Above is a clip of Oprah Winfrey interviewing Tracy Morgan. Morgan says something here that I found exceptionally powerful.
Oprah asks him what Tina Fey has meant to his career. She tries to lead into “she writes for my voice.” Which is true – the staff of 30 Rock do write for Morgan’s voice in a way that the staff of, say, The Tracy Morgan Show didn’t especially well. They are, after all, the best in the business. They also write for Jack McBrayer’s voice and Scott Adsit’s voice and Jane Krakowski’s voice. That’s their job, and they’re great at it.
So Oprah’s headed towards some well worn territory with her question. Morgan’s response, though, is so incisive. What he says is that Fey recognized he was making choices.
What he’s saying is that despite his incredible success and remarkable talent, what was special about Tina Fey was that she recognized, simply, that Morgan had agency.
In a way, that’s the opposite of what Oprah was driving at (and what people often seem to say about Morgan). People want to attribute Morgan’s comic talent to writers. It robs Morgan of not just the credit for being as hilarious as he is (and he is hilarious), but of credit for creating at all.
Oprah’s a great interviewer, and she catches herself and refocuses, recontextualizes her question. This isn’t anti-Oprah.
What it’s really about is something that it seems Morgan gets completely. When you suggest that a person doing creative work has no agency, that they are not making choices, you don’t just hurt their reputation. It’s closer in my mind to taking away their humanity. A person’s actions can be judged for good or ill; a puppet is benign but it can never be human.
There are sharper race critics than I, but there’s no doubt in my mind that race is part of this. My gut tells me that this kind of other-ization through a weird kind of infantilization that borders on taking someone’s humanity is something that wouldn’t happen to a white performer. I haven’t sorted out all the implications in my mind, but I wanted to take a second to give Morgan credit for this insight. I know as an interviewer that I’m lucky if my subject thinks so sharply about themselves and their own experience.
(Video via The Vulture)