CHICAGO -- About a day after a massive earthquake shook Japan and brought on a deadly tsunami, comedian Gilbert Gottfried took to his Twitter account and did what comedians do: He started writing jokes.
Those wisecracks, all riffing off the unfolding disaster in Japan, wound up costing Gottfried his gig as the voice of insurance company Aflac Inc.'s iconic duck, sparking a furious online debate over comedy in the age of social media and whether it's ever "too soon" to seek humor in tragedy.
"In order to turn it into comedy, you generally think some time does need to go by," said comedian Mick Napier, director of Chicago's Annoyance Theatre. "But the amount of time needed is lessening because of the proliferation of the media and the proliferation of the outlets for expression in the world through technology. I think people are on that stuff right away."
Gottfried was not the only public figure lambasted in the last week for making light of the earthquake.
Dan Turner, the press secretary for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a possible GOP presidential candidate, stepped down Monday after he was criticized for including a joke about Japan in a daily news digest that he sends out by e-mail.
Alec Sulkin, a writer for the Fox show "Family Guy" and a popular Twitter comedian with more than 164,000 followers, was excoriated over a tweet that seemed to equate the earthquake in Japan with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Sulkin later deleted the tweet and issued an apology.
Seth Weitberg, a writer and performer at the Second City improvisational comedy enterprise who also writes occasionally for the Chicago Tribune's Talk pages, said social media outlets now allow off-the-cuff humor that once might've gone no further than the break room to travel far and wide, instantly.
"Say 30 or 40 years ago, if someone wanted to make a joke about the JFK assassination, it wasn't going to be easy to do without first a number of people having something to say about whether it gets out there or not," Weitberg said. "Twitter just takes away that filter time."
Lisa Cohen is founder and CEO of WitStream.com, a company that curates tweets from humor writers and bills itself as a live, 24-hour comedy ticker. She watched how the online humor world reacted to the tragedy in Japan and found that most who touched on the subject did so delicately.
"They weren't just piling on the misfortune of what's happening," she said. "A lot of it has been talking about something Glenn Beck said about it or how the news media is covering it."
For example, comedian Shane Mauss tweeted: "So NO ONE is supposed to make any jokes about Japan? Let's all just ignore the radioactive elephant in the room."
For Cohen, it's less about being politically correct and more about whether the person is actually writing good, smart comedy.
"If you're actually making a good point about what's going on and you're making it in a funny way, I don't think people will get in trouble," she said. "People want that from their comedians."
Given the subjectivity of humor, many comedy writers agree it's impossible to set some arbitrary length of time after which it would be acceptable to joke about any given tragic event.
"This comes up all the time," Weitberg said. "What's OK or not OK to joke about? Really, I think it entirely depends on you and your voice and your group."
Rob Delaney, a comedian and writer in Los Angeles and another comedy celebrity on Twitter, said the broadcasting outlets that are now at the fingertips of professional and amateur comedians alike do make it more difficult to resist throwing out the first thoughts that come to mind on any bit of breaking news.
"There's that urge, but I would suggest that people just breathe a little bit before they wade into the fray with a joke," Delaney said.
"You don't have to write a joke on every topic. And you'll be funnier if you don't."
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