just launching assaults against various communities by using stereotypes.

There’s a long line of comedians who’ve been deemed “offensive.” But some were also praised as “daring” or “on the edge.” What’s your take on this?

Lenny Bruce and George Carlin and Richard Pryor were truly breaking ground. These were comic acts that were ending up in court. They were using humor and satire to raise awareness about bigotry. In Lenny Bruce’s case, for example, he was raising awareness about the anti-Semitism in the United States. That’s a far different thing than making sophomoric locker room jokes about gays and lesbians.

Today — in shows like Family Guy and South Park, or in the movie Brüno by Sacha Baron Cohen — there’s no satirical value. While they do from time to time take some good satirical punches at the ills of America, they’re mostly just making the same derogatory jokes you’d hear in a bar 30 years ago.