DC Trawler

Believe it or not, there are some things even I won’t joke about

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Two relatively high-profile guys have lost their jobs this week for making fun of the disaster in Japan. First up:

Aflac has fired Gilbert Gottfried, the comedian who is the voice of the insurer’s quacking duck in the U.S. Gottfried, who has voiced the duck in numerous commercials since 2000, posted a string of mocking jokes about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan on Twitter over the weekend.

“I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, ‘They’ll be another one floating by any minute now,” he tweeted Saturday.

And then:

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s press secretary resigned Monday after remarks he meant as jokes about earthquake-ravaged Japan and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno became public.

Dan Turner said Barbour never saw the jokes that were included in a daily e-mailed news digest. Turner said they should not be considered a reflection on whether Barbour, a likely candidate to run for the Republican nomination for president, is ready for a wider political scene than Mississippi’s.

“The governor didn’t make these mistakes. I did,” he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press in New Orleans. “Governor Barbour never even saw the comments…”

About Otis Redding’s posthumous gold record for “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” Turner wrote “(Not a big hit in Japan right now.”)

I’m of two minds about this. Personally, jokes like this get clogged in whatever passes for my mental filter. It’s just a gut feeling: Should I joke about this? Too soon? Too horrible? It’s a personal thing, and everybody’s filter is different. Everybody has a different line they just can’t cross.

At the same time, I’m not really offended by jokes like this because I understand that people use gallows humor to cope with such enormous destruction and human suffering. In some cases, yes, it might be a sociopathic lack of human empathy, and the jokester is a horrible human being. But I think in most cases, it’s just an attempt to cope.

That’s not to say that your employer is obliged to keep giving you a paycheck if you’re going to hurt their business, whether that business is insurance or politics or whatever else. That’s just how it goes. You have the right to free speech, and they have the right to spend their money as they see fit. So I guess I’m really of three minds about it…

It also says something about the forum you use. Gottfried made those jokes on Twitter, and Turner did so in e-mail. When it’s just words on a screen and it can be sent around the world in an instant, you can’t control who the audience will be. You don’t have the context of a comedy club or an office water cooler or whatever. You’re not among friends. Anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion.

Who knows, maybe that’ll be me someday. I’m sure some of you reading this would like nothing more. If and when it does happen, I just hope I’m funnier than usual. When in doubt, lower the bar.

P.S. Fortunately, we’ve got real leaders showing us how to behave during a crisis.

P.P.S. Stand-up comics Brian McKim and Traci Skene have more thoughts on this.

P.P.P.S. This isn’t the first time Gottfried has heard “too soon.”

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Jim Treacher