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“The world of the future will need laughter”

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In the episode of “The Simpsons” entitled “Bart’s Comet,” Bart Simpson discovers a comet is heading straight toward Springfield. All the town’s inhabitants cram themselves into Ned Flanders’ bomb shelter; however, there isn’t room for everyone. As the citizens try to decide which of them will leave the shelter to die in the catastrophe, Krusty the Clown pleads his own case, and says,

“OK, OK, let’s figure out who should stay. The world of the future will need laughter, so I’m in.”

Or, put another way,

“That’s what comedians do!!! We react to tragedy by making jokes to help people in tough times feel better through laughter.”

That is a tweet from comedian Joan Rivers, in defense of another comedian, Gilbert Gottfried. Comedians are humor specialists who could be doing other more lucrative work, such as plumbing, but have instead decided to sacrifice themselves for the good of us all– to make us laugh in difficult times.

Earlier this week, Mr. Gottfried tweeted jokes about the ongoing earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown crisis in Japan. You have probably heard about that. The reports are mind-bogglingly horrible.

The disaster has left more than 10,000 people dead, many thousands homeless and millions without water, power, heat or transportation.

The most urgent worries concerned the failures at two reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where engineers were still struggling to avert meltdowns and where some radiation had already leaked. An explosion at one of the reactors on Monday did not appear to have harmed it, Japanese officials said.


A Japanese police official said 1,000 washed up bodies were found scattered Monday across the coastline of Miyagi prefecture.

This is to provide some context, although it’s almost impossible to fathom the anxiety and misery that is afflicting the Japanese people right now. Thousands dead, buildings crumbling, nuclear reactors in danger of meltdown, homes without power.

Try to imagine that.

Gilbert Gottfried did, and he came up with the following thoughts, shared via twitter,

Japan is really advanced. They don’t go to the beach. The beach comes to them.

I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, “They’ll [sic] be another one floating by any minute now.

These tweets and ten others got Mr. Gottfried fired from his job as the voice of the duck from the Aflac commercials.

The company released a statement saying, “Gilbert’s recent comments about the crisis in Japan were lacking in humor and certainly do not represent the thoughts and feelings of anyone at Aflac … Aflac will immediately set plans in motion to conduct a nationwide casting call to find a new voice of the iconic Aflac Duck.”

As the radio host Howard Stern has pointed out, Mr. Gottfried is a comedian who often makes jokes that are “lacking in humor,” as Aflac might say. That is as good a way as any to defend Mr. Gottfried. You can’t hire someone who is known for making tasteless jokes, and then be offended when he does so. To put it vulgarly, If you lay down with assholes, you might end up smelling like shit.

The way to not defend Mr. Gottfried is the way Ms. Rivers chose. Take a look at her tweet again. Comedians help people in tough times by feeling better through laughter, she claims.

In this scenario, who are the people “in tough times”? Who was being made to “feel better”?

The people who are directly affected by these “tough times” are presumably preoccupied with other things. Such as, cleaning up thousands of dead bodies. Searching for missing loved ones. Trying to prevent a nuclear meltdown. These people most likely don’t have time to check their twitter feeds. Mr. Gottfried probably realizes this, himself.

The joke tweets weren’t aimed at making anyone directly affected by the ongoing tragedies feel better. And, according to Ms. Rivers, these are the very people most in need of the catharsis of laughter! So, who was the intended audience for Mr. Gottfried’s tweets?

Those of us observing the tragedies from a distance. Those of us who are in no direct danger. Those of us watching the suffering. Ms. Rivers is trying to imply that those of us outside of Japan are suffering because of the images we’re seeing and the stories we’re hearing coming out of Japan. Our “tough times” consist of watching a few minutes of CNN and reading an article or two in the New York Times. You see, we need to laugh, because people in Japan are suffering, and we just don’t know how to deal with it.

If Mr. Gottfried had gotten on a plane and flown to Japan, to tell his jokes to, let’s say, rescue workers there, then Ms. Rivers might have a point. But would Mr. Gottfried actually do that?

Would he have made his jokes to the faces of Japanese people? Mr. Gottfried himself addressed this, at least obliquely, in another tweet,

Japan called me. They said “maybe those jokes are a hit in the US, but over here, they’re all sinking.”

In other words, the jokes were not intended to alleviate the suffering of those directly affected, but those watching the suffering.

Over at Slate, someone called Jack Shafer goes even further in his defense,

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.

Emphasis added because that’s the thought process of a spectacularly callous person unaffected by real tragedy. He’s been wondering since the earthquake struck when someone would try to make him laugh about it. He’s been wondering this from the relative safety and comfort of his own home.

And he wasn’t offended by Mr. Gottfried’s jokes. Good to know. But it doesn’t matter at all, not even a little bit, whether or not Mr. Shafer was okay with Mr. Gottfried’s jokes.

Not long after Mr. Gottfried posted his joking tweets he deleted them, and in their place he tweeted,

I meant no disrespect, and my thoughts are with the victims and their families.

I sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by my attempt at humor regarding the tragedy in Japan.

His thoughts clearly were with the victims and their families. That’s why he made the jokes in the first place!

Humor is subjective. Mr. Gottfried is a humorist; some people find his jokes funny, and some don’t. But just because he tries to make some Americans laugh about a tragedy that is affecting hundreds of thousands of Japanese people doesn’t make him noble. The world of the future will indeed need laughter, but my plumber is pretty funny– and he can actually fix my toilet.


Gilbert Gottfried is no Patch Adams.

Ricky Sprague occasionally writes and/or draws things. He sometimes animates things. He has a Twitter account and he has a blog. He scripted this graphic novel about Kolchak The Night Stalker. He is really, really good at putting links in bios.
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One Response to ““The world of the future will need laughter””

  1. I’ll hazard a guess: ‘Gottfried’ – that’s a jew name right? Was it a case of Joan Rivers defending a fellow comedian or a fellow jew? At least as far as Howard Stern is concerned his stance was more a condemnation of Aflac than it was a defence of Gottfried.

    Where was Gottfried during 9/11? Did he tweet/joke about that tragedy? Has he done so since? The anniversary is due. Will he tweet jokes then? If he does – which he won’t – he’ll need more than Jack Shafer of Slate and freak face Joan Rivers to defend him.

    Which they won’t.

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