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‘Can We Take A Joke?’ Looks To A Comedian’s Right To Offend

New documentary asks if offensive jokes are protected free speech

Lisa Lampanelli is one of the stand up comedians interviewed for the document...

Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Above: Lisa Lampanelli is one of the stand up comedians interviewed for the documentary, "Can We Take A Joke?"

Companion viewing

"A Clockwork Orange" (1971)

"Lenny" (1974)

Could comedians be at the forefront of a battle against a new assault on free speech? The documentary “Can We Take A Joke?” (available in some cities theatrically on July 29 and on VOD Aug. 2) focuses on comedians and the “outrage mobs” that attempt to control their speech.

When asked about how far comedy should go, the late comedian George Carlin said, “It’s a comedian’s duty to find the line and deliberately cross over it.”

Carlin, along with Richard Pryor, followed in the footsteps of Lenny Bruce, who used comedy to prod, poke and provoke audiences and society into some sort of reaction. For Bruce, the reaction included being arrested on obscenity charges for words he chose to use in his late night comedy acts. Bruce would eventually be convicted on obscenity charges and made to serve jail time … for jokes.

Today, many look back on that and think it was ridiculous for Bruce to have been arrested for saying dirty words. And those same people may also think we have progressed a considerable distance from those conservative days.

Yes and no.

New "private" censorship

Comedians are no longer being arrested and jailed for material in their stand up acts and Bruce was even pardoned by Gov. George E. Pataki nearly four decades after being convicted of obscenity charges. But there is a new form of censorship rearing its head.

The documentary features an archive interview in which Carlin said, “I expect censorship from the right but from politically correct … that took me by surprise.”

That’s right it’s people — many working through social media, and not the government and the cops — cracking down on comedians, even those stand-ups who make it clear that their material is designed to offend. This kind of censorship is what the film refers to as "private" censorship as opposed to censorship imposed by the government.

Influence of social media

The film, written and directed by Ted Balaker, looks at how in this age of the Internet and social media, there seems to be a new outrage every day.

The press notes describe it like this:

“While people have always found something to be offended by, their ability to organize a groundswell of opposition to — and public censure of — their offender has never been more powerful. Today we’re all one clumsy joke away from public ruin.”

'Can We Take A Joke?' Trailer

“Can We Take A Joke?” explores this through a series of interviews with stand-up comedy notables such as Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette, Lisa Lampanelli and Adam Carolla who address what they feel is the stifling impact of outrage culture on comedy and the exchange of ideas.

A one-sided examination?

The film has been criticized for being a one-sided examination of comedy and free speech. But on a certain level, are there really two sides to this particular free speech issue?

Courts have determined that there are some limitations to free speech: It does not include the right to incite actions that would harm others and it limits the rights of students to engage in certain kinds of speech on their campuses or at school sponsored events. But this film is specifically addressing the right of comedians to say what they want in their comedy acts, which often times they make very clear in advance that the material may be offensive.

And for many comedians, offending people is part of their agenda.

The film quotes Louis C.K.: “Offending people is a necessary and healthy act. Every time you say something that’s offensive to another person you just caused a discussion, you just forced them to think.”

That does simplify the issue. All the comedians in the film are well established and while they may tell offensive jokes that are in bad taste, none of them are promoting violence or hate. And there are likely comedians out there who cross the line in more aggressive and potentially dangerous ways. In other words, the sample group we are given are articulate, smart people and that is not necessarily representative of all comedians out there.

Free speech comes at a cost and isn't always pretty

But the film’s basic point is still strong. Why shouldn’t these comedians be allowed to say what they want? What is the real danger? Free speech always comes at a cost and it’s not always pretty. The film states, “There is no legal right not to be offended.”

Free speech means that people can voice ideas and opinions and even tell bad jokes that you don’t like; it can even be things that hurt or offend you. Of course free speech is a two-way street and if a comedian says something offensive, he or she has to be prepared for others to respond. But the film asks if it's fair for a comedian to be prevented from saying something or shouted down by an audience member and not able to have his or her ideas or jokes heard?

The film lets Richard Pryor lay out the only rule a comedian needs to follow: “You can say anything that comes to mind so long as it is funny.”

For Lisa Lampanelli that means rape and AIDS are not off the table. For Gilbert Gottfried it meant making jokes about 9/11 and the Japanese tsunami “too soon” and getting fired from a job.

Who gets to draw the line

Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, points out the dangers of this kind of private as opposed to government censorship. He says under this dynamic “the most sensitive gets to determine what can be said.”

And that is the perennial problem of censorship, who gets to be the one who draws the line? And if you draw the line it is likely to keep encroaching on what can be said and that is a slippery slope.

Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) says “if you are on the side of censorship you are on the side of an arrogant idea that you know where wisdom will come from and you don’t know where wisdom will come from.”

Some may counter that jokes that stereotype ethnic groups or make fun of women are hate speech or just plain wrong.

The review in the New York Times said: “It would be better if it also at least acknowledged the possibility that some jokes ought not be told.”

But that’s exactly what the film refuses to acknowledge because it sees a curtailing of free speech as more dangerous that

Comedienne Karith Foster, who is black and female, recalls that as a student in college she was taught that it was “not about being a victim” and that people should just stay away from shows that might be offensive rather than going and complaining that they have been hurt by the jokes.

If you are offended, turn it off

When I interviewed John Waters back in the 1990s, he was being accused of obscenity because someone rented “Pink Flamingoes” from a video store and was offended. His response was if you are offended by something like that turn it off, which is what he said he did when he turned “Forest Gump” on and didn't like what he saw.

Is political correctness to blame?

The film ends with a summation from Rauch in which he says, “When they start going for the comedians everyone else needs to sweat.” He adds that “along with the right to speak freely comes the responsibility to have a thick skin. Words can be hurtful but they are not the same as violence and they can be countered with other words and that’s our responsibility.”

Again, that may be simplifying the issue, but not if free speech is your primary concern. For people like Rauch, guaranteeing free speech is more important than offending some people.

Rauch also states in the film, “The society that tries to bury under the rug bad ideas is condemning itself to live in a future with those bad ideas.”

In an odd way, that helps explain Donald Trump's presidential nomination. The pressure for political correctness has created an atmosphere where people simply don’t say things that they think or believe. Or they lie about how they feel to avoid social reprimands. They may change their outward behavior or comments but perhaps not how they really think or feel. (It’s like Alex in “A Clockwork Orange” who undergoes behavior modification but without any attempt to address the underlying psychological reasons for his behavior.)

So when Trump arrives on the scene and removes the filter of political correctness to reveal prejudices and stereotypes, many people responded. Enough to make him the Republican candidate for president.

The film suggests that perhaps it’s better to have comedians offend us with jokes that violate our comfort zones and in so doing make us think about the stereotypes or offensive ideas and where they come from than to bury those things and pretend they don’t exist because then we get something like President Trump.

The ideas presented are more complex than “Can We Take A Joke?” is able to fully address, but they are ideas that desperately need to be discussed. The film quotes a statistic that says 47 percent of Americans think the First Amendment goes too far. Now that’s scary.

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