When does a joke go too far—and what should we do when we think it does? That’s the question posed by Ted Balaker’s documentary, in which an array of comedians argue that the rise of a pervasive culture of outrage threatens to undermine the tradition of sharp satire they admire—and claim to practice. Of course, one has every right to be offended when somebody makes a joke we find crude, insulting or simply vile. The issue is whether we haven’t gotten to the point, in this age of instant communication, that easily offended parties conduct public excoriations of those who have irked them with the intent of not only compelling profuse apologies but of destroying careers.
Of course, the issue that “Can We Take a Joke?” poses is hardly a new one. Plato suggested that the playwright Aristophanes was at least partially responsible for the animus against Socrates that led an Athenian jury to condemn the philosopher to death. When “Dr. Strangelove” and “The Producers” came out, they led to questions about whether nuclear war or Hitler could be a proper target of jokes. But Balaker is right to observe that in the age of social media, the firestorm that can be quickly fomented by those offended by anything has increased exponentially. Of course, his film is also designed to present those comedians who refuse to be cowed in a heroic light.
Much of the picture features present-day performers like Penn Jillette, Jim Norton, Lisa Lampanelli, Heather MacDonald, Karith Foster, Adam Carolla and Gilbert Gotffried extolling the provocative sort of stand-up that they trace back, at least in modern America, to Lenny Bruce, whom authorities used all sorts of legal means at their disposal to silence—and whose career Balaker covers with a nice collection of archival footage. Bruce’s rule-breaking style opened the door to people like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, and fostered an edgy brand of humor that continues to the present day.
But there are cautionary tales to tell. Gottfried recalls a joke he made about the Japanese tsunami in 2011 that caused such a furor that he was summarily fired from his commercial gig as the voice of the Aflac duck. He also mentions a joke he made about an airline flight and the Empire State Building not long after 9/11 that led the audience to groan and one listener to shout “Too soon!” Another anecdote about Lampanelli shows that paying customers can go berserk over jokes on matters of utter insignificance, like disputes over rock bands.
While working comedians have met with umbrage from critics, though, the more sobering part of Balaker’s film touches on instances on college campuses that have forced students like Reed’s Sal Rodriguez and Washington State’s Chris Lee from the stage. The issue isn’t whether the material they were presenting was funny or good. (In the estimation of this reviewer, at least, from the excerpts we hear it doesn’t sound so.) But the virulent, sometimes violent reaction they faced seems wildly out of place in an academic venue where open discussion is supposed to prevail; even worse, but only briefly alluded to here, is the fact that other speakers, as well as comedians, have been prevented from appearing on campuses—a true expression of the censorship perhaps too easily identified as such here. Balaker also brings up the case of Justine Sacco, a young woman who issued an admittedly stupid and insensitive tweet about AIDS while flying to Africa and landed to find herself fired and disgraced.
While it raises an important issue, though, Balaker’s treatment is definitely one-sided. It’s true that people who disagree with something they hear could express their objections without turning into a cyber-fueled lynch mob, but it’s also not out of place to suggest that comedians—and others who speak on controversial topics—might show a bit of discretion and sensitivity themselves. The fact that the principle of absolute free speech enunciated most memorably by John Stuart Mill in “On Liberty” means that one should be able to say whatever he or she thinks (or whatever joke they like) doesn’t mean that they should actually say it. And it certainly doesn’t mean that what they say will be true—or, if a joke, funny.
And that’s connected to an even bigger question that Balaker’s film doesn’t address: whether in our social-media-obsessed society comics, student provocateurs and politicians haven’t become utterly addicted to getting attention by simply saying shocking things in the most shocking possible way. When they do, boos from the audience might be precisely what they should hear.
But if shaming is sometimes well deserved, it would be nice if those engaged in it kept to some limits, too. A bit of empathy on both sides would go a long way. Thinking before you tweet or post wouldn’t hurt. “Can We Take A Joke?” is interesting as it is, but it would have been much better had it really grappled with the complexities of the issue it raises rather than presenting it in a cut-and-dried way. And at a mere 74 minutes, it certainly could have added a few more to do so.