The Apology Epidemic

By Gilbert Gottfried Illustration by Peter Crowther

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The Apology Epidemic:

Let me begin by saying I’m sorry. I’m truly, deeply, unequivocally sorry. I apologize to the people I offend with this essay, and I apologize to the people who aren’t sure why they’re offended but are pretty sure they should be. I don’t know how I live with myself, and I hope you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me.

You see what I did there? It’s called a preemptive apology. I apologized in advance, before any of you had a chance to demand one. As a celebrity with a public forum for expressing my opinions, the likes of which you nonfamous people can’t even begin to imagine, I have to assume that at least a small percentage of everything I say or write is going to piss somebody off. And those pissed-off people are going to scream bloody murder and demand my head on a spike, or at least an apology. My policy is, why wait?

If you want to survive as a public figure in 2014, you have to treat the entire world as if it’s your wife or girlfriend. Everything you do is probably wrong. If you wake up in the morning and she says, “We’re out of eggs,” don’t even think about asking, “What does that have to do with me?” Your only response should be, “I’m terribly sorry. I am a horrible, soulless person. In the middle of the night, I must have been sleepwalking, made a 12-egg omelet and eaten it on the floor. I am a monster.” It’s your fault. Even if it’s not your fault, it’s your fault. Don’t try to explain or defend yourself. Just accept culpability and hope she lets you fuck her again tomorrow.

Now, when I say “the entire world,” I mean of course the internet. That’s where all the outrage is happening these days. You could slap somebody hard in the face and they’d say, “Well, that was weird. Can we discuss this further?” But tell a joke on Twitter that somebody doesn’t find funny and they’ll howl for your blood. The internet makes me sentimental for old-time lynch mobs. Back then, if people wanted to punish you, they had to leave the house and get their hands dirty. Now it’s all done on the internet. It’s the modern equivalent of ringing someone’s doorbell and running away. We’re more vindictive than we’ve ever been, but we’re also cowards.

The internet gives everybody the illusion of power. Everyone’s a commentator, everyone’s a writer, everyone’s a movie critic, everyone’s a moral activist. And as a result, everyone is a fucking idiot.

I know this from personal experience. I was on the receiving end of a Twitter crucifixion. For about a decade I was the voice of a duck on commercials for Aflac, an insurance company. I had one line—“Aflac!”—so it was hard to screw it up. It was a good gig. But then in 2011 a tsunami happened in Japan, and I made some jokes on Twitter the next day. “Japan is really advanced,” I wrote. “They don’t go to the beach. The beach comes to them.” And then I wrote this: “I asked a girl in Japan to have sex with me. She said, ‘Okay, but you’ll have to sleep in the wet spot.’” And then this: “I was talking to my Japanese real estate agent. I said, ‘Is there a school in this area?’ She said, ‘Not now, but just wait.’” I was on a roll.

For the next three days, every crazy person on the internet came out to punish me. They called me hateful names, screamed for my public execution, all because they didn’t like a joke. People were telling me, “Aren’t you aware of the tragedy and loss of life?” Yeah, I’m aware, and that’s where the joke comes from. Comedy and tragedy are roommates. Some people also claimed it was “too soon” to be making jokes. There’s this old saying: Tragedy plus time equals comedy. But I never understood why waiting makes a difference. A year later, I saw TV weathermen making jokes. “We’ve got lots of rain in the forecast. Tomorrow looks like a regular tsunami.” I was like, Oh, okay, I guess after a year a joke is a joke and no longer a crime against humanity.

I didn’t want to apologize, but I was persuaded that it might be a smart career move. So somebody typed one up for me. Here’s what it said: “I sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by my attempt at humor regarding the tragedy in Japan. I meant no disrespect, and my thoughts are with the victims and their families.”

Notice it doesn’t say “I’m sorry my jokes were so offensive and horrible.” It says, essentially, “I’m sorry you were offended, because you are apparently incapable of distinguishing between the real world and the ironic fantasy world of comedy.” I also liked the “my attempt at humor” line. Nothing calms an angry mob like false modesty.

I did make one small editorial change. The original apology said “my prayers are with the victims,” but I decided to make it “my thoughts.” Nobody is going to believe I said “my prayers” are with the victims. Who am I, Pope Gilbert?

The apology went out, and the tidal waves of fury for the most part subsided. A couple of months later, I tweeted my actual apology, which I wrote myself and was much more honest. It read: “Sorry for joking about dead people, but as the necrophiliac once said, ‘Fuck the dead.’” It flew under the radar, which is probably lucky for me.

