Insensitive Tweet-Gate: Ebert learns his lesson. The wrong lesson.

Jackass‘s Ryan Dunn died in a car wreck Monday, and as you’ve no doubt heard by now, yesterday Roger Ebert controversially tweeted (ridiculous as that phrase sounds, it’s accurate), “Friends don’t let jackasses drink and drive.”  There was the predictable outcry, notably from Dunn’s high school friend Bam Margera (who overreacted, as might be expected of a guy who just lost a friend and who frequently wears eyeliner), culminating in Ebert’s Facebook page getting shut down due to complaints from Bam fans (it’s since been restored). I didn’t cover this right away, probably because I’m the last person in the world to shout “too soon” or complain about insensitive humor (in fact, “inappropriate” is my least favorite word in the English language, solely for the number of times I’ve been bludgeoned with it by the humorless).  But something about hearing Ebert defend what he said as if he wasn’t joking at all, as if he was actually just trying to turn this event into a learning moment like some kind of male Oprah, just rubs me the wrong way.

“What did I mean by that? I meant exactly what I wrote. I wasn’t calling Ryan Dunn a jackass. In Twitter shorthand, I was referring to his association with “Jackass.” I thought that was clear. I note that Bam Margera uses the word “jackass” in the same way in his tweet. [Tuesday p.m.note: Of course there was a double meaning. I was implying that someone who drinks and drives is a jackass. Just as I was when I was drinking.]”

First a backpedal, then a clarification of his clearly-insincere backpedaling, and finally the coup de grace, a sobering personal anecdote.  See, maaan?  I was just trying to open your eyes all along!  To show you that this was actually all about me, and the wisdom I’m about to share!  Look, I’m not saying you’re not allowed to joke about a dead guy.  But the first problem with Ebert’s tweet is that it wasn’t funny.  It was lame.  And if it’s not funny, then it doesn’t work as a joke, and as a serious point, it’s just kind of asinine and schoolmarmy. If you really want to unpack it (which I think is to give it more scrutiny than he intended), Ebert took an old MADD slogan and added “jackass” to it. That’s not wisdom, no matter how many personal stories of triumph you add to it.  It’d be like if Mark Gastineau OD’d on cocaine and my first response was “Just Say Gastineau.”  Would you interpret that as life advice?  I wouldn’t.  That’s why I interpreted “Friends don’t let jackasses drink and drive” as Ebert’s attempt at a joke.

And that’s okay.  I know making a joke that doesn’t work or a joke about a tragedy doesn’t make you a terrible person.  I’m just not sure Ebert knows it. After all, he is the same guy who was absolutely aghast that Todd Phillips would dare use something so sacred as a famous photo of a Vietcong being executed as fodder for humor in the credit sequence of The Hangover II.  In fact, if I remember correctly, he called it an “offense against humanity.”  And not as humorous hyperbole:

“This is a raunch fest, yes, but not an offense against humanity (except for that photo, which is a desecration of one of the two most famous photos to come out of the Vietnam War).”

A desecration! Nothing against Roger Ebert, I think he’s a great writer (if a wholly-unreliable film critic).  I just wish we could stop pretending that making off-color jokes (whether they be funny like Hangover II‘s Vietcong picture or lame like Ebert’s tweet) is the same thing as participating in Kristallnacht. That way, a guy like Ebert might be allowed to say “okay, it wasn’t funny, my bad,” and everyone could move on, instead of having to read his pedantic, 3,000-word essay on the subject of recovery, or hear Nia Vardalos’ take on Tracy Morgan’s tour of gay pride parades across the south.  Because that I could reeeeeeally do without.  Believe it or not, sometimes a crappy joke isn’t a perfect opportunity to talk about an important political issue.  Sometimes it’s just a crappy joke.  It’s allowed.