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Gottfried ad ax is sign of media times

Yes, Gilbert. This time it really was "too soon." Way too soon.

Gilbert Gottfried -- the fearless and much-admired stand-up comedy D-lister -- was just fired from his longtime gig as the singularly annoying squawk of the bird in TV's Aflac commercials.

Who cares, you ask? Well, Howard Stern. And Joan Rivers. And Whoopi Goldberg on "The View." And I do here. Everyone has a stake in this, which I'll explain.

It's a phenomenally interesting case. Among the legendary exploits of the stand-up comic with the ubiquitous, grating voice was his appearance just three weeks after 9/1 1 at a Friar's Club roast where he actually had the temerity to try out a couple of 9/1 1 jokes. The audience of showbiz insiders was legendarily full of loud disapproving groans and moans and cries of, "Too soon, Gilbert! Too soon!"

He then went on to tell his version of that favorite comedians' joke, "The Aristocrats," which is how the hilariously raunchy film about current stand-ups got started.

So, never one to do the tasteful thing when there are innocent people to be offended, Gottfried tweeted a few hideous jokes about the horrors in Japan to his followers on Twitter a few days ago.

Frankly, under the circumstances, I wouldn't dream of defending any of them.

But, in truth, two of the 12 jokes made me laugh (and groan at the same time); the rest just made me shake my head. I tried one of them out on a young female colleague who likes to laugh, too, and here's what she did: She exploded into a laugh and then immediately slapped her hand over her mouth in that gesture that universally means, "I can't believe I just laughed at that in public."

Gottfried's tweets caused an instant hue and cry, and Gottfried immediately removed them and apologized profusely. He told television's "Inside Edition" on Wednesday night that his advice to young comics was "observe everything I do and do the exact opposite."

So why care? Because the Gottfried case, in microcosm, is the media world we live in.

The Internet has brought to us from Japan the most astonishing and tragic and terrifying footage of a real tidal wave most of us have ever seen. And just days later, Gottfried was tweeting to his Twitter "followers" with the understandable expectation that they were "followers" indeed and not potential backstabbers, enemies and turncoats.

No doubt, he thought his Twitter audience was just a bigger -- but still cocooning and safe -- bunch of Friars Club types: comedy "insiders" who'd forgive any transgression of taste from a brave and brilliant member of their tribe.

Not so. Every celebrity "tweet" instantly belongs to the world, as soon as that world can catch up to it -- just as those horrific and revelatory videos from Japan do.

You can't begin to blame the poor Aflac people, who, reportedly, do a good deal of business in Japan on top of everything else. They, no doubt, hired Gottfried for his singularly annoying comedy voice, not realizing, perhaps, that the comedy mind attached to it can be gloriously transgressive and audacious and, to fellow practitioners, inspiring.

I interviewed a young Gottfried on the phone 21 years ago before an appearance at the Tralf. Here's how some of it went:

Q: Your act is wild. Has anyone ever gotten after you to tone it down?

A: Some agents and managers. You just nod your head and sit there with a frozen grin on your face until they're through talking. The few times I've ever listened to agents and managers, it's always been wrong.

Asked who his favorite contemporaries were in the business, he answered, "I don't know. They all committed suicide." (Eleven years earlier, a Comedy Store veteran named Steve Lubetkin really did commit suicide by jumping off the roof of a Hyatt House next to the club -- the kind of thing Gottfried might refer to among "insiders.") His friends? "Me and Gregory Peck. We're like this." His biggest ambition? "I think a lot of people just want to keep working -- to be comedy's answer to Martin Balsam."

That was 21 years ago, before he became a not-entirely-underground hero in his profession.

Two huge things can be glimpsed through this tiny pinhole: 1) conclusive proof that "social networks" are no such thing but rather brief vestibules to a large and hostile world if only one member is offended -- or if a re-tweet meets hostile eyes. (That's one good reason journalists tend to be personally circumspect on them.) And 2) something intransigently rebellious to all mainstream media -- and completely incompatible with it -- is growing underground from the Web.

Read Bret Easton Ellis' piece on Charlie Sheen in the current issue of Newsweek. Or the upcoming Rolling Stone cover story on Howard Stern (who has no business being the free speech hero of the 21st century but is).

So much terrified mediocrity and "appropriate" blandness has clogged what Sarah Palin calls "the lamestream media" in the age of the Big Bad Internet that the renegade truth tellers seem to loom ever-larger.

Some of us have been through something like it before.

Unless "old" media move left (in terms of content, not politics) and boldness makes a big-time comeback, all that shocking new media "inappropriateness" may knock it off piece by piece.

And too soon, too. Way too soon.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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