By Frank Scheck
Ted Balaker's documentary CAN WE TAKE A JOKE? explores how the rise of political correctness is dampening stand-up comedy.
It's hard not to have mixed reactions while watching Ted Balaker's documentary CAN WE TAKE A JOKE? about how political correctness is stifling free speech, particularly when it comes to satire and stand-up comedy. On one hand, the obvious answer to the question posed in the title is increasingly a resounding "No." On the other hand, why does every Tom, Dick and Harry feel the need to spout off their supposed witticisms via Twitter? Can't we leave comedy to the professionals?
As the film, which recently received its world premiere at DOC NYC, makes clear, even the professionals are running into trouble these days. Just ask Gilbert Gottfried, who lost his lucrative voiceover gig for Aflac in 2011 after making a joke about the Japan tsunami.
"They basically dropped me like shit out of a duck's ass," the squinty-eyed comedian cracks.
Lisa Lampanelli was once almost physically attacked by an angry audience member for making an irreverent joke about — wait for it — the band Journey. A French comedian was arrested for making a joke sympathetic to the terrorists involved in the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Talk about muddying the issue of the right to free speech.
Beginning with a montage of celebrity apologies by such sorrow-faced performers as Jimmy Kimmel and Don Imus, who've offended various groups, the film strongly makes the case that we've all got to get over ourselves. Several notable comedians including Gottfried, Lampanelli, Jim Norton, Adam Carolla and Penn Jillette deliver sobering commentary about how irreverent comedy is becoming an increasingly endangered art form.
The unfortunate poster boy for this, of course, is Lenny Bruce, who served a four-month jail sentence for the crime of telling jokes to a late-night audience in a comedy club and whose career was ruined by police and government authorities. A good portion of the doc is devoted to relating his tragic story, including the ironic fact that he was officially pardoned by the State of New York in 2003, 37 years after his death. Particularly confounding and disturbing is the rise of censorship on college campuses, which all the interview subjects agree — including Greg Lukianoff, the head of FIRE, or Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — is a growing phenomenon. The pic cites the case of Chris Lee, a student at Washington State University who wrote a satirical musical deemed so offensive by the school administration that they encouraged students to protest. We see film footage of a performance in which several people stand up and loudly shout, "I'm offended!"
Compounding the hypersensitivity problem is the Internet, which allows unfettered access for anyone to vent their spleen.
"The Internet makes me feel sentimental about old-time lynch mobs," Gottfried comments.
We hear about the case of Justine Sacco, a 30-year-old PR executive who just before boarding a flight to South Africa sent out this tweet: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm White!" Witless and stupid, to be sure, but the response was so out of proportion that it would be comical if it wasn't so sad. By the time her plane landed and she checked her phone, the unwitting Sacco had become the target of so much viral vitriol that she had been terminated by her employer mid-flight and received countless threats. It's a notable example of the phenomenon known as "Internet shaming."
It's all awfully dispiriting. If Bruce was alive today, he wouldn't be getting arrested. Instead, he'd have his career ruined by people who just don't know how to take a joke.