To go along with our list of the 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy, Vulture is taking a closer look at some of the jokes on the list. We’ve already talked to the writers of Airplane! about the iconic “Don’t call me Shirley.” Today Gilbert Gottfried revisits the 9/11 joke he told at a Friars Club Roast of Hugh Hefner mere weeks after the attack. It kicked off the trend of jokes being delivered “too soon,” which still continues to this day. (That joke, and his legendary version of the Aristocrats that followed, were completely scrubbed from the telecast.) Nate Jones spoke with Gottfried for this as-told-to piece.
It was a couple of weeks after 9/11. There was a weird feeling in New York. People were walking around in a daze. I was at the roast of Hugh Hefner, and I just wanted to be the first person to make a really-poor-taste joke about September 11. It was impromptu; I don’t remember thinking about it beforehand. I said, “I have to leave early tonight, I have a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight — they said I have to stop at the Empire State Building first.”
I don’t think anyone’s lost an audience bigger than I did at that point. They were booing and hissing. One guy said, “Too soon!” He was just a face in the crowd, but now I wish I knew who it was, because his comment became part of the language. “Too soon.” I had never heard that before. I knew there were times where people wait to make jokes about something, but I always thought that concept was ridiculous. Is there an office with a guy behind a desk who decides when it’s not too soon anymore?
You can do jokes about the Lincoln assassination and the Titanic, and no one says anything because everyone involved is dead, and their grandchildren are dead. I actually think that’s in worse taste. You’re saying, “Screw all those people who died, I waited for it to become unimportant to us.” When I do a joke about September 11, or the Japanese tsunami, what’s funny is that it shocks the audience. They are responding to the fact that it’s tragic, and you’re acknowledging it.
With the Challenger explosion, or any other tragic event pre-internet, there were always a bunch of jokes that would come out immediately. Everyone was in a rush to tell their friends, everyone was laughing about it, and it was okay. Now, with the internet, it makes me feel sentimental about old-time angry mobs. In a mob you actually had to throw on your jacket, go outside, use your hands. Now you can join a mob sitting on your couch in your underwear. I feel like people who get outraged like that are patting themselves on the back. “You see, I was offended.”
But I’m as hypocritical as anybody else. I remember when all those stories came out about Mel Gibson: A woman cop had stopped him, he called her “sugar tits,” asked her “Are you a Jew?” and said the Jews were responsible for all the wars in the world. Then news came out about his girlfriend: He smacked her when she was holding her baby, told her, “If you get raped by a pack of niggers, it will be your fault.” “I’ll put you in a fucking rose garden, you cunt.” And after all that, I was like, Wait, he said what about the Jews?