Free Speech, internet shaming and the right to be “offended” are hot topics in society these days (and ones I’m not totally unfamiliar with). They’re also at the center of an informative and fascinating new documentary “Can We Take a Joke?” At only 75 minutes, director Ted Balaker (who previously tackled this topic in his 2013 short “Don’t Cage My Speech! A Student Schools His College”) uses comedians – past, present and future – as his messengers, and they provide enough thought-provoking material on how we, and others, react to what we say to generate lively debates long after the credits roll.
Celebrity comics, including Gilbert Gottfried, Adam Corolla, Lisa Lampanelli, Jim Norton, Heather McDonald, along with comic/magician Penn Jillette each bring their perspective to the problems that not only performers, but everyone in our society faces today when it comes to voicing an opinion or trying to be funny in a politically correct world.
This doc also provides a fascinating history lesson on legendary comedien Lenny Bruce, who’s credited with paving the way for all comediens who followed to be able to use profanity in their act and not worry about being thrown in jail. Bruce worked back in the 50s and 60s with police officers just off stage, ready to take him away if/when he uttered a “dirty” word, which was often. He was eventually sentenced to prison for using expletives and sexual references in his act and not long after died of a drug overdose. In 2003, nearly 40 years after his death, Bruce was pardoned by then NY Governor George Pataki. The Bruce narrative, and how the he provided the freedom for all the controversial comics who have followed him, is one of the strongest elements of the film.
But if the First Amendment provides performers the freedom from legal prosecution, “Can We Take a Joke?” makes it clear that NO ONE – comics, students or regular citizens -are free from societal prosecution. It only takes one person to claim they’re “offended” by a joke, comment or tweet, and within minutes all Hell can break lose. In the film we see the results of this phenomenon in a montage of “apologies” from celebrities who were accused of crossing the line. The filmmaker and his subjects constantly point out that comedy, at its heart, is about crossing the line, but that’s much easier said than done in the current climate in which we live.
“Can We Take a Joke?” has a very clear point of view: Free Speech trumps all, firmly believing that saying things that may be deemed as offensive betters our society as a whole because it creates a dialogue. And the alternative – censorship – is unacceptable. However, while the negative side of the issue is explored in detail (Gottfried getting fired by Aflac for online jokes following the 2011 Japan Tsunami is just one example), the film’s perspective is a bit one-sided. The “offended” are simply shown as hecklers and fanatics. What it feels like to be one of the offended, and WHY they feel offended, is not examined. If people have a right to say anything that’s on their minds, they have just as much of a right to be upset with anything they hear. A little balance on this issue would have been welcome.
Are people, as a whole, a little uptight when it comes to how we treat certain material? Yes. In a news clip during the opening montage, Jimmy Kimmel tells a protestor, “I can’t apologize every night.” Comedians and talk show hosts aren’t going to please everyone, and the film does a nice job of explaining that the U.S. has the best policies when it comes to performers (and all citizens) being able to express themselves freely.
“Can We Take a Joke?” does feel a bit scattered in its storytelling structure, bouncing back and forth from comics to colleges to Bruce and back again. And I would’ve liked to have gotten perspectives from two other iconic “attack” comics: Kathy Griffin (who’s the first female that comes to mind in this category) and Don Rickles, who pioneered the craft of insult comedy 70-years ago (and does have a Twitter account).
Overall, I can say that not since “Blackfish” three years ago has an issue documentary inspired me to think this deeply about the pros and cons of its subject matter.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Can We Take a Joke?” gets a B.
Running Time: 78 min.