Friday, March 18, 2011

Aflac Duck Not Insured against Stupidity

Abrasive comedian Gilbert Gottfried has been fired from perhaps his most recognizable job—providing the voice of insurance giant Aflac’s frustrated talking duck—mere hours after tweeting a series of jokes that made light of the destructive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011.1 As of this writing, more than 1,500 people have died, and that number is almost certain to continue to rise.

Now, to be fair, the idea of “laughing in the face of death” is an old and venerated one. No less a writer than William Shakespeare illustrated it memorably in his gory and generally messed-up tragedy/revenge fantasy Titus Andronicus, in which the protagonist—we forget his name—having witnessed the last of a long series of horrific indignities and evils done to him and his family by his enemies,2 bursts into not sorrow but laughter, stating I have not another tear to shed before starting to act crazy and getting down to some truly awful business.3 His laughter is jarring, even shocking, but it reveals a man not callously indifferent to suffering and misery, but one overwhelmed by it.

Duck (bottom), and dick.
But we would give Gottfried—probably neither the first nor last person to be given the nickname “America’s Creepy Uncle”—entirely too much credit by comparing him to Shakespeare,4 and there is significant difference between an imaginary character’s barking out mad laughter at the horror surrounding him, and a real live human’s making cheap jokes about real-world death.5 

There’s much to be said about timing, too, and timing—despite generally being crucial for comedy—does not appear to be one of Gottfried’s strengths. At a Friars’ Club roast of Hugh Hefner, Gottfried famously joked about his concern that his flight out of town “had a connection at the Empire State Building.” He told this joke in New York City, mere weeks after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The crowd did not respond well, but Gottfried managed to salvage the evening with a particularly inspired rendition of perhaps the most famously offensive joke ever told,6 and clearly left the building without having learned a lesson about things he shouldn’t say, and when and where they shouldn’t be said.

Gilbert Gottfried appears to have been unaware that laughing in the face of death is only noble—or even halfway human—if you’re laughing at the prospect of your own death. Laughing in the face of other people’s deaths is, almost without fail, disgusting.7 We don’t know the point in time at which it will become acceptable to make jokes about what has happened in Japan over the last week, but we’re very sure that that point doesn’t happen while rescuers are still searching for bodies.

1. In the interest of good taste, those jokes will not be repeated here. In the interest of questionable taste and a desire to keep our readers informed, however, a link to a short list of them has been provided. If you can find it.
2. Among them: Titus kills one of his own sons for defying the Roman Emperor; the new Empress, wishing revenge on Titus, allows her sons to violate and mutilate Titus’ daughter; Titus later cuts off his own hand to spare the lives of two of his remaining sons, but they are executed anyway and their heads (and his hand) returned to Titus to mock him. After that, though, the play gets kind of messed up.
3. If you’re not interested in watching Julie Taymor’s intriguing but weird and exceedingly grim Titus, check out the South Park episode “Scott Tenorman Must Die.” You’ll wish you hadn’t, but if you can filter out the weirdness, the Hannibal Lecter references, and the guest appearance by Radiohead, you’ll get the gist of Titus Andronicus.
4. A reasonable comparison between Shakespeare and Gilbert Gottfrield would involve their height: Gottfried is 5'5", and Shakespeare lived four hundred years ago, so he was probably pretty shrimpy. Also, Shakespeare, having acted in his own tragedies, probably died on stage plenty of times, and we suspect that Gottfried has too.
5. We’re basing this statement on the tenuous evidence that Gilbert Gottfried does, in fact, exist.
6. We would prefer that our readers do not attempt to look up this joke for any reason, especially readers that are, for example, our mom. That goes for “Scott Tenorman Must Die,” too.   
7. Eddie Izzard successfully joked about Hitler’s death, but of course that’s an easy exception to make because Hitler, as Izzard correctly understated, “was a mass-murdering fuckhead.” Exceptions to the rule against joking about others’ deaths are few and far between.

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