John Crosbie is promising to tone it down after sparking controversy with a joke that involved depression, Pakistani call centres, suicide and an allusion to terrorism.
Doing so means the colourful Newfoundlander known for his zingers while wearing many hats – as provincial politician, federal cabinet minister and now Lieutenant-Governor – will take on his toughest role: being boring.
The unlikely metamorphosis came as word of his humour ricocheted around the world. Provincial politicians lined up to criticize the joke and local Muslims voiced their displeasure.
“There seem to be people who are so sensitive,” Mr. Crosbie said from St. John’s Thursday. “If some people are going to be so sensitive, I’ll act accordingly. … I’m certainly going to be more circumspect.”
He said he told the joke last week to leaven the tone after swearing in a new cabinet.
“You don’t want to be boring people to death,” he said. “If I’m speaking, I like to say something that is interesting or amusing.”
His remarks included cracks about the dire economy forcing Americans to sneak into Mexico and an energy company to lay off politicians. But it was another joke, which Mr. Crosbie said he received from a friend in the United States, that is receiving most of the attention.
In it, a depressed American calls a help line and gets a call-centre in Pakistan. The zinger? “When I told them I was suicidal, they got all excited and asked if I could drive a truck.”
The joke has circulated online for years and his telling of it last week appears to have passed without comment by the audience of about 100 people, including Premier Kathy Dunderdale.
Reporters who enquired later for reaction from Ms. Dunderdale were sent a statement calling his words “clearly inappropriate.”
Pakistani diplomats were not laughing either.
“For us, it’s not a joke,” said Nazia Khalid, a spokeswoman for the High Commission in Ottawa. “This is a very serious thing in our country. We can’t take these jokes lightly.”
Word didn’t begin to circulate until the St. John’s Telegram put the story on their front page. Reaction in the province’s Muslim community was mixed. What seemed to ruffle feathers the most was that Mr. Crosbie was in his official capacity when he told the joke.
Syed Pirzada, a dermatologist and president of the Muslim Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, noted that extremism is a reality in Pakistan. He said the comment was not a big deal, but added that there’s a time and place to joke about any topic.
“If it’s being discussed in a private home, I think it’s okay,” he said. “But if you’re addressing an official crowd, he could be more diplomatic.”
Mr. Crosbie maintains there was nothing offensive about the joke. He said it is well known that many call centres are located in South Asia, and that Pakistan is grappling with internal violence.
“No one can say there isn’t a problem with terrorism in Pakistan,” he said. “Anyone with intelligence can see it week after week.”
With a report from Anna Mehler Paperny