Thursday, April 21, 2011

Time's tide will smother you

A very alert reader buzzed me about this particular column in Time Out New York. The Hot Seat is a standard format, back-page Q&A for celebrities touting their latest book/movie/spouse/bleaching, and in it, there is usually some effort made to address, or at least allude to, some recent scandal involving that celebrity and a biographer/movie/spouse/bleaching. This week, it's Gilbert Gottfried, and the alert reader wondered if this wasn't "a propos".

The first thing this interview does is address something that, terrible dictu, happened before this blog started: Gottfried tweeted jokes about the tsunami in Japan as it was happening. I'm so glad that the alert reader let me know about this TONY column, because it always seemed to me that the real tragedy of the tsunami and Gottfried's jokes was that they happened before this blog got started. It was as if the Gods of Nature and the Gods of Comedy conspired against me. (But what do you think I'll get another chance?)

So, the first question posed to the shrill memoir-shilling comedian:

You tweeted some shocking jokes about Japan. Are there any topics that are off limits for you?
Evidently not. When martians land on this planet, years from now, and dig up our civilization, they’ll see my name and picture and the tsunami and figure, Well, this guy caused the tsunami.

Clever answer. Without exactly saying it, he's tossing the comedian's Get Out Of Jail Free card onto the table and shrugging smugly: he actually didn't cause the tsunami, he just joked about it. He goes on to point out that the media coverage of the tsunami was soon dropped from the front pages and television news for more celebrity outrages, which just goes to show how contrived and phony the "scandal" was; and he's pretty much right.

The next answer is really just your typical celebrity reach-around:

Was there anyone you were particularly proud of offending?
I heard Dr. Laura was very offended. And also Perez Hilton. He takes photos and draws penises on them and accuses everyone of being gay, but he was morally offended. And my favorite was I beat out Charlie Sheen as the most provocative celebrity of the week onShowbiz Tonight. And the expert to give the final comment on why it was wrong was Kelsey Grammer’s ex-wife Camille—to let you know that the universe has officially come to an end.

Celebrities critiquing celebrities critiquing celebrities. It's a bit sad that the phrase "accuses . . . of being gay" is still in circulation, but, anyway, as I said (accusing everybody of being gay), it's just your typical celebrity reach-around.

And then things get interesting:

Is there is a waiting period for joking about tragic events?
There is that old saying, tragedy plus time equals comedy. Although I realize that’s true, I also think that is so hypocritical. Because why should you [wait]? If it is wrong before, why should it be allowed afterwards? Somebody tweeted me recently and said, “I just looked at the calendar. I am going to wait another 17 days till I can laugh at Gilbert’s Japan joke.”

I'm deeply impressed that Gottfried takes the moral highground (perhaps a useful place to be when a tsunami of moral approbation is bearing down on you?) With utter disregard for the convention of apology, he says that people who complain about his jokes as having come at the wrong time or too soon are the hypocrites, the moral wretches. He's spotted something deeply obvious: that the moral issue at stake is (largely) the same, whether or not the comment comes a few minutes, an hour, a week, or a month later: it is laughter as a response to suffering.

Now, hold on, you might say. Grab that floating piece of car, pull yourself onto that roof, let's take stock of the situation. What is not funny at the time can often becomefunny later, when the pain and terror and fear diminishes, when the healing has begun.

We know this from our own lives.

Imagine you're attacked by a pit bull. It jumps up, clamps its jaws down hard on your hand, and with a drooling snap, it bites your middle finger off; it then staggers back while you stare at the bleeding stump; the pit bull looks up at you, swallows your finger dramatically, pauses for effect, and then vomits out your finger, right there, at your feet. You're probably not laughing. But four years later, as you tell the tale in the pub, it's a great story, and everybody laughs. Tragedy plus time equals comedy.

But wait: that's because it happened to you. Therefore you need the time to get over the pain, to become accustomed to typing without that finger, to go outside without wetting yourself every time you see a dog. So, let's imagine we're all walking back home, late at night, a big group of us, drunk and happy. It's after a long evening of, say, karaoke. Our voices are hoarse, our crotches damp, our feet sore, and if we hear Coldplay one more time, we're going to fucking hit something. And along comes a pitbull. It jumps up clamps its jaws down hard on somebody else's hand, and with a drooling snap, it bites that person's middle finger off; it then staggers back while everybody stares at the bleeding stump; the pit bull looks up, swallows the finger dramatically, pauses for effect, and then vomits out the finger, right there, at our feet. I still think that the laughter would come later. I still think that we would be screaming, calling for help, traumatically dissociating and mumbling the words to The Scientist, and not laughing. So, the rule stands: Tragedy plus time equals comedy.

But, of course, as a rule, it's also rubbish. Countless are the times when, once the moment has passed, once the fire has dimmed, once the tide has turned, that jokeisn't funny anymore. So what about Gottfried's tweet-jokes? How do they stand the test of time? Are they any better or worse now that some so-called "time" has passed? Here are the "worst ten" of the twelve he tweeted. I should defer on judging them, because this is the second time I saw them, but, as I've discovered, because I'm writing this blog, I don't actually have to defer to anybody. So, here's my "judgement": on the day, I thought that one or two were quite funny, though most of them were shudderingly bad. But the one or two I thought were quite funny on the day don't seem so funny now. Hmm. Time's tricks are a mystery.

So, what is the relationship between a joke, tragedy, and time? If there is to be a rule, it would probably involve something like Tragedy plus timing equals comedy: the time of the joke relative to the tragedy, the relationship of the joker and the audience to the time of the joke relative to the tragedy, but also its rhythms, its patter, and, perhaps the real twist, the real problem, how much comic bang you get for the tragic buck. In other words, how we judge the timing depends in part on how good the joke is, while the quality of the joke is affected by the timing.

In any case, this passing scandal involved the usual chest-thumping and shock, horror, outrage, and lots of reader polls about whether or not the jokes were funny. Gottfriend had to share the stage, though, with a somewhat more impressive figure.50 Cent also started cracking jokes about the Tsunami on the day, and so the chest-thumping and shock, horror, outrage was distributed amongst the celebrities. (I honestly think that more journalists troll twitter for something to write about than report on what is happening outside the twitterverse; everyday and in every way, we're getting closer and closer to having our entire lives mediated by celebrities).

So why do we tell sick jokes? This post runs through some of the most famous reasons: coping, hostility, fear, and -- full credit to the author -- dismisses these explanations (or at least problematises them); it's worth reading for the jokes included therein, including ones about Japan. They are far better than Gottfried's tweets. And maybe, today, instead of asking about why "we" tell these jokes, perhaps we should end this meditation on why Gottfried tells jokes like this. He has an answer, and he cites his source.

No comments: