The late, great Johnny Carson occasionally did jokes about Abraham Lincoln on "The Tonight Show." Whenever one bombed with the audience (which was frequently), Carson would look over at übersidekick Ed McMahon and deadpan, "Too soon?"
It was a brilliant schtick, capitalizing as it did on Johnny's masterful ability to recover from bad lines, as well as simultaneously acknowledging and tweaking middle America's sensitivity when it comes to mocking tragedy. He knew exactly where the line was drawn, which is why he never tried the lame joke/"Too soon?" line with John F. Kennedy. Johnny had...what's that stuff called...oh, yeah, class.
Now we have Gilbert Gottfried getting dumped by AFLAC for firing off a series of tasteless jokes about Japan on his Twitter feed. Gilbert has been the voice of the AFLAC duck since 2000, which surely must count as one of the more lucrative words-spoken-to-money-paid gigs in commercial history. ("What's my line again?" "It's 'AFLAC,' Gilbert. Just like last time." "Right! OK...wait, line?") But this weekend, while other celebrities were using Twitter to broadcast donation links and news updates about the tsunami, Gilbert tweeted a dozen pretty mean-spirited one-liners. They've since disappeared from his feed (duh), but you can see a couple of them on TMZ.
I love Gilbert Gottfried, I really do. I love his stand-up, I loved him in The Aristocrats, I even love that spellbindingly bad Shoedini commercial. (Oh, that link to The Aristocrats? Totally NSFW. Probably should have mentioned that.) And I love him as the AFLAC duck, of course. It's pretty hilarious, however, that Gilbert has carved out a niche as a family-friendly voiceover artist (see Disney's Aladdin), because a lot of his comedy is flat-out offensive.
Ever seen him on one of Comedy Central's infamous celebrity roasts? (Don't even click on that link. Seriously.) He's relentlessly, inventively profane and foul-mouthed. Gilbert carries the genes of a hundred old-time Catskills comics whose stock in trade was rude jokes and stereotype-based humor. Sometimes he cleverly turns an offensive line into a winking satire, and sometimes he's just offensive. That's his schtick. Funny, but no one will ever, ever call Gilbert Gottfried classy.
And now AFLAC won't be calling him at all. They silenced the iconic duck Monday (promising to hold a "nationwide casting call" for a new quacker), firing Gilbert Gottfried for mocking the unfolding events in Japan. Do you know where AFLAC does 75% of its business? That's right: Japan. I didn't know that. Neither did Gilbert, I guess.
He also didn't know - or simply didn't understand - the old saying, "Comedy is tragedy plus time." Gilbert got the tragedy part. But his timing needed work. He'll have a chance to polish that skill while he waits for his next job offer. Maybe he should watch some Johnny Carson.