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Jackson’s death makes job tough for comedians

“He was an extremely powerful symbol: a black performer who whites could relate to and then later in life, a white performer who blacks could relate to,” Jimmy Kimmel said in a serious moment.
/ Source: The Associated Press

For years, comedians have made Michael Jackson a punch line. In deference to the beloved pop star’s family and fans, though, many treated his death differently. For still others, it wasn’t “too soon.”

Universal Pictures’ “Bruno” screened in Los Angeles on Thursday night with a scene involving Jackson’s sister La Toya Jackson cut from the movie. A spokesman for Universal said the decision was made by the filmmakers “out of respect for the Jackson family.”

The news of Jackson’s death broke just after or during the tapings of most of Thursday’s late-night shows. Jimmy Fallon’s “Late Night” on NBC made a point of the timing, using a graphic at the top of the show to announce that the show had been taped at 5:30 p.m. EDT. ( is a joint venture between NBC Universal and Microsoft.)

Jay Leno, the comic who did the most to turn Jackson into a late-night staple, doesn’t return to the air until fall. His spokesman said he was unavailable for comment.

Comedian-magician Penn Jillette found himself in an awkward spot Thursday. He was a guest on a radio program promoting the return of his Showtime series when the news of Jackson broke. Jillette found himself thinking back to John Lennon’s death.

“I was really upset by it — as upset as I could be by someone dying outside of my family and friends,” said Jillette. “And I remember the people who were flippant and joked about it in any way really kind of broke my heart.”

Added Jillette: “I have a lot of respect for what music does for people and the connection you get with an artist.”

Jackson’s death was badly timed for CBS’ David Letterman and Craig Ferguson. Both taped their Friday show in advance and are dark next week. It also was too late for NBC’s Conan O’Brien, who’ll have a chance to discuss it on Friday’s “Tonight” show.

Jimmy Kimmel, who does his ABC show live, didn’t appear to be in the mood for a joke about Jackson on Thursday — until the punchline.

Said Kimmel: “What’s especially sad is that most people of a certain generation only know Michael Jackson as a crazy guy who had a lot of plastic surgery — whereas the truth is, he was not only an unbelievably talented, groundbreaking performer, he also helped break down the racial prejudice in this country. He was an extremely powerful symbol: a black performer who whites could relate to and then later in life, a white performer who blacks could relate to.”

Other comedians were more irreverent despite the news being so fresh.

Michael Ian Black, a comedian who rarely avoids sensitive material, wondered in a message on Twitter if the autopsy of Jackson would reveal Tinkerbell inside, alluding to his Peter Pan nature.

Comedian Rob Corddry, former “Daily Show” correspondent, turned the joke back on TMZ, which had the scoop on Jackson’s death. Corddry tweeted: “I wish it had been Michael Jackson that broke the story of TMZ dying. I can almost hear the high-fives.”

The Onion also didn’t lose any time. In a tweet Thursday, it reported: “BREAKING: Last Piece of Michael Jackson Dies.”

The satirical newspaper followed that up Friday with a brief story on its Web site with the headline: “King of Pop Dead at 12” — suggesting Jackson always remained childlike.

Megan Ganz, associate editor of the Onion, said the paper’s Manhattan office felt almost like a “real newsroom” Friday, with its writing staff rushing around to produce copy on Jackson’s death.

Ganz acknowledged the Onion had received complaints from readers who said their Jackson stories were insensitive.

“It’s kind of funny to me that people are saying ‘too soon, too soon’ about these jokes because people have been making jokes about Michael Jackson for the last 20 years,” said Ganz. “We really tried to think of something that was somewhat meaningful about his life — that wasn’t just one more joke at the expense of Michael Jackson — because he’s weathered quite a few.”

The comedian widely acknowledged as being the first to joke about Jackson — Eddie Murphy — declined to comment on the singer’s death. It was Murphy who in his 1983 classic standup special “Delirious” famously said Jackson “ain’t the most masculine fellow in the world.”

Murphy reminisced about the joke recently as a guest on “Tonight”: “That was the very first of what turned into a tsunami of Michael jokes.”