Most people are circumspect in their opening reactions to floods, volcanic eruptions, mass murders, ship sinkings, genocides, hurricanes, fatal bus accidents, tornados, terrorist attacks, and other deadly meltdowns. But for some of us, a joke is usually the second thing we think of when tens or hundreds or thousands of people are snuffed senselessly. Our first thought is about our families—are they OK?—before we proceed to the joke.
Were we monsters to chuckle at this proposed bumper-sticker—"My kid shot your honor student"—in the days following Columbine? Do we deserve vilification for having repeated space shuttle jokes prior to the burials of the Challenger and Columbia astronauts? ("When's the next space shuttle launch?" "The Fourth of July.") Shouldn't we make some horrific events, like Chernobyl, exempt for all time from sick humor? ("I was wondering where everybody had gone to in Chernobyl. Until I saw the sign saying 'gone fission.' ")
Car bombs? Haiti's earthquake? 9/11? Racist jokes about Katrina? Pushing our frame of reference from the contemporary toward the historic, how about the Holocaust? The Titanic? The potato famine? Never mind the cretins who laugh at such stuff, what about the cretins who make it up?
One of the high cretins of sick humor is stand-up comic Gilbert Gottfried, the voice of the Aflac duck, and he got fired from the duck gig yesterday for posting on his Twitter account a number of half-funny jokes about the earthquake and tsunami. Gottfried has since deleted the jokes, which included, "I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, 'They'll be another one floating by any minute now.' " To read the rest of the Gottfried tweets, see this Howard Stern fan site, where someone retrieved them from the Google cache.
I understand why Aflac would want to distance itself from the comedian. After all, the company does three-quarters of its business in Japan. But none of the jokes offended me—I have a pretty high threshold. Then again, none of them made me laugh, either, but since the earthquake struck I've been wondering out loud when somebody would shove the taboo aside and mine the misery for humor.
I subscribe to all the standard defenses of sick humor. That by springing the overloaded circuit it provides catharsis. That it prevents us from taking ourselves too seriously. That it's a way for romantics to masquerade as cynics. That it lifts our minds from despair. That it gives us a way to whistle past the graveyard (raise your hand if you live in a potential disaster zone, nuclear or otherwise). And so on.
The biggest tactical mistake Gottfried made was not writing these jokes or even telling them. As I've illustrated above, sick jokes follow disasters like autumn follows summer, and there's always an appreciative audience with ears open wide to receive them. Had Gottfried introduced any of his Japan jokes in his comedy club routine, I doubt that any patron would have winced at his crudeness or insensitivity, let alone walked out. After all, Gottfried is a known transgressor. He's the comic who, when lightly booed for telling a 9/11 joke at a Friars Club roast for Hugh Hefner three weeks after the attacks, segued into a triumphant, wildly obscene telling of the famous joke that's chronicled in the 2005 film The Aristocrats. The mystery to me is not why did Aflac sack him, but why did they hire him in the first place?
Gottfried's "mistake," if you want to call it that, was to tell his vile and timely jokes in a venue that he thought was as safe as a dinner party with a friend. Before posting, Gottfried must have thought, Who but a lover of daring comedy would follow me on Twitter? But he was wrong. The new rules have made everybody—including edgy comedians—accountable in the public sphere for the things they say "privately" in social media spaces. (See also the school teacher who gets fired because somebody finds a Facebook page of her chugging from a bottle of vodka.) Would Michael Richards have suffered the same universal shaming if his off-the-wheels racist attack on a heckler at an L.A. comedy club hadn't been videotaped and posted to the Web?
The biggest joke of all came today, when Gottfried apologized for his nasty tweets in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter. "I sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by my attempt at humor regarding the tragedy in Japan," he said. "I meant no disrespect, and my thoughts are with the victims and their families."
What makes Gottfried's apology laughable is his claim that he didn't mean to offend anyone. His entire act pivots on his insistence on offending people, of making people gasp in laughter at the lines that he has crossed. A bloody disaster that has killed and maimed thousands, upended millions of lives, and may bathe millions more in a radioactive cloud is his idea of perfect. He's like comedian Argus Hamilton who in 1989 told the Los Angeles Timesthat if Russia were to declare World War III, everybody else would say, "Fifteen minutes more to live." He would say, "I've got 15 minutes of material."
A recent Jerusalem Post piece details one professor's attempt to show how modern humor flows directly from the mean, aggressive, sarcastic, bleak humor practiced by "badkhn" entertainers in the Jewish shtetls of 17th-century Eastern Europe. The badkhn specialized in going too far, Mel Gordon, a professor of theater arts at the University of California-Berkeley, tells the newspaper. Their job was to be abusive, not make people chuckle in gentle mirth about life's minor foibles. They were disrupters whose operating principle seems to be that humor is too important to be used on getting laughs.
"The joke police have Japan surrounded," Los Angeles journalist and screenwriter Ben Schwartz tweeted this afternoon. Yes, 50 Cent and Family Guy writer Alec Sulkin have also apologized for their ugly tsunami tweets. But I'm hoping our other comedians escape the dragnet. Where I come from, the only power strong enough to defeat radiation is a sick, hurtful joke.
The biographical note on Gottfried's Twitter page still reads, "Mr. Gottfried served 8 years in prison for beating up an Eskimo." I'm sure the Inuit people will force him to apologize for that one, too. Send your apologies to email@example.com and check my Twitter for obnoxious humor. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.) Thanks to researchers Jessica Leader and Katy Waldman for their help.