Neither the fake apology nor the real one made any difference. I still got fired by Aflac. I found out about it on the internet. It was being reported on news sites. No one from Aflac had bothered to tell me. By the time they called my agent, it was old news. It was in many ways a convenient outrage. It worked out pretty well for the company. Aflac fired me, got loads of free publicity and then hired a new guy to imitate me for less money, thus bringing closure to a horrible tragedy.

I did learn something from this. I learned that Twitter is a terribly expensive hobby. I haven’t stopped making inappropriate jokes on social media. Now I just apologize constantly. Made a lesbian joke? “I apologize to Ellen Page.” Made a Thanksgiving joke? “I apologize to stuffing.” Made a snowman joke? “I deeply apologize to snow testicles.” I’ve made Twitter apologies to Bert and Ernie, circus tents, feathers, midget airlines, the undead, terrorists and Anne Hathaway’s vagina.

I also learned that Twitter is not necessarily the world’s moral barometer. Not long ago, I was doing stand-up at a comedy club and an Asian woman in sunglasses came up to me after my set. She said, “I’m Japanese and I’m blind, and you did jokes about both of those things tonight, and I want to give you a hug for making me laugh.” This actually happened! I’m not making it up. Here was a Japanese woman telling me how much she enjoyed my jokes about her nationality. I mean, I’m pretty sure she was Japanese. She might have been Chinese or Korean and just pretending to be Japanese. You never know with those Asians; they’re a sneaky people.

(I apologize for that last joke. It was racially insensitive, and I am a horrible cretin for having written it. I deeply apologize to anyone who is Asian or wore Asian makeup in one of those early Charlie Chan movies. Note to editor: This might be a good place to include a random photo of a girl showing her tits. You have any of those? Maybe an old one of Marilyn Monroe. Or an Asian. Kill two birds with one stone.)

Let me be clear about something. I’m not suggesting that apologies aren’t occasionally necessary. If you’ve actually done something wrong, you should apologize. If you’ve ever taken performance-enhancing drugs, been blown in the White House or in a car on Sunset Boulevard, taken an award away from Taylor Swift or slapped around Rihanna, you owe an apology to someone. Hitler? A simple “my bad” would have gone a long way.

But as a nation we’ve gotten apology crazy lately. Anything that even slightly upsets our gentle sensibilities is grounds for demanding amends. We want famous people to apologize for being famous. Remember when Alec Baldwin left that nasty message on his teenage daughter’s voice mail, and then the message leaked? If you take Alec Baldwin’s name out of this story, what you’re left with is “Guy is tired of his daughter’s attitude.” Or how about when ESPN sportscaster Brent Musburger got into trouble for pointing out during a football game that a girl in the stands, a beauty queen and the girlfriend of a quarterback, was beautiful? That’s literally what he said. He had the audacity to claim that a beauty contest winner was “beautiful.” He also called her a “lovely lady” and joked that quarterbacks “get all the good-looking women.” Twitter went nuts. He was accused of being creepy and sexist. ESPN apologized on his behalf—he “went too far”—but Musburger stayed out of it. Personally, I think he should have apologized. He should have released a statement saying, “I’m sorry I was born with a dick and saw a hot piece of ass and used the most innocuous, noncreepy words in the universe to describe her instead of saying the disgusting things that I and every other heterosexual male in the universe were thinking at that exact moment.”

It’s not just happening on the internet. Comedy clubs aren’t the safe havens they once were. It used to be, if you went to a club, there was an expectation that anything could happen. It might be an evening of inoffensive comedy. Or a comic might make a joke about gang-raping an audience member. (Hello, Daniel Tosh!) Maybe there’d be gags about in-laws and how blacks and whites are totally different. Or maybe a former sitcom star would start screaming racial slurs for no apparent reason. (Michael Richards, I’m looking at you.) It was all okay, and that’s what made it exciting. If a joke crossed a line, you’d cover your face while laughing, like normal people do when they’re trying to conceal their true emotions. Nobody complained to the manager or screamed for apologies. If you want good taste, stay at home and watch PBS. You don’t go to a baseball game and complain about foul balls. If you’re sitting in the stands, you’re well aware that a ball might come flying toward your face at 120 miles an hour.

Imagine if the most brilliant comedians in history were working today. They’d never stop apologizing. Charlie Chaplin would have to apologize to all the homeless people he belittled with his Little Tramp character. W.C. Fields and Dean Martin would both have to apologize to alcoholics. The Marx brothers would have to apologize to Italians, mutes and uptight British ladies. Comedy has been around for a long, long time, and there have been a lot of impolite, unpleasant and jaw-droppingly politically incorrect jokes. Blacks were shuffling slaves, Italians were gangsters, Jews were cheap, gays were queens, white people couldn’t dance and fat people didn’t have dignity. You went up there as a comic and joked about it all and nothing was off-limits. And to this day, nobody has died from a single joke.

