Can We Take A Joke? Review

A Muslim, a Jew, a lesbian, an angry white guy and a black sociology student walk into a comedy club and take shots from the audience.

And still, congress won’t look at gun legislation. What? Too soon? Comedians need to take shots and former ReasonTV staffer Ted Balaker’s documentary Can We Take a Joke? says the current politically correct environment is keeping them holstered and that if this goes too far, the joke will be on us.

Everything anyone says has the potential of offending someone. The film opens with a montage of apologies worthy of the South Park BP episode. They show Jimmy Kimmel and Don Imus being pushed to humiliating mea culpas and Giuliana Rancic apologizing for her Fashion Police ganja gaff about Zendaya, though I’m not sure if Rancic is funny enough to be included, at least not intentionally. But the outrage police keep spraying pepper. Ellen DeGeneres was recently sued over a tit joke.

Standup comedians always walked the line between what they could get away with to stay timely but not go too far as to alienate themselves from the tastes of the times. The documentary says that pressure to lighten up has been growing and it’s coming from unexpected places. Years ago, the late comic icon George Carlin said comedians should expect backlash from conservatives, who traditionally stand down from edgy humor, but the greatest threats come from the left. Can We Take a Joke? looks at how “outrage culture” hits what comics can get away with. If they can’t get away with pushing boundaries, comedy will never move forward and Lenny Bruce will have died in vain. Too soon?

Can We Take a Joke? is narrated in a deadpan by comic Christina Pazsitzky. The movie interviews with Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette, Lisa Lampanelli, Adam Carolla, Jim Norton and Heather McDonald. Each of them consider Bruce more than just a standup, he was a standup guy who took a bullet for all comedians. His stand against censorship ruined his career as his trials consumed his energy and, worst of all, his stage performances.

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Bruce went to jail for comedy. He was the last person in America to ever be convicted for telling jokes, the documentary points out. While most comedians couldn’t get arrested in San Francisco, Bruce scored his first bust at the Jazz Workshop on October 4, 1961 for using the word cocksucker and rhythmically breaking down the semantics of the verbal preposition to come. Bruce opened up the language of the standup by taking the hit for going blue, which is what comedians used to call telling dirty jokes on stage.

Bruce did four months and became an icon. Dustin Hoffman gave an overwhelmingly deep performance in Bob Fosse’s 1974 biopic Lenny, but the documentary Lenny Bruce Without Tears tells the story in the comedians own words. (Lenny also directed and starred in a couple indie movies that featured Jake LaMotta. They are impossible to find, there aren’t even real references to them, but they present an interesting historical record.)

Besides drug busts, Bruce got popped in Los Angeles and Chicago before his mouth got him kicked out of England. But it was his April 1964 performance at Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village that slapped him with the four month sentence. Bruce, who overdosed on August 3, 1966, didn’t get pardoned by the State of New York until 37 years after he died. Maybe the conviction should have stayed on the books as a reminder to generations to come.

Greg Lukianoff, who heads the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education says we’re all “one clumsy joke away from public ruin.” The doc tells about a case of one ordinary woman, not a celebrity or a comic, who became infamous in the time it took for her to make an international flight. Former PR exec Justine Sacco learned about bad publicity in a baptism of fire. She ironically tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” as she got on a plane for a vacation to South Africa and landed to a pink slip and an international incident.

The doc also follows a French comedian who was arrested for telling a pro-terrorist joke after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Lisa Lampanelli points out that you never know what is going to be offensive. She told gay jokes, rape jokes and worse and got complaints and heckles. But when she made fun of the seventies heavy MOR band Journey, an audience member actually physically attacked her.

Balaker says the worst place to play is college campuses, where young people are just learning about outrage. Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock have been bitching about college gigs for years. Students are too sensitive. One of the doc’s case studies was about Chris Lee, a student at Washington State University. He wrote and performed a satirical musical that the school administration were so offended by that they told students to protest the performance. We see film footage of a performance in which several people stand up and loudly shout, “I’m offended!” I gotta say the whole idea of showing up for a performance just to say you’re offended sounds like a joke they stole off The Simpsons. When Lisa wonders why people would show up for the Garfunkel and Oates of jazz just to boo. They should have interviewed Krusty.

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Gilbert Gottfried is the funniest of the interviewees, probably his voice. Gottfried was the voice of the Aflac duck until he made a joke about the Japan tsunami in 2011 and the insurance company dropped him “like shit out of a duck’s ass.” Gottfried says the whole thing got worse after social media exploded, making it easy for people to express their outrage without even getting up from their devices. “The Internet makes me feel sentimental about old-time lynch mobs,” he says at one point.

We need silly men and women to speak truth to power because it stems the tide of dictatorship. Really. It does. The first things to go in those kinds of societies are the intellectuals and the clowns because that’s where real thought occurs. Can We take a Joke isn’t as funny as you would think, though, what with all these comedians free to take whatever shots they want. Groucho Marx once said that one of the rules of comedy was, if you’re not getting a laugh, drop your pants. Sure, he’d be barred on some campuses today, but someone in the doc shoulda shown their ass.


3 out of 5