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Japan's earthquake: If tragedy and comedy can coexist, how and when?

Comedian Gilbert Gottfried was fired as the voice of the Aflac duck for joking about Japan's earthquake in the days after the tragedy. But that doesn't mean humor isn't helpful in horrific times.

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Comedy show after 9/11

Mr. Christing, who created the website InspireLaughter.com, hosted a comedy show a month after 9/11. He says the event attempted to bring the audience “healing with humor. We didn't make a single joke about 9/11 specifically. But we laughed together in the midst of that terrible tragedy. There are tragedies that we can never laugh at, but we must laugh our way through them,” he says.

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Humor is a necessary response to stress, says John Rooney, professor emeritus of psychology at La Salle University in Philadelphia. He recalls the bombing of Pearl Harbor in his youth. On the very day of the bombings, a neighbor rushed over “to read a list of jokes about war to my mother,” he says, noting that they were recycled from World War I.

People attempt to relieve stress through humor, he notes “and events in Japan are causing considerable stress here.” He suggests that it is never too soon to use humor. Rather it is a question of differences in taste and judgment. What is humorous and stress-reducing to some is often disturbing to others, he says, noting that emergency workers who regularly face tragic and traumatic situations have their own in-jokes to reduce stress, “but are careful not to use them in the presence of families of the victims.”

Mr. Rooney also says stressful times can push normally veiled prejudices to the surface. “Humor can also be an outlet for aggression and hostility, so we can expect anti-Japanese statements to surface under the guise of humor,” he adds.

Fresh ways for jokesters to bomb

And if it weren’t tricky enough already to figure out when and where to lighten the mood, new technologies are providing fresh ways for jokesters to bomb – as Gottfried discovered.

Texting and tweeting are more akin to the private thoughts “one used to generally keep to oneself,” says Christing.

The oft-cited rule regarding the importance of timing to comedy refers to the pace of a joke's delivery, says Dave Curley, senior vice president of Sandy Hillman Communications in Baltimore. But anyone attempting humor in a social media environment needs to consider the issue of timing more broadly, he says via email.

“Is it too soon to be kidding around about this? Is there a chance that when I wake up tomorrow I'll wish I hadn't posted or tweeted that? If you aren't certain of the answer” he says, “ you shouldn't attempt the joke.”

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