British so-called ‘reality star’ Jade Goody died two years ago on Tuesday. She’s gone and largely forgotten.
Can I tell you a joke about her being a racist? People reviled her before her death and said she was racist. And they made jokes about it.
She’s been dead for two years now, so I can certainly make jokes about her, can’t I? No-one can possibly say it’s ‘too soon’, can they?
This is about a blog I wrote a couple of days ago in which I mentioned a friend’s criticisms of Japan but, first, let me repeat an arguably sexist and allegedly true story about the playwright George Bernard Shaw. As is the way with such stories, it is not necessarily true; it has also been attributed to Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, W.C.Fields and even the philosopher Bertrand Russell.
The great man was at a dinner party with some very lah-di-dah people. Somehow, the conversation turned to slack sexual morals (in the George Bernard Shaw version, this was in the 1930s). He asked one of the ladies present:
“Madam, would you sleep with me for one million pounds?”
“Well, for a million pounds, Mr Shaw,” the lady replied, “perhaps I would.”
She and the other guests laughed.
The conversation turned to other topics and, later, George Bernard Shaw whispered to the lady: “Madam, would you sleep with me tonight if I gave you £10?”
“Mr Shaw!” replied the woman, deeply offended: “What sort of woman do you think I am?”
“Madam,” Shaw said, “we have established what sort of woman you are. We are merely haggling over the price.”
Which brings us back to the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.
I wrote a blog in which I quoted the opinions of a friend of mine who had been to Japan last October. She was not impressed. Her image of an efficient, futuristic country were confounded.
In light of the still ongoing disasters and 10,000+ deaths in Japan, several people – mostly stand-up comics – found my initial blog and a follow-up blog in bad taste, although they were non-comedic blogs.
I know that one of the comics who found my non-comedic blog to be ‘too soon’ had, in fact, made jokes about the death of Jade Goody just a few days after her death from cancer.
I have no problem with that, but it does beg the question When is ‘too soon’ too soon? and why.
American comic Gilbert Gottfried was dropped last week as the voice of a giant US insurance company because he made jokes about the Japanese earthquake.
I don’t think him being dropped was unreasonable, as insurance companies should perhaps not be seen to make light of disasters. But the criticism was not that he made the jokes but that he had made the jokes ‘too soon’. He had similar problems when he made jokes ‘too soon’ about the 9/11 terrorist attacks (as seen in Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette’s comedy documentary The Aristocrats).
Why would a joke made a few days after the 9/11 attacks be any less in bad taste than exactly the same joke made ten years after the 9/11 attacks? Why – and when – would it become acceptable?
Why would a joke about Jade Goody be funny only two years after her death but be in bad taste two days or two weeks after her death? What could have changed to make the joke become acceptable?
If the argument is that someone who personally know Jade Goody or personally knew a victim of the 9/11 attacks could hear the joke and be hurt… then that argument holds just as strongly 2 days or 2 weeks or 20 years after the event. The emotional pain caused would, in all honesty, be much the same.
Surely if a joke is in unacceptably bad taste, then it is unacceptable, full stop.
So why would someone’s non-funny criticisms of Japan (correct or incorrect) be in bad taste – specifically because they are ‘too soon’ – a few days after an appalling triple disaster – earthquake/tsunami/nuclear problem? At what point would those same comments (correct or incorrect) become more acceptable?
I have genuinely never understood the concept of ‘too soon’.
If joke is in bad taste, it is in bad taste. If an observation is unacceptable, it is unacceptable.
To return to George Bernard Shaw:
We have established what sort of observation we have here. We are merely haggling over the timing.
What’s all this ‘too soon’ shit about 9/11, about Jade Goody – or about Japan?
If it’s bad taste, it’s bad taste. But at some point, bad taste apparently becomes acceptable.