Monday, March 28, 2011

Gilbert Gottfried and the Discourse on Disaster

A Portrait of Gilbert Gottfried with a Dead Aflac Duck
on His Head by Dan Lacey ( 
Used with permission of the artist.
As the world confronts escalating conflict and looming nuclear disaster, the Holy Prepuce has been ruminating on a more consequential matter: the Gilbert Gottfried sacking.

Why, exactly, did “tweeting” a series of earthquake / tsunami jokes get Gottfried summarily canned as the voice of AFLAC? Gottfried, after all, famously broke the ice at a post-9-11 Friar’s Club roast by recounting “The Aristocrats,” the classic improvised litany of incest, scatophilia, and a rotating menu of other horribles. So it’s not as if AFLAC was allergic to controversial material.

I suspect that Gottfried ran up against an unwritten rule of comedy: disaster jokes are not allowed to have identifiable authors.

The re-telling of disaster jokes is permissible because they are both ubiquitous and anonymous. Anyone of my generation could tell you, for example, how we knew Christa McAuliffe had dandruff, what “NASA” stands for, and why there were no showers on the Challenger. Elliot Orring’s “Jokes and the Discourse on Disaster” (1987) collects fourteen such examples, and I found no more than a handful unfamiliar twenty-five years after the Challenger explosion. Some were undoubtedly adapted from prior maritime or aviation accidents; several I have since heard re-purposed for Princess Diana or 9-11. Folklorists collect this material: Bill Ellis’s “A Model for Collecting and Interpreting World Trade Center Disaster Jokes” (October 5, 2001) identifies twelve discreet “cycles” addressing a range of events including the Kennedy assassination, the Jonestown suicides, and the Lockerbie PanAm 103 bombing.

The universality of these jokes allows us to rationalize their creation as an instinctive defense mechanism with a plausible genesis in evolutionary psychology. The impulse to detach from tragedy through humor serves as a counterbalance to our empathy and attachment, traits essential to social animals but paralyzing if unchecked in times of crisis. Laugh today about yesterday’s sabre-tooth tiger attack and you pull yourself together to hunt mastodon, eat, and live to pass along your genes.

When these jokes seem to rise from the zeitgeist, the telling itself can become the primary gag, the observational meta-joke that human beings are sick bastards who find this funny. It works because we’re all in this together: I’ve heard this one, you’ve heard that one, someone like us must have come up with this; everyone’s responsible so no one is.

But when Gottfried tweets Japan jokes as a professional comedian, there’s him and there’s us. We have no ownership, no liability as the kind of people who think this stuff up. He’s the sick bastard who finds this funny, we’re decent folk who need to take a stand against this trash.

I also think Gottfried is a victim of the Comedian On Twitter syndrome. Social media’s low-cost marketing comes at a price for comedians: fans expect free, instant funny. And so the temptation is to brain-dump ideas that might otherwise never see the light of day.

Looking through Gottfried’s tweets, and putting aside any question of taste, most of them are poorly constructed and don’t really work as jokes. A few would be salvageable with editing. One or two seem to stand on their own:

I asked a girl in Japan to have sex with me. She said “okay, but you'll have to sleep in the wet spot.”

This would be a decent mid-set gag, a supplemental laugh on an established subject. It trades on a mixing of taboos: sex and disaster, but in an understated, minimally-graphic fashion. It turns on clever incongruities of type, number, and scale. And it’s a rather sweet homage to its “sleep in the wet spot” precursor jokes, those Sexual Revolution-era meditations on negotiating casual sex and its aftermath in that brave new gender-equal world.

Here is the best of the lot:

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."

The central equivocation is actually a stroke of genius: the ambiguity in meaning is possible only in the apocalyptic conditions of this specific moment. Delivering the punchline in the agent’s voice furthers the uncertainty: Does she intend the meaning we perceive? If so, does she take Gottfried’s question so literally as to assume a flotsam schoolhouse would meet his needs? What is her attitude toward the catastrophe if she is breezily offering its consequences as a selling point?

The fundamentals are also solid: a classic setup-line-punchline, with a strong core incongruity between mundane and extraordinary elements. I award bonus points for the dependence on visual imagination, generating dual meaning through reliance on imagery highly specific to the present moment when footage of the deluge is seared into our collective consciousness.

Indeed, the imagery invoked softens the joke by substituting masonry for human flesh. Elliot Orring points out that a defining feature of the Challenger disaster was the “shield[ing]” of “the view of that human disaster miles above the earth . . . by flame and the opaque wall of the shuttle cabin,” whereas “beyond these speakable images of flame and falling debris lay the imaginable but unspeakable images of horrific trauma and mutilation.” Many Challenger jokes operated, Orring argues, by “forc[ing] us to confront what lies behind the speakable media images that are created or manipulated for our consumption.”

The disaster in Japan was not so antiseptic: cameras covered every angle of the destruction, making blanket censorship of death impossible. Gottfried’s text in some fashion works the reverse of a Challenger joke. Instead of laying bare an obscured mayhem, it renders the devastation more palatable by focusing on a cartoonish inanimate object, without speculation as to what could lie inside.

Pre-Twitter, Gottfried might have crossed out five of his ideas, tried the rest at a small club on a Tuesday night, and wound up with the “school” bit as the one piece of usable material. It’s an excellent joke, standing alone, whose merits may render the subject matter forgivable. But by surrounding this pearl with an unvarnished barrage of lesser attempts, Gottfried came across as desperate for laughs, and his use of the subject exploitative.

I’m a tough crowd.

1 comment:

  1. You don't think some of it may have been because Aflac is an insurance company, and insurance companies, specifically, can't afford to look like they laugh at real-life disasters?


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