30 Rock promo shot
30 Rock promo shot

It’s gotta be, right? Just look at all that bling on Tracey Jordan.

Almost as fun as watching 30 Rock is watching liberals laugh and then think (out loud on their blogs): “Does laughing at the antics of Tracy Morgan make me racist? This might be, at best, a guilty pleasure, and perhaps I shouldn’t be enjoying it. Because, well, real racists might enjoy these jokes, too.”

That’s not a direct quote of Philly-based blogger Isaiah Thompson, but close enough. He raises the question of whether we really should be laughing at the jokes and story lines of two of America’s most celebrated and successful television comedies: 30 Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Thompson writes:

Anybody else feel like TV’s been getting uncomfortably, overtly racist?

See? I said I was close enough. To be fair, Thompson backs off from that question later in his brief blog post:

But I don’t really buy it. And yeah, I’m the [expletive] who’s ruining the joke by talking about it: but of the many things that make Curb and 30 Rock hilarious, I gotta say: black people playing crazy black people doesn’t top my list.

So … Thompson apparently feels so much guilt about the prospect of laughing at “black people playing crazy black people,” he’s moved the Tracy Jordan character off the list of reasons 30 Rock is “hilarious.” Me? I start laughing just looking at the great character Tracy Morgan created for 30 Rock. I start cracking up during the opening credits.

Another liberal Philly-based blogger, my friend Joel Mathis, is a bit more sanguine on this question than Thompson. In fact, Mathis pretty much nails it:

To the extent that 30 Rock has an attitude toward race—and isn’t simply finding jokes where it can—it’s a wry commentary, I think, on “post-racial” America, a country filled with people, like Liz Lemon, whose good intentions are sometimes at war with their darker impulses and the whole thing can simply be very, very uncomfortable. It’s tricky ground to mine for laughs; I think 30 Rock does a pretty good job of it.

I’d replace “darker impulses” with “human impulses,” but Mathis’ take is sound. If we truly are in a “post-racial America,” it should be OK to laugh, right? 30 Rock is only treading on “tricky ground” because of the political correctness culture that has consumed Hollywood for at least 30 years. The great irony is that two classic, incredibly funny sitcoms—All in the Family and The Jeffersons—were created by arguably the most influential liberal in televised Hollywood, Norman Lear. And, yeah. My racist father (certainly racist by today’s standards) and racists across the country in the ’70s laughed it up at Archie’s antics.

Perhaps that’s why for so long race has been so off limits for TV laughs. Writers were afraid to “comfort” those who didn’t laugh at Archie, but laughed with him—at least a little too much for comfort. Despite the brilliant comedy to be found of All in the Family—not to mention the liberal social commentary Lear applied with a sledgehammer—it just wasn’t worth it if some people laughed for the wrong reasons.

I find it incredibly refreshing the way 30 Rock and The Office are not afraid to not just dip their toes into the racial joke pool but at times do a cannonball in the deep end. The “Diversity Day” episode of The Office, the second episode of the first season, is a genuine classic. I think I’ve seen it at least a dozen times, and it still makes me laugh my head off. I remember the first time I saw it. I turned to my wife and said: “I can’t believe they had the courage to do that. It’s taboo. I hope they don’t get in trouble.”

That episode of The Office really was ground-breaking (or ground-rebreaking), and it’s a credit to the creative team behind the show that they’ve regularly attempted to find humor by bursting the bubble of racial political correctness. The target of parody on The Office in such episodes is not just Michael Scott’s unenlightened racial views, but the decades of PC racial “enlightenment” that has been inflicted on America. We are currently enjoying—or at least I am—an era in television comedy where writers trust and respect their audience to laugh at racism without fear of perpetuating racism. Such a mindset was always an insult to the intelligence of the audience. Good riddance.

Kvetching about whether the Tracy Jordan character’s stupidity somehow perpetuates “racial stereotypes” is for the birds. But I’d take this line of argument more seriously if there were a smidgen of concern about the negative stereotypes of Southern folk inherent in the Kenneth Parcell character on 30 Rock. But, again, kvetching about that is also for the birds. I think the stereotype-driven jokes about Kenneth are hilarious, too.

Good comedy writing is about focusing—without fear—on what’s funny. Period. The fact that some liberal commentators are still weighing political correctness and enforced “sensitivity” versus getting a laugh is proof that some of us are not yet embracing the new “post-racial America.” At least not yet.

—Jim Lakely