You didn’t have to be a comic to tell inappropriate jokes. In 1986, after the space shuttle Challenger exploded, everybody was making tasteless jokes around the watercooler. Poor Christa McAuliffe, the schoolteacher on that flight, got the worst of it. “Did you know Christa McAuliffe was blue-eyed? One blew left and one blew right.” There were also terrific jokes about serial killer Ed Gein. “What is Ed Gein’s favorite cookie? Ladyfingers.” And my favorite, this brilliant limerick: “There once was a fellow named Ed/Who liked to take women to bed./When he wanted to diddle/He’d cut out their middle/And hang up the rest in the shed.” Everybody told those jokes. But these days, if a tragedy happens and you joke about it on Twitter, you will be persecuted and chastised as if you were Ed Gein. Last December, a PR exec was getting on a flight and made a joke on Twitter about AIDS. She was fired before she landed. One joke! You kids today have no idea how safe the world was for comedy before Twitter.

There’s a part of me that understands the obsession with apologies. I’m a Jew. Apologizing is part of our cultural heritage. We have entire holidays devoted to feeling bad and apologizing. When I was born, the first thing I did was apologize to my mother. “That must have been dreadful for you,” I told her as they were cutting the umbilical cord. I apologized for peeing in my diapers. I apologized for growing too quickly and requiring new clothes. As a Jewish child, I learned very early to take the blame for everything. If somebody grumbles that it’s raining outside, as a Jew you have to say, “I’m sorry. That was wrong of me.” I went to school and they told me the dinosaurs had died, and I felt responsible. It must have been my fault somehow. I told my teachers, “I’m sorry about the dinosaurs. I wish I could take it back.” Everything bad that ever happened in human history, I took the weight on my shoulders.

But there’s a big difference between apologizing as a Jew and apologizing as a comic. Jews apologize by instinct; it’s hardwired into our DNA. But a comic apologizing for a joke is like a ballet dancer apologizing for a pirouette.

Back in the 1980s, I was hired to open for pop singer Belinda Carlisle on her tour. Before the show, the stage manager warned me, “Don’t do anything dirty, because there’ll be a lot of little girls sitting in the audience with their mothers.” I pride myself on being the sort of comic who can go at least five minutes before using the word cunt. And on that first night, opening for Carlisle, I think I made it to seven minutes. That’s a personal record for me.

The next day, I got a call from my agent. He used the classic line “Everybody on the Carlisle tour loves you,” which is showbiz talk for “You’ve just been fired.” I guess I could see their point. I wasn’t a perfect fit. I don’t do jokes designed to make mothers and daughters giggle. I do jokes about cunts. Excellent cunt jokes, if I may say so in all modesty.

It happened again in 1991 when I was a presenter at the Emmy Awards. They didn’t give me a script; they just said, “Go out there and have fun.” And I figured, What’s more fun than masturbation? This was around the time Pee-wee Herman was busted for playing with his pee-wee in a porn theater. I said, “If masturbation’s a crime, I should be on death row. To think that by age 14 I was already Al Capone. My right hand is like Superman. I could grab a piece of charcoal and squeeze it into a diamond.” Again, this is what I do. Being comedically graphic is part of my job description. You tell me, “Have fun,” this is how I interpret it.

There were complaints. Ham-fisted editorials. One critic called it a “sneak attack” on the American public who might have been watching with their families. A spokesman for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences said the academy was “taken by surprise and shocked.” Because I guess they forgot to call Belinda Carlisle or see my stand-up. But I never apologized. Never begged for forgiveness, never promised not to do it again. And then I went back to my day job, doing the voice of a parrot in the animated film Aladdin. (Back in those days you could be in a Disney film and be a vocal masturbation enthusiast.)

And then there’s my most famous non-apology. It was 2001, and I was part of the New York Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner. (Maybe you’ve heard of him?) This was mere weeks after the September 11 attacks, so I thought, Hey, everybody’s ready for some terrorist jokes, right?I came out and said, “I have to leave early tonight. I have to fly out to L.A. I couldn’t get a direct flight; I have to make a stop at the Empire State Building.” The whole audience gasped. Then they started booing, and one guy shouted, “Too soon!” I thought he meant I took too long between the setup and the punch line.

