Gilbert Gottfried was never my cup of tea. I prefer the cool paradoxes of Steven Wright, say, to Gottfried’s squinty, barking dog comic routine, though he was funny in the delightfully filthy documentary “The Aristocrats.”
His squawk made him perfect for the voice of the Aflac duck, mascot for the insurance giant, which promptly canned Gottfried on Monday over tweets he sent cracking crude jokes about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
“Japan is really advanced,” he wrote in one of the more printable efforts. “They don’t go to the beach. The beach comes to them.”
When firing Gottfried, Aflac placed the jokes squarely beyond the pale of humanity.
“There is no place for anything but compassion and concern during these difficult times,” said Michael Zuna, a senior VP and chief marketing officer for Aflac.
Really? No place? No place at all? Because my understanding is that every tragedy in the history of the world quickly becomes the butt of jokes, and humor is especially important to those trying to survive the most extreme and awful circumstances.
Slaves in chains joked about their masters. Jews in Auschwitz put on vaudeville shows.
“Wit produced on the precipice of hell was not frivolity, but psychological necessity,” Steve Lipman writes in Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor During the Holocaust. “ ‘We kept our morale through humor,’ says Emil Fachenheim, an Auschwitz survivor.”
In public, the right to joke is reserved for those most affected: Gottfried did not lose his children to a tsunami and thus can’t make jokes. To live as a slave or in a concentration camp and joke about your condition is not the same as us making jokes about either today.
And yet. Are we all not also affected by this, to a far milder but still real degree, as fellow humans? It’s been nearly a week since the Japan earthquake and tsunami hit. The world has been processing a continuously unfolding horror — uncounted thousands dead, far more homeless, plus crippled reactors on the brink of full-blown catastrophe. I’m not so sure that cracking a joke at some point isn’t a natural human response, as opposed to maintaining an unwavering expression of generic anguish and continual pro forma concern.
People joke — part of the issue here is how technology has blurred the line between public and private. I’m sure Gottfried didn’t realize he was quitting his Aflac gig when he made those tweets; his timing was off and, as a comic should know, timing is everything.
Private laughter is inevitable, especially during tragedies. I laughed over the situation in Japan, and I’ll tell you exactly when: It was when news broke about the volcano. It just seemed to be cruel fate turning the knife one twist too many. An earthquake. A tsunami. Pending nuclear disaster. And now an erupting volcano. You have to laugh, don’t you?
“Jeez,” I said out loud to myself, with an amazed, sardonic chuckle, “Poor Japan. What’s next — a hail of burning frogs?”
Does that make me a bad person? Indifferent to the plight of the Japanese? Should the paper fire me, too, for printing that just now?
I would suggest that, while you’re always safe with nodding solemnity, laughter is what people who are themselves under the lash of fate find true comfort in.
The French editor Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a brain stem stroke in 1995 that left him completely paralyzed. All he could do was flutter his left eyelid, which he used to dictate the bittersweet, haunting memoir The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
In it, he is parked every day in front of a glass case at a hospital on the Norman Coast, facing a marble bust of the Empress Eugenie.
Eventually he notices his own reflection:
“An unknown face interposed itself between us. Reflected in the glass I saw the head of a man who seemed to have emerged from a vat of formaldehyde. His mouth was twisted, his nose damaged, his hair tousled, his gaze full of fear. One eye was sewn shut, the other goggled. . . .
“Whereupon a strange euphoria came over me. Not only was I exiled, paralyzed, mute, half deaf, deprived of all pleasures and reduced to the existence of a jellyfish, but I was also horrible to behold. There comes a time when the heaping up of calamities brings on uncontrollable nervous laughter — when, after a final blow from fate, we decide to treat it all as a joke. My jovial cackling at first disconcerted Eugenie, until she herself was infected by my mirth. We laughed until we cried.”
That is sometimes all you can do in a world where horror and humor blur into one.
“Our house is gone,” said Kyoko Nambu, 49, as she gazed at Soma, her ruined hometown, “and now they are telling us to stay indoors.”