Broad Humor

Women and Comedy
Editor’s Pick
OCTOBER 22, 2009 9:19PM

Tears of a Clown: Tracy Morgan, Real, Awkward on NPR

Rate: 17 Flag

Football legend Rosey Grier said it best in that feel-good classic from the 1970s, Free to Be You and Me:  "It's alright to cry." That was the 1970s, read: a culture just slightly less sexist, mysoginist, racist, and repressed than in those martini-swilling Mad Men days of yore.  Here we are, a couple of post-1970s later with another well-known, African-American having the nerve to, well, unnerve us one tear at a time.

Comedian Tracy Morgan appeared on the NPR show, Fresh Air, today to promote his new memoir I Am the New Black. (http://www.npr.org/templates/rundowns/rundown.php?prgId=13)

Fresh Air host, Terry Gross, probed deeply in her interview with the funny man of Saturday Night Live and, currently, 30 Rock, but grew noticeably uncomfortable when she cut a little too deeply.  Morgan's book is an explicitly candid account of growing up in danger and poverty, grappling with a drug-addicted father and a strained relationship with his mother, and eventually finding his way to professional success.  The comedian became very serious and visibly upset during several portions of the interview, causing Gross to simply stop talking, which might have seemed like the polite thing to do if it weren't accompanied by such awkward, uncomfortable silence that you could practically hear the cringyness on Gross' face.

Proceeding cautiously, asking if he were ok and offering him a tissue, Gross continued with the interview, but she never seemed to recover, making me wonder who was more upset: Morgan recounting carrying his dying father to his bedroom or Gross confined in a studio with a funny man who was supposed to be inducing tears of laughter, not tears shed from his soul.  At one point she essentially asked him if he was being "for real," even though he prefaced earlier parts of the segment with a discussion about the difference between the character he plays on tv and his authentic self.  Ever the sensitive soul, Gross proceeded to wonder aloud if his fans and people listening would take him seriously.  Later on in the broadcast when further discussing his relationship with his ailing father, she mentioned, again, how upset he had just become and almost couldn't continue the interview.  Was she pulling a classic Barbara Walters, pouring salt in the wound to make her guest squirm while she held her position as radio stoic? Or was she verifying for her own edification?

By Gross' demeanor and responses throughout the interview, it became clear that it's not o.k. to cry:

A.  If you're a man

B. If you're a black man

C. If you're a funny black man

D. If you're a funny black man being interviewed by Terry Gross

The woman has interviewed Kennedys and comics, nobodys and somebodys, so her seeming insensitivity over Morgan's heartfelt approach to the discussion left me non-plussed. I briefly returned to my own personal theory that Gross is, in fact, a robot, but discarded it after realizing that it would provoke a cover-up that no amount of NPR pledge drives could possibly pay for. Maybe she had a chip implanted? A chip removed? I didn't want to think of Terry Gross as a heartless shrew, toying with her guests. How could I and still get that little, nerdy thrill whenever she'd say "And this is FRESH Airrrrrrrr." 

Then I realized that currently, we are a polis powered by dirt, filth, scandal, sensation, shock, and seediness.  Perhaps we no longer know how to recognize real, authentic emotion when we see it.  We were, afterall, transfixed by the crocodile tears of a jackass who pimped out his own children for a shot at the spotlight.  Apparently truth, pathos, and raw humanity is too much for us these days.  Morgan's penchant to display all of those things instead of keeping them concealed behind his outrageous exterior reminds us that it's not only o.k. to cry, it's well..necessary.


 

Your tags:

TIP:

Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:

Comments

Type your comment below:
I didn't hear that broadcast, but it sounds like Terry Gross pretty much blew it with this interview. I did hear Morgan on the Howard Stern Show earlier this week when he (Morgan) was joking and laughing and then got openly angry when talking about some of the key people in his life.

I'd say I heard the much better and more interesting interview. But I must say that I don't have a desire to read Morgan's book.
Interesting piece. I enjoyed the storytelling, although my own take on all this is somewhat different, and apparently well off the beaten path.

I can't for the life of me understand why celebrities feel the need to conduct sessions with their therapist in public. Or why the public seems to feel moved to listen. While it may be possible to tell a compelling and sad story about economic hardship, drug abuse, alcoholism, child abuse, disease, and death - it does little to enrich the reader (viewer or listener) in the long run. We all face these issues in life. Perhaps the fact that the famous face them to is of some interest to a segment of the population, but nobody goes out of their way to query the guy changing the oil in their car about the obstacles he faced in life.

Tracy Morgan is a funny guy with a real talent. But I'm not at all sure I need to hear about the pain he's experienced in life to enjoy his work, or understand that he is a human being, not much different than the rest of us - other than in terms of his chosen profession.
I would like to see an interview with the comedian but from your description this is not the one to see. I'm not sure how one could be funny when discussing a dying father or why one would ever be expected to.
Well said. I saw him on Regis and Kelly this week and he was very calm and candid (for one of the few times) and you can tell this book is from the heart. He didn't cry on there, but then the questions were much less probing. It's okay and actually GOOD to cry when your emotions tell you to do so. For the people who continually say "big boys don't cry", I say go screw yourself and get educated.