So I switched gears. I went immediately into the aristocrats, which is an old inside joke among comedians. It involves parents fucking their kids, a dog’s asshole being fingered and a staggering amount of shit and piss and cum. It’s that kind of joke. The audience roared with laughter and gave me a standing ovation.

Sometimes, in lieu of apologizing, you just have to find the offensive joke that’s less offensive than the other offensive joke you were telling. Not amused by jokes about terrorist attacks? No problem. Can I interest you in some bestiality?

My latest joke scandal—though there will probably be another before this thing gets published—happened just a few months ago, in April. I was performing at a Friars Club event, doing my usual non-family-friendly stuff, and I must have said something that offended Shecky Greene, who was in the audience, because he stormed out in the middle of my act and announced later that he was quitting the Friars. That shocked me, because I didn’t know Shecky Greene was able to get up from his chair. If my material’s good enough to get Shecky walking on his own, imagine what I could do for Stephen Hawking.

Shecky apparently didn’t like my language. He said he’d been in the Navy and had never heard talk like that. If that’s the case, I’m sincerely worried about our military. If our armed forces hear so much as a slightly risqué limerick, they’ll throw their rifles down and surrender. I haven’t apologized to Shecky. I just assumed he forgot everything the moment he left the building. He is Moses old. He probably doesn’t even remember that his name is Shecky. And speaking of, if anybody is owed an apology, it’s the American public, for being forced to pretend all these years that Shecky is a real name. If Shecky does need a formal apology from me, let’s do it right here and now. I’m terribly sorry that I deeply offended the moral fiber of someone who spent a lifetime drinking and fucking hookers in Vegas. (I don’t know for a fact that he was having sex with hookers, but if he wasn’t, he’s an idiot.)

By now I’m sure you’re probably a little confused and angry with me. You’re like, What exactly is his position on apologies? Is he for them or against them? First he says he apologizes all the time, and now he never apologizes. He’s all over the map! Let me be clear on this. An apology is fine now and again, as long as it’s written in advance by a team of professional apologists, comes with a copyright by the PR agency and sounds completely insincere and fabricated. A truly great apology should make people mutter, “What the hell? He clearly didn’t write this. I’d be surprised if he read it.” An apology should always leave people with a bad taste in their mouth and with the undeniable feeling that you’re not in any way sorry.

I wish we lived in a world where people treated every joke as if it were said by Don Rickles. I remember when Rickles was part of a tribute to Shirley MacLaine a couple of years ago and he made a joke about the president. “Obama is a personal friend of mine,” he said. “He was over to the house yesterday, but the mop broke.” Some people grumbled that the joke was offensive, but most agreed it was harmless. Why? Because that’s what Don Rickles does. Nobody gets angry at Don Rickles, because we all innately understand that Don Rickles means no harm. In other words, he’s just like every other comic on the planet. But the younger comics following in Rickles’s footsteps aren’t getting the same pass. I guarantee you that if Daniel Tosh ever made a joke about Obama being a janitor, he would be chased by an angry torch-waving mob.

It’s kind of useless to argue that people, comics or otherwise, should stop apologizing. You know what’s a better solution? Comedy audiences, whether on Twitter or in comedy clubs or in your living room, should be more like Pamela Anderson.

Wait, hear me out.

I did the David Hasselhoff Comedy Central Roast in 2010, and before the show somebody involved in running the thing told me that Anderson had agreed to take part at the last second. “So go a little easy on her,” they said, which is the worst thing you can ever say to me. Ninety percent of my speech was devoted to making jokes about Anderson’s vagina and whether it would ever be tight again. I’m not going to go into specifics, but let’s just say the punch line involved a genie from a magic lamp screaming, “There’s nothing that can be done about Pamela Anderson’s pussy!”

Afterward, when the show was over and everybody was shaking hands and pretending not to be pissed off, Anderson gave me a hug and whispered in my ear, “I hate you.” That’s all she said. She didn’t demand an apology or tell me she was going to ruin my career. All she said was “I hate you.” And that was the end of it.

The next time you hear a joke that offends your gentle sensibilities, I want you to ask yourself this simple question: What would Pamela Anderson do? Do you have the same emotional maturity as somebody with gigantic fake breasts whose main cultural contribution is running in slow motion on the beach? Can you take a joke better than, or at least as well as, Pamela Anderson?

In closing, I’d like to reiterate that I’m sincerely sorry for this entire article, and I hope it hasn’t been too damaging to your psyche. Thank you for reading this far, and again, I apologize for everything you had to endure because of my Neanderthal attempts at humor. And also, no, I’m really not sorry at all. Go fuck yourself.


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