“How many ‘hispangics’ does it take to clean a bathroom? None! That’s a nigger’s job!”
Stand up comic Lisa Lampanelli, who intended to target Latinos, pauses momentarily before observing with satisfaction that “it was kind of a black joke too.”
As the punchline leaves her mouth, the packed audience gasps for air, seemingly suffocated by Lampanelli’s incendiary language. But then a strange thing happens. Instead of booing or walking out in protest of what could be interpreted as a blatantly racist remark, the auditorium rumbles with unabashed laughter.
Lampanelli had named the joke “Hispanic joke number one” and dedicated it to a Latino man who identified himself as John (she accused him of lying and told him that his real name was Juan). When the camera pans to the audience, John can be seen standing and laughing hysterically. It’s possible that there were a few people in the audience who were grossly offended, but I doubt it. After all, people who paid to see Lampanelli’s comedy special Dirty Girl came expecting to hear offensive material; that night, people of all kinds came expecting to be offended.
That particular show was recorded in 2007. Fast forward to Tracy Morgan’s 2011 performance in Nashville. One man in particular, Kevin Rogers, was outraged by a portion of Morgan’s act, in which he felt that the comedian had launched into an anti-gay tirade. Rogers subsequently took his case to social media, and his story was ultimately covered by news outlets as prominent as CNN. When asked about how the majority of the audience received this portion of Morgan’s show, Rogers painted a scene eerily familiar to the response to Lampanelli’s “Hispanic joke number one.” He noted that, as Morgan was proceeding with this part of the act, “there was actually a lot of applause.” While there were some who “didn’t clap or laugh” and “seemed to be shocked … many people hooted and hollered.”
That said, when asked if Morgan changed his demeanor during this portion of the show, Rogers noted that “it seemed to go from a joking demeanor to ‘this is a point in my show where I’m very serious about what I am saying’” and that “there didn’t seem to be any joking involved at that point.” Such a description should, of course, bring to mind a performance by Michael Richards (Cosmo Kramer from Seinfeld) in which he harassed a heckler by calling him “nigger” repeatedly. However, while there is footage of Richards’ performance — in which the response given to him by the crowd changes abruptly and shows a number of people getting up and leaving his show midway through, while the majority of the audience was left shocked — there is no footage of Morgan’s performance that night. The story is based primarily on Roger’s recounting of Morgan’s jokes. For all we know, Morgan’s show included material that could have potentially offended a plethora of different communities as Lampanelli’s show did. This would make Morgan’s show not only anti-gay but also anti-everybody.
I am not disputing Rogers’ right to be offended. If he felt anything like how I felt when I heard Lampanelli’s joke, I can understand why he might want an apology. However, before he calls for an apology to be issued, I want him to define where the parameters of comedy should lie. I want to know exactly when hate speech becomes too hateful. Tell me where it’s okay for Lampanelli to hop around on stage unscrupulously using every slur imaginable in the most tasteless of ways — and not for Morgan. If Rogers was owed an apology, it shouldn’t have been issued by Morgan. After all, comedians only feed the audience what they want to hear — an exploration of the darkest machinations of the human mind.
Morgan shouldn’t have apologized. The people who “hooted and hollered” during Morgan’s show owe Rogers an apology. John, affectionately dubbed “Juan,” by Lampanelli and the audience who applauded “Hispanic joke number one” owe Rogers an apology. Anybody that has ever heard something said that was politically incorrect and chuckled owes Rogers an apology. Rogers owes himself an apology for paying to see the show in the first place.
Cornelius Range V is a College senior from Memphis, Tenn. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Plead the Fifth appears every Wednesday.