There is a saying in showbiz: "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." But when people really are dying and suffering, comedy is even harder.
Stand-up comedian Gilbert Gottfried learned that this week after he tweeted several jokes about Japan's disastrous 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which killed thousands of people, with thousands more still missing and nearly half a million homeless.
Gottfried had been the voice of the Aflac duck. That ended Monday, when the insurance company fired him because of his weekend remarks on Twitter. Aflac does 75 percent of its business in Japan, but I suspect the company would have fired him regardless. He not only crossed the line of good taste, he left it receding in his rear-view mirror.
One of Gottfried's least offensive tweets was, "Japan is really advanced. They don't go to the beach. The beach comes to them," so you can imagine how bad the rest were.
Gottfried has since apologized and removed the offending "jokes" from his Twitter feed.
"I sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by my attempt at humor regarding the tragedy in Japan," he tweeted Tuesday. "I meant no disrespect, and my thoughts are with the victims and their families."
A few hours later, Gottfried was back in form, tweeting from the Friars Club roast of Donald Trump.
"Thank God Marlee Matlin can't hear any of this," he tweeted.
Now that's funny. The joke depends on Matlin's being deaf, which isn't funny, but the joke's target isn't her, rather it's the comedians at the roast. That makes all the difference between an "offensive" joke that's still funny and an offensive joke — without the scare quotes — that isn't.
Audiences expect comedians to walk that fine line. We expect them to say what some of us only think. And what we think sometimes isn't pretty.
Gottfried is one of stand-up comedy's brightest stars, and I've been a fan since he hosted "USA Up All Night" from 1986 to 1998, where, during commercial breaks, he got laughs at the expense of movies like "Hell Comes to Frogtown" and "Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama." Also, for what it's worth, he ranks 59th on Comedy Central's list of the 100 greatest stand-ups, placing him one spot ahead of Jeff Foxworthy.
Most people, however, probably know him as the voice of Iago in Disney's "Aladdin."
But his stage act almost always flirts with bad taste. His latest comedy CD and DVD, "Dirty Jokes," delivers exactly what the title promises.
And last weekend's incident isn't the first time Gottfried has gone too far.
Just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Gottfried opened his routine at the Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner with a 9/11 joke. That was too much even for jaded roast attendees, eliciting boos and a shout of "too soon."
Gottfried recalled that incident last month in an interview with the Las Vegas Sun: "When I figured I had completely lost them, there was nowhere to go but further down, I started telling ‘The Aristocrats,' and that just exploded. The whole place was cheering."
The Aristocrats is the filthiest joke in the world. It doesn't really have a punchline. It's all set-up — an escalating orgy of disgusting bodily functions and descriptions of sexual acts that would get you arrested in every state of the Union. The joke has a long history among stand-ups, and it seems like just about every comic has his own version. Bob Saget — yes, the dad from "Full House" — tells one of the more infamous ones. It is, as far as I know, the only joke to inspire a documentary film.
Gottfried's "Dirty Jokes" includes his 10-minute rendition of The Aristocrats.
The Aristocrats is obscene, but it doesn't really hurt anyone.
Gottfried's Japan jokes did.
If I were in charge at Aflac, I'd probably have fired Gottfried, too.
Yet this is, generally speaking, what we ask of comedians. We demand that they play with fire. And, usually, we're better off when they can say what no one else can — until they say what no one should.
Then we punish them for going too, too far.