Most of us with a sense of tact know you don't joke about real, genuine human tragedy. You don't make light of a murder. You don't crack on someone who just got diagnosed with cancer. You generally don't say mean, nasty things about the dead or suffering.
So, I'm typing up this post as a helpful reminder to our friends in the political and entertainment fields who apparently have lost this sensibility.
This is the message: Don't joke about Japan. It's simply too soon. Not only are people unlikely to laugh at your joke, you're likely to get in trouble or even fired from your place of employment.
See two exhibits from Monday.
• Dan Turner, the press secretary for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour resigned Monday after sending a Friday e-mail to fellow staffers that included this joke:"Otis Redding posthumously received a gold record for his single, '(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay. (Not a big hit in Japan right now.)"
• Comedian Gilbert Gottfried was summarily dismissed Monday from his voice-over role as the Aflac duck in commercials following a series of profane tweets (censored by yours truly) that included these gems: "I f---ed a girl in Japan. She screamed 'I feel the earth move and I'm getting wet"; "What does every Japanese person have in their apartment? Flood lights"; and "Japan is really advanced. They didn't go to the beach. The beach came to them."
I get the Gottfried firing. He's a wealthy comedian and his jokes weren't particularly funny. They're likely to offend most (if not all) people in Japan, where the insurance company does 75 percent of its business, according to various reports.
But the Turner resignation seems like overkill to me. For one thing, it appears that Turner intended the joke only to go out to fellow staffers. He, unlike Gottfried, did not intend to act in a public way with this one-liner. It was only after the e-mail was leaked to the media that Turner felt he had to resign. If Barbour was not considered a potential Republican presidential candidate, I doubt Turner would have felt the same pressure to step down.
Is it simply too soon to make Japan jokes? Yes, I'd think most people would agree. But making a bad joke to your fellow employees shouldn't cost you your job.
Humor is a tricky thing, because many good jokes are offensive by definition. Comedy is meant to push the envelope. But if there's one rule you can learn from following Monday's news, it's this: Do not, under any circumstances, joke about Japan. At least not anytime in the near future. It's just not worth it.