Leave it to an old showbiz hand like Whoopi Goldberg to try and explain what went wrong with Tracy Morgan’s material earlier this month in Nashville.
On Monday, Whoopi schooled her colleagues on “The View” about the way comedians work, particularly when it comes to trying out material in comedy clubs. In the process, she came as close as anyone has in the show business community to defending Morgan in the wake of the firestorm that has enveloped him ever since his comments about gays became widely known last week. The comments were part of a standup routine he delivered in a Nashville club on June 3.
Among other things: He claimed in his routine that children choose to “become” gay because the lifestyle is condoned in the media; implored gay kids being victimized by bullies to stop “whining” and fight back; and declared that if his own son told him he was gay, Tracy would stab him to death.
Yes, it was strong stuff, but so is a lot of what comedians say – particularly in the anything-goes atmosphere of nightclubs, as Whoopi pointed out on “The View.”
“I have to say there have been times when I have done material that I . . . thought, ‘You know what? That didn’t work as well as I thought it would,’ and that’s one of the things that comics do and sometimes we step in it and it’s bad and this is one of those times when a comic has gone over the line and realized it, not just because people told him, but because he realized it. It’s what happens with us – it’s what we do!” Whoopi declared.
She is, of course, one of three ladies on “The View” with a background in standup comedy and live performance (the others are Joy Behar and Sherri Shepherd, who plays Morgan’s wife on “30 Rock”). Goldberg is also a major movie star (having won an Oscar for “Ghost”) and a repeat Oscar host, so she’s a veteran of just about every realm of show business. So when she speaks about performers and performing, she’s worth listening to.
Nevertheless, her colleagues debated her anyway. “A lot of times, [comedians will] say, ‘Well, I’m a comedian’ . . . and I’m not sure that excuses everything. . . . What he said was bigoted,” said Barbara Walters.
Behar felt Morgan was guilty of targeting people who are “powerless.” “Let me say something about being a comedian,” said Joy, “because I’ve gotten into some hot water, but mostly my targets are the powerful. My targets are not the unpowerful, which is what he did and that’s the mistake that comedians make, when they take on the unpowerful they get into trouble. Take on Rush Limbaugh!”
“He made a mistake! He made a mistake!” said Whoopi, who added, “There but for the grace of God go all of us!”
It wasn’t the first time Whoopi has flown to the defense of a star in trouble. Last summer, she defended Mel Gibson after recordings surfaced of the phone tirades he launched against his estranged girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. “I have had a long friendship with Mel,” Whoopi said then. “You can say he’s being a bonehead, but I can’t sit and say that he’s a racist having spent time with him in my house with my kids.”
More than anyone else on “The View,” Whoopi really is the consummate show business insider. You don’t have to agree with her, but her words are well worth heeding.