Rated
NPR is made up entirely of robots. If you go "off script" they blow a gasket.
I will now seek out that broadcast. This is a fantastic piece of writing. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who thinks Terry Gross is very overrated.
I would imagine it is vital for Tracy Morgan to tell these stories, as his job requires such bufoonery from him. I'm very interested in people's stories - why else would I be an OS lifer? - and his sounds like it has some stark dichotomies.
I also like to hear those stories live, without editing or a soundtrack.
Again, excellent writing, and thanks!
First of all: NPR - blech. Terry Gross - sounds blech. I wouldn't generalize around one idiotic journalist. But it sounds like a deep interview I'd like to hear/see as far as Tracy Morgan goes.

Thanks for the heads up! Come visit my blog: I'm from Boston also!
I didn't hear this interview, but I have noticed that sort of thing being a problem in other interviews - she invites confidences and then lets them bounce off and drop to the floor.

I like the show, and I'm generally a fan, but Terry has an extremely reserved/cool affect. Which says a lot coming from me - people find me reserved, and I'm from a family of pretty emotionally-unexpressive types. I think she should not try for the Barbara Walters thing, but do what she does best - delve deeply into ideas with her guests.
I didn't hear this, but I'm going to listen to it now. How sad.
Really liked your last paragraph.

I think Gross was just stunned that the interview was turning out differently than she expected it. But of course the "Fresh Air" program is edited for broadcast, not live, so whatever went out over the air was something she and her producers decided to keep in the program, awkwardness and all.
I heard it last night and have a different view.

Terry Gross seemed to be at a loss as to what to do for a while and seemed to be more concerned with keeping the interview going on without having a very emotional Tracy walk out. And it certainly wasn't all tears on Tracy's part. That was my initial thinking.

I realized after the tissue was passed along that there must have been a connection between the two. After all, we only hear what's going on we don't see the interview and might be missing some visual cues as to how the two are interacting. It must have been a lot more sincere than you make out as Tracy himself at the end of the conversation was thankful and clearly seemed to have a connection with Tracy saying that he does not open up like that to just anyone and hopes that Terry was not too uncomfortable with him pouring his hart out.

Thinking that Terry took advantage of Tracy would be a disservice to Tracy as he clearly is an intelligent man, who happens to be a bit overly emotional.
I heard it last night and have a different view.

Terry Gross seemed to be at a loss as to what to do for a while and seemed to be more concerned with keeping the interview going on without having a very emotional Tracy walk out. And it certainly wasn't all tears on Tracy's part. That was my initial thinking.

I realized after the tissue was passed along that there must have been a connection between the two. After all, we only hear what's going on we don't see the interview and might be missing some visual cues as to how the two are interacting. It must have been a lot more sincere than you make out as Tracy himself at the end of the conversation was thankful and clearly seemed to have a connection with Tracy saying that he does not open up like that to just anyone and hopes that Terry was not too uncomfortable with him pouring his hart out.

Thinking that Terry took advantage of Tracy would be a disservice to Tracy as he clearly is an intelligent man, who happens to be a bit overly emotional.
I heard it as well, and found it to be a pretty fascinating interview. Keep in mind, a lot of times Gross and her guests are not always in the same studio or even the same city. Having someone break down and you are not able to physically reach out to comfort them will certainly affect how you carry on the interview.
The tears of a clown
Sueisfine,
Great points, really appreciate your thoughtful response. I do agree that there was a matter of journalistic professionalism at stake with Gross needing to continue on with the interview, and I do think that is a tricky negotiation for a lot of subjects. It struck me that she seemed to have trouble navigating her own responses to what was unfolding and came across as just uncomfortable with the situation. It could have been a great opportunity for Gross to highlight Morgan's multifaceted nature and discuss how he distills the more painful aspects of his life through his professional work or pursue a similar line of questioning. Overall, I found it very revealing of the way American culture handles (or doesn't handle) certain types of emotional expression.
Very much agree with the original post, though my reaction was far stronger. I found Terry Gross unbearable for most of the interview. Her overly intellectualized responses betrayed deep emotional incompetence, ultimately revealing more about her than they did about her guest. Fortunately, Morgan wasn't spooked by Gross's discomfort, and delivered fresh air to a show that all too often suffocates in its own staleness.
I love Tracey Morgan. I didn't know he has a book out. 30 Rock is genius and I love his character and how different the character is from the actor. Great post! Rated.
I gotta say, I'm not surprised. I really can't stand Terry Gross -- her hushed tones and similar responses for everything from legendary poets and holocaust survivors to the creators of South Park just puts me in an NPR coma. Yes, there's no greater sin than genuine feeling in a culture that takes days off to lay wreaths for the latest celebrity death but can't be bothered to deal when actual people they know are suffering.
I knew about the book but did not hear the interview.

I agree, I believe this country as a whole does not know what to do with true emotion, and at this point, how to even recognize it as it has been hijacked by pundits, idiot fathers, etc. Terry Gross has never impressed me personally...the emotional depth just isn't there to receive an emotional interview. I understand awkwardness, and I think it is less about making a statement about what is appropriate, but more about her as a person.

Thanks for this. (Rated).
I listened to the interview. I never heard Terry ask Tracy if he was being "for real." What I heard was a man who alternately broke down in tears and then seemed angry. I was glad when Terry asked Tracy: "Are you angry? Because you sound angry now." Yes, he did sound angry, and I was glad she made that observation, because as I listened to the interview, I began to get very uncomfortable. That question of hers "broke the ice," so to speak, and I was able to get through the rest of the interview.

ANYONE, not necessarily just an NPR interviewer, would be taken aback by someone who shows as many varied and passionate emotions as Tracy Morgan did in the course of an hour or a half hour. I'm not saying he was over-emotional, just that it was disconcerting. Disconcerting for the listener, as well as for the interviewer.