Months ago, when this show was announced, I bought a ticket and reserved a dinner table at Goodnight’s Comedy Club. It turned out to be a smart move—not only did it get me a front-row seat for one of the club’s biggest shows of the year, but reserving for Saturday meant I wasn’t one of those affected when Morgan had to shift his schedule for his 30 Rock taping.
Though his most recent films—Cop Out and the Death at a Funeral remake—weren’t worth the price of admission, Morgan is a comic genius with the right setting and material. His semi-autobiographical 30 Rock character, Tracy Jordan, is such a masterpiece of malapropisms that this website exists to record down everything the character says. And Morgan’s autobiography, I Am the New Black, features some surprisingly dark passages about his father’s battle with drugs and AIDS and his own fight with alcoholism.
As I sat there in the front row, Morgan shuffled on-stage for his second of three shows that night wearing jeans and a black shirt that wouldn’t be out of place at a club. He turns out to be even more imposing than I’d expected, with a doughy chest and a face filled out with puffy cheeks and large eyes. Although he says he hasn’t had a drink in more than year, there’s a slow, slurry quality to his words and movements—perhaps brought on by exhaustion (I was watching the second of three sets scheduled for the night).
Most comedians get a laugh out of a raised eyebrow; Morgan can get a laugh by lowering his, disrupting his manic, antic persona to impersonate a normal, dull person. His stage persona is a strange combination of both deflating and re-inflating stereotypes of black machismo. Many are the times he has, in interviews and sketches, expressed his desire to get one woman or another pregnant.
His catchphrase, “Someone gon’ get pregnant!,” does not enter his lexicon tonight, though for a solid hour and a half, he expresses a desire to do almost everything else it is possible to do to violate the female body; in a passage early in the set, he tells women in the audience of his wish to utilize “all seven holes.” Women in the audience generally seem to laugh at this, though an older woman sitting next to me who says she hasn’t been to Goodnight’s since the 1980s seems a little shocked.
His routine, as it goes on, includes discussion of injecting heroin (or “hair-on” as he pronounces it) into the male member, sexual favors granted by crackheads, impersonating a woman who engages in copious anal sex by letting his empty T-shirt sleeve dangle in the air, explaining why prostitutes need to use their sexuality for more empowerment (paraphrasing Chris Rock’s black people vs. N-word routine by explaining “there’s a war in his country between women and ’hos, and ’hos is winning”), and explaining how he wants to be reincarnated with a vagina so he can get power from sleeping with as many guys as possible. Oddly, he also goes on elsewhere about how being gay is a choice.
Morgan’s set ends with him recapping his intimate relations with an 83-year-old woman and a young girlfriend with a crutch, a voice box and a colostomy bag, tapping on the microphone stand and putting the mic against his through as he describes their sexual movements. Perhaps it’s the large meal I had beforehand, but by the end, I’m turning green.
But not before I became the object of his scorn. After expressing his desire to receive oral sex from young women sitting near me, he expresses concern that they’ll need protecting from me. Roughly paraphrased, his words were to the effect of, “This [N-word] look like a motherfucking serial killer, eye sockets all close together and big cranium and shit!”
I laugh it off, but my social anxiety leaves me feeling unsettled—why did he think this about me? Later, I shared this experience on Facebook, and Raleigh film blogger Daniel Johnson reported that the same thing happened to him at the next show. “Must be his standard shtick for all the white guys in the front row,” he wrote. Or white entertainment writers in Raleigh.
It’s hard to say what to make of this. Afterward, the crowd seems both exhilarated and battered by Morgan’s comedy of aggression. Part of his act seems to come from his own personality (or at least persona), but another part seems to come from how he enjoys tweaking people’s expectations for both himself or other black comedians. You come to a Tracy Morgan show expecting him to say outrageous things—but what you get isn’t the silly malapropisms of SNL or 30 Rock, but a nonstop barrage of sexual imagery. “Performance art” isn’t exactly the word for it, but part of the joy of Morgan’s act seems to be trying to see how far he can push the audience before they push back.
Up close, the secret to Morgan’s success becomes apparent—it’s the goofy, childlike smile he gives after his most disturbing monologues, the wink to the audience that reduces him from voracious sex monster to a 12-year-old gleeful about his latest locker-room one-liner.
Morgan’s routine at Goodnight’s is a dry run for a comedy special he’ll soon be taping for HBO. Even by the TV-MA standard for such fare as True Blood, the channel might still need to come up with a stronger warning. Whether or not he’s the new black, Tracy Morgan is the new X.