As an earthquake rocked Japan last March, flooding the streets and threatening nuclear power plants, Alec Sulkin, a writer for the animated TV comedy “Family Guy,” decided to share his humorous thoughts on Twitter.
“If you wanna feel better about this earthquake in Japan, google ‘Pearl Harbor death toll,’” wrote Sulkin. Though he likely expected praise from comedy fans for his hilarious insights, Sulkin soon found himself apologizing instead.
“Yesterday death toll = 200. Today = 10 thousand. I am sorry for my insensitive tweet. It’s gone.”
Meanwhile, comedian Gilbert Gottfried tweeted, “I was talking to my Japanese real estate agent. I said, ‘Is there a school in this area?’ She said, ‘Not now, but just wait.’”
Sulkin kept his job as a TV joke writer, but Gottfried got fired from his job as the voice of the Aflac duck.
Was either man wrong for joking while people died? Is it funnier when 200 die than 10,000? Or was their mistake joking about a current tragedy instead of one long past?
Q: What did Ted Kennedy tell Mary Jo when he found out she was pregnant?
A: We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
In Woody Allen’s 1989 movie “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” a character shares his comedy philosophy, one that has since become commonplace. “If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it’s not funny … You’ve got to get back from the pain … Comedy is tragedy plus time. The night Lincoln was shot, you couldn’t make a joke about it … Now, time has gone by, it’s fair game.”
So was the 1969 joke about Kennedy’s tragic accident funnier then, or now?
“My only thought is ‘never’ too soon for funny. Funny is so subjective, though, and one man’s hysterical is another’s heretical,” says Andrew Solmssen, a comedian from Los Angeles who has been in comedy for more than a decade. “I was with people the day of 9/11 who were finding comedy in the coverage and the hysteria, and even the morbid stuff like the jumpers, and some of the things they said would not have been universally funny. But they were funny to me, and it helped get me and all of the people I was with through it.”
“As a New Yorker, you constantly come across people whose lives were impacted by 9/11,” says Gayle Kussoy, who works for a nonprofit in Queens. “I think the most important thing one can do is be respectful of that, so any jokes should be avoided.”
“Nothing is really offensive — it’s either funny or not funny,” argues Louisville comedian Raanan Hershberg. “So when a joke that’s not funny is made, one processes it, and their intellectual justification for not laughing is that it’s offensive — but really, the issue is that it’s not funny, and that’s why you’re even processing it in the first place. The only thing sacred in comedy is that nothing is sacred … Make fun of it all, just make sure you’re funny.”
Q: What do Christa McAuliffe and Donna Rice have in common?
A: They both went down on the challenger.
In 1986, the preceding joke was timely, in awful taste and, as jokes go, pretty clever. To those who witnessed the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, it was a vivid reminder of life’s tragedies. To supporters of Sen. Gary Hart, it was a pre-Clinton confirmation that getting caught in a sex scandal would be lethal to a charismatic Democratic presidential hopeful. To anyone under 30 today, however, it probably just sounds like a sex joke about a handsome boxer.
Last week, the Huffington Post ran an item in their comedy section called “Funniest Post-Hurricane Irene Tweets So Far,” featuring tweets like, “I didn’t even get halfway through my emergency beer stash. #ireneregrets.”
Gilbert Gottfried didn’t make their list, but not for lack of trying. “My thoughts and prayers are with victims of the East Coast Earthquake who had their cell phones temporarily disrupted,” he tweeted on Aug. 25.
This time, when many were annoyed by media hype — and “only” 40 lives were lost — no one complained that his jokes were “too soon.”