Come­dian Tracy Morgan, known for his role as Tracy Jordan on the sitcom “30 Rock,” was widely crit­i­cized ear­lier this month after he made homo­phobic com­ments during a comedy show in Nashville. Some argue that people shouldn’t be upset by come­dians’ offen­sive remarks. Others find this kind of comedy any­thing but funny. Here, North­eastern com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies lec­turer William Lan­caster sheds some light on why offen­sive comedy is so common — and what’s really wrong with it.

Isn’t this an issue of free speech? Isn’t it some­times OK to be offen­sive during a comedy routine?

As a jour­nalist and tele­vi­sion pro­ducer, I would never advo­cate any sort of cen­sor­ship. That said, the unwritten rule of thumb today is that it’s OK for come­dians to make offen­sive jokes if they’re a member of the com­mu­nity that they are bashing. If you’re gay, you can make a gay joke, if you’re Asian you can make an Asian joke. There’s tol­er­a­tion for that, but when someone who’s not “a member of the club” makes a joke about that group, it’s con­sid­ered offensive.

In gen­eral, people in enter­tain­ment have matured over the decades so that they know it’s no longer right to make an anti-​​black or an anti-​​woman joke. But it’s still open season on the gay and les­bian com­mu­nity. I think most Amer­i­cans are cen­trist but slightly to the right on gay issues, and it’s reflected in entertainment.

Do you think that Tracy Morgan and Michael Richards thought their offen­sive com­ments would be funny? That they always intended them to be part of their acts?

I don’t think the slurs that came from Tracy Morgan and Michael Richards were part of their acts. I think they revealed their true per­son­al­i­ties. In con­trast, Chris Rock makes a lot of racial jokes, but his lines are thought out, well crafted. These other guys are just launching assaults against var­ious com­mu­ni­ties by using stereotypes.

There’s a long line of come­dians who’ve been deemed “offen­sive.” But some were also praised as “daring” or “on the edge.” What’s your take on this?

Lenny Bruce and George Carlin and Richard Pryor were truly breaking ground. These were comic acts that were ending up in court. They were using humor and satire to raise aware­ness about big­otry. In Lenny Bruce’s case, for example, he was raising aware­ness about the anti-​​Semitism in the United States. That’s a far dif­ferent thing than making sopho­moric locker room jokes about gays and lesbians.

Today — in shows like Family Guy and South Park, or in the movie Brüno by Sacha Baron Cohen — there’s no satir­ical value. While they do from time to time take some good satir­ical punches at the ills of America, they’re mostly just making the same deroga­tory jokes you’d hear in a bar 30 years ago.