Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Broken Logic of Tracy Jordan

Tracy Jordan, the 30 Rock character played by Tracy Morgan, lets some amazing non-sequiters fly. What makes them so funny is that you can almost see a logic behind some of them, but something has clearly gone seriously wrong.

"Always dress like you're going to be murdered in those clothes."

The joke happens in that split second where you get into his head, and see this as a version of the cliche "live every day like it is your last," and the line mothers use on their children sometimes to get them to wear clean underwear -- "how will you feel if you get hit by a truck and they find you and you are wearing dirty underwear?" Jordan's version makes a certain kind of sense, but it is too specific to be a proverb (it is about clothes), the imagery is too violent to be mainstream (being murdered), and it is undercut by the kind of wonderful force of thinking style is so important, you should care how you dress on the day you will be murdered, because certainly other people will notice. You want to look good on the pavement, of course.

"Live every week like it's Shark Week"

The revised cliche is the same: "live every day as if it were your last." But here there is no suggestion that your death (inevitable) will come through murder. Instead the "danger" is only suggested by the word "shark," an animal that is dangerous in real life, but not when seen on a TV screen as part of The Discovery Channel's annual Shark Week, which has specials on sharks. What is funny, and faintly disturbing here, is the psychotically literal way he thinks about that week of programming, how seriously he takes the advertising, which always looks like "Shark Week: It's Coming." A lesser show would have a crazy person say crazy things ("I'll kill you all!" "What?" "Nothing".) What makes this great is the casual way his insanity is folded into a version of sage advice, and gets to us before we know what it is.

A similar kind of casual insanity is when he is defending his behavior to Tina Fey with "Hey. Bird's gotta fly. Fish gotta swim. Chinese dude's gotta change back into a tiger at midnight." Its funny because the crazy is not the point of what he is saying, it is just an illustration of his sane point. And the real crazy is in assuming other people will know what he is talking about without question.

"Affirmative action was designed to keep women and minorities in competition with each other to distract us while white dudes inject AIDS into our chicken nuggets. That's a metaphor."

A lesser show would have stopped with that first sentence, which is standard conspiracy theory stuff -- he is a loon, we get it. But "its a metaphor" lets us see that he has some distance on what he is saying, of course that is not real. Except that the distance gained does not really make him seem more sane, because he neglects to tell us what he thinks it is a metaphor for. He assumes we will know.

In another episode Tina Fey comes to talk about a problem both she and Jordan are familiar with. She says forcefully "we have to do something" and he IMMEDIATELY says excitedly "Lets crash my car and see if the airbags go off!" A good part of being crazy is walking around with absolutely no context at all. It simply does not occur to him that she has something -- even a topic -- in mind. In spite of her tone, and her personality, he treats her like she is just bored and looking for something to do for fun. Even crazier is his idea of what would be a fun thing for them to do together. It has a child's "how does this work" enthusiasm, which makes you love him even though he seems dangerous.

After Jack hijacks Jordan's little league coaching job, Jordan says that the truth will out in his book "Betrayal, colon, what really happened with my baseball team, comma, disaster at knuckle beach, question mark." It knocks me out how he gets caught up in the idea of a lengthy faux-serious title, and the absurdity of vocalizing punctuation marks.

And over and above all of this is the fact that the character's name, Tracy Jordan, is so close to the actor's name, Tracy Morgan, so that you think that he might really think like this.


Jason Powell said...

The punctuation stuff at the end sounds like a variation on a classic Marx Brothers bit -- it's in the film "Animal Crackers" -- when Groucho dictates a letter to Zeppo. That scene is the best vocalization-of-punctuation-based humor ever, parenthesis, that I know of, closed parenthesis.

James said...

Also, the way Tracy Morgan/Jordan says "Liz Lemon" is one of the funniest sounds I've ever heard.

scott91777 said...

I wonder how much Tracy Morgan has to do with the non-sequiters, I don't know if he is a writer on the show but the show DOES star a person who started as a writer. Not to mention the fact that the single camera format allows for a lot more improvisation to be utilized in shows like this. It wouldn't surprise me if they were Morgan's own inventions since they seem very similar to the kind of non-sensical phrases he would utter as Brian Fellows or his Homeless character on SNL. You must have the DVDs Geoff... Anything on the commentaries or extra features?

Geoff Klock said...

JP -- good point

James -- it is!

Scott -- I have the DVDs but I never really watch the extras or listen to the commentaries unless I get a rec from someone I really trust. I have the wire to watch! I have to triage!

Scene Guy -- said...

"Next time on Brian Fellows, we have a dog, and a baby dog." He cracks me up.

Paul said...

Another layer to the little league coach is that the whole affair was a play on Bush not listening to more qualified advisors (namely Colin Powell) and it ending in disaster. Colon & Colin being homophones.

Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew J. Brady said...

I got nothing to add here, but I agree that Tracy Jordan is hilarious. And the way he plays off everyone else (especially Kenneth) is some of the funniest stuff in the show.

Stefan Delatovic said...

"Blue man where your feet at?"

bathmate said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

This is misquoted. The quote is, "You can't tell a bird not to fly. You can't tell a fish not to swim. You can't tell a chinese dude not to turn back into a tiger at midnight."