Humor and controversy have often gone hand in hand, with comedians like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin served to test how well the theoretical concept freedom of speech works in actual practice. Those two pioneers were renowned for their idealistically liberal positions—albeit, positions that were articulated using lowbrow language or profanity. But Gilbert Gottfried? The former voice of the Aflac Duck as the poster boy for freedom of speech?
While he’s perhaps not in the same vein as Bruce or Carlin, Gottfried ran up against the newest form of de facto censorship—that of the marketplace—when he was fired by Aflac in March after cracking Twitter jokes about the tsunami in Japan. In a way, he’s pushing the boundaries of public discourse with his forays into bad taste.
It’s not the first time he’s run into trouble over humor of questionable taste and timing. During the Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner, three weeks after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Gottfried joked that “I couldn’t get a direct flight because they all have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” He was met with hisses and “too soon,” then segued into the legendary joke known as “The Aristocrats,” and won the crowd back. That joke—about the head of a family of performers who describes their act to a prospective employer including graphic descriptions of bestial and incestuous acts—was the subject of a documentary film by comedian/actor Penn Gillette in 2005, and Gottfried’s telling of it is one of the most elaborate among a whole field of comics known for their one-upmanship. “So it was like, Sept. 11 was wrong, but incest and bestiality are perfectly okay,” he rationalizes.
Would he tell a “9/11”-type joke again in a similar circumstance? “I think I would,” he ruminates. “Because I wanted to be one of the first to have the bad taste joke. It’s funny, even before the Internet, after any tragedy that happened—the Space Shuttle disaster or anything like that—there would be jokes that everybody in the world knew immediately. They spread that quickly.” His offensiveness in 2001 served a purpose, of sorts: “ I wanted to shock the audience out of the total daze they were in.”
Coming up in the New York comedy circuit in the early 1980s, he didn’t have the Internet, but comedy clubs at the time served a similar purpose as a testing ground. “As a kid, I’d hear these old comics on TV say you needed a place to be bad. If they’d had the Internet back then, I’d be scared they’d have all these tapes of me when I was really terrible,” he says.
Some critics might say he couldn’t be much worse than he is now, but then, he’s part of a tradition of comics who take on dark, uncomfortable subject matter. “Comedy and tragedy are roommates,” he says. “Whenever you see tragedy, comedy’s looking over its shoulder.” While he might be just one of a gaggle of comics who seem to only be trying to push the limits of taste and even humor recently, he’s actually a forerunner.
“It sometimes seems like people decide what they are going to be shocked by,” he theorizes. “When Michael Jackson was alive, everybody was doing Michael Jackson jokes about child molestation and pedophilia, but if you joked about a generic pedophile, people would boo. Now, Casey Anthony jokes are in vogue. And then the news media has to make everything bigger than it really is.”
To him, that includes the recent outcry over his series of jokes posted on Twitter about the Japanese tsunami, over which Aflac fired him as the nails-on-chalkboard voice of the Aflac duck in their ads. After he was fired, he says his agents and advisers recommended he post an apology, which he did. “I didn’t really think I needed to, and still think it was like apologizing for being a comedian.”
He notes—reminiscent of the recitations of Lenny Bruce’s material in court—that the news media retold his jokes in the context of being shocked by them—and did so every chance they got. “I’d go out in public and people were fine; there was no lynch mob waiting for me.”
His new book, Rubber Balls and Liquor, has received a surprisingly welcome reception by the marketplace and even the literati, with positive reviews in The New York Times and Publishers Weekly. A couple of critics, he notes, have said that at times the book seems to get very warm, revealing and touching, then quickly veers off into immature and dirty. “So basically,” he says, “it’s like talking to me in person.”
Wise Guys Comedy Cafe
2194 W. 3500 South
West Valley City
Aug. 5-6 , 7:30 & 10 p.m.
Brian Staker Twitter: @Stakerized