Sometimes death and destruction just aren’t all that amusing. The catastrophe in Japan is the latest case in point: occasionally a bad joke is a firing offense.
“You can’t make jokes about the situation where a lot of people, or even a few people, have died or are dying,” says satirist Harry Shearer, whose weekly radio program, Le Show, exposes the lethal absurdities of politics, media, jurisprudence, and bureaucracy. “You can look at what surrounds an event, but don’t go near the thing itself. There’s nothing funny about nine Afghan villagers getting accidentally killed by an American chopper, but I recently made fun of the dance of Karzai and Petraeus apologizing for that incident. You can look at the crazy machinations of people trying to deny reality; just don’t go up to where the bodies are.”
Gallery: Jokes That Get People Fired
The boundaries of acceptable comedy have once again asserted themselves, limning the limits of gallows humor. In the past two days, comedian Gilbert Gottfried lost his decadelong gig as the voice of the Aflac duck (Aflac being Japan’s largest insurer) and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s press secretary abruptly resigned—both over tasteless jokes about the Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
The hoarsely shouting Gottfried, whose comic sensibility gleefully violates every norm of decency, took to Twitter to unleash a series of groaners, including: "I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, 'There'll be another one floating by any minute now.' " ( His subsequent apology—“I meant no disrespect, and my thoughts are with the victims and their families”—didn’t save him.) Gubernatorial press secretary Dan Turner’s misstep was mild by comparison: an emailed reference to the Otis Redding standard “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay (Not a big hit in Japan right now.)"
Of course, Turner’s former boss, who has committed his own share of gaffes in recent weeks, is thinking about running for president—so his tolerance for lame jokes about human suffering is zero.
Renowned Washington joke-writer Landon Parvin, the go-to guy for Republican presidents and lesser politicians in need of laugh lines for dinner speeches in hotel ballrooms, is painfully aware of the downside risks. Parvin was heavily involved in George W. Bush’s much-reviled March 2004 attempt to make light of the U.S. military’s inability to find Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction that were cited as Bush’s reason for attacking Iraq in the first place.
“We thought it was self-deprecating; we thought the president was making fun of himself,” recalls Parvin, who later apologized to Bush for the political blowback in an election year, including a television commercial in which the sister of a dead soldier expressed disgust over the president’s japes. “I felt terrible about it. The problem area is always the one you don’t consider—and it will come back to bite you. Needless to say, we wouldn’t have even considered doing it if we thought it would be connected to people dying in a war. The crowd was laughing at the time, but obviously, it was a mistake. With humor, you always take a risk, and we clearly called that one wrong.”
Parvin notes that in politics, bad jokes live forever—more so now than in years past because of the indelible imperatives of the Internet. “Unfortunately, people don’t forget anymore,” he says. “If you’re Jon Stewart, you can get away with it; if you’re a politician, you can’t. There is less and less room for error when it comes to humor. You open and close the same night, and you don’t have a chance to try out your material, and mistakes happen.”
The stakes are lower for rappers and basketball players. In the current situation, 50 Cent and WNBA player Cappie Poindexter have thrown themselves on the mercy of the court of public opinion and apologized for offensive comments on Twitter about the natural disaster that has killed thousands. “Fifty” tweeted, “I had to evacuate all my hoess from LA, Hawaii and Japan. I had to do it. Lol." And Poindexter mused oafishly: "What if God was tired of the way they treated their own people in there own country! Idk guys he makes no mistakes…u just never knw! They did pearl harbor so u can't expect anything less."
Fox News star Glenn Beck and CNBC host Larry Kudlow have also frayed collective nerve endings. Beck, like Poindexter, speculated on his radio show that God was using the tragedy to send a message, and Kudlow blurted: "The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll, and we can be grateful for that.”
But, unlike Gottfried, they haven’t lost their jobs—a fact that galls comedy headliner Jim Norton. “He told a tasteless joke, and now he can’t make duck noises for an insurance company?” says Norton, a diehard defender of his fellow standup. “Gilbert is known for that type of humor—everyone knows he’s disgusting. Meanwhile, this insurance company is probably screwing people out of their benefit claims in Japan, so I understand why they’d be worried.”
Norton adds: “It’s typical of Americans to just throw each other under the bus and get this vulture mentality to fire somebody for attempting to be funny. But if the person telling the joke is a musician or an athlete, people might be offended but they don’t lose their job. Actors never get punished for playing an obnoxious, offensive character. And how come nobody is criticizing these repugnant people on the news channels? They’re literally showing clip after clip of the tsunami and profiting from the advertising. But comedians are the ones who always get nailed. If a comedian addresses a subject and people are offended, then he has to be punished. We really are becoming a nation of entitled babies. If we don’t like something, we don’t want anybody to like it.”
The issue pretty much boils down to that useful phrase: too soon.
“Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” is a perfectly polite cliché of a joke 146 years after the fact.
“The subject of Pompeii is probably safe at this point,” Shearer says. “You can go make a meal of Pompeii.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.