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.

Charles Sykes/AP/File
Gilbert Gottfried arrives with the Aflac duck (not shown) to the 14th Annual Webby Awards in New York, June 14, 2010. Aflac found Gottfried's attempt at comedy, in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, anything but funny. But is there a place for comedy after tragedy?

When tragedy hits, is there room for comedy?

That’s a question that has faced comedians as well as ordinary folks any time horrific events such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan overtake the headlines.

Actor and stand-up comic Gilbert Gottfried tested the limits last weekend, in the immediate aftermath of the natural disaster that has claimed still-untold thousands of lives, and rediscovered the essential rule of comedy – timing is everything.

Mr. Gottfried, known for his often-over-the-top routines, was also the voice of that wacky duck that flaps through the Aflac insurance ads. But no more.

After he tweeted a dozen or so tsunami-related jokes over the weekend, the insurance giant – which does nearly three quarters of its business in Japan – fired him.

Gilbert's recent comments about the crisis in Japan were lacking in humor,” Aflac senior vice president Michael Zuna says in a company statement, “There is no place for anything but compassion and concern during these difficult times.”

In the context of the R-rated comedian’s oeuvre, some of the tweets were mild: “Japan is really advanced. They don't go to the beach. The beach comes to them.”

“What does every Japanese person have in their apartment? Flood lights,” and “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.’”

Others cannot be reprinted in a family media outlet.

But these attempts raise the question: When – and in these ubiquitous digital days, where – is it the right time to laugh again?

Comedian Bob Hope knew that people need light even in the darkest of days when he said, “as long as there is war, there will be comedy.”

Comedian Adam Christing says it's never too soon to find humor after a tragedy.

“The key is where you find the humor and what you are joking about,” he says, adding that it will never be all right to joke directly about the victims of the earthquake or tsunami in Japan, “just as it's not cool to joke directly about the bombing of Hiroshima.”

But we need to laugh our way through difficult times, he says. “Humor is cathartic,” he says. “Laughing with victims is essential – when they are ready to do that.”

Comedy show after 9/11

Mr. Christing, who created the website, 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.

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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