THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"CAN WE TAKE A JOKE?"
You've heard the terms before: Precious snowflakes. Trigger warnings. Safe spaces. They all refer in some way to the feeling of being offended or trying to avoid that feeling. These days, you have to be careful what you say at all times, because people won't hesitate to let you know if they feel you've stepped out of line. It's especially difficult to be a comedian. Comedy is envelope-pushing by nature; doing it in a time of great sensitivity is like walking through a minefield. The documentary Can We Take a Joke? looks at how some comedians are dealing with the issue.
Jim Norton, Penn Jillette, and Adam Carolla are just a few funny people who discuss how modern sensitivity is the death of comedy. A familiar refrain is repeated among the interview subjects: If you're easily offended, don't come to a comedy show. They testify about their own experiences making jokes and having angry listeners try to impose politically correct ideals upon them. The problem, they agree, is that political correctness isn't funny, so worrying too much about it would essentially undermine what they do. Another interviewee, “Queen of Mean” Lisa Lampanelli, says being politically correct is pointless anyway, since even the most innocuous subjects can offend people. She tells a story of an enraged audience member heckling her over a joke about the rock band Journey.
Director Ted Balaker recounts some of the most infamous recent examples of comedians facing scrutiny. Gilbert Gottfried discusses getting fired from a high-profile commercial gig after making a joke in the wake of a devastating tsunami. Chris Lee discusses an intentionally offensive musical he staged at Washington State University, where local police refused to protect him from irate patrons, all of whom had been warned in advance that the performance would be – you guessed it – offensive. The career of the late Lenny Bruce, who was arrested multiple times for “indecency,” serves as a backdrop for these, and other, tales.
The documentary's compelling central thesis is that social media has created an “outrage mob,” meaning that it's easier to share offensive material, but also easier for people to jump on whatever the day's bandwagon is. Can We Take a Joke? devotes a section to Justine Sacco, a woman with only a few Twitter followers who became a national pariah after tweeting what was intended to be a self-satiric joke about the fear of traveling to Africa and contracting AIDS. She received death threats and was fired by her employer because of public outrage. Balaker argues that ruining someone's life over a misconstrued joke is worse than the offense that triggered it.
The case studies presented are undeniably compelling. Everyone who is interviewed offers up cogent points about the danger of stifling free speech in the name of sensitivity. In this regard, it's an incredibly provocative film, forcing you to confront your own reaction to humor that you've found offensive. Should you, as Jim Norton suggests, simply get over it and move on, or should you try to prevent the offender from exercising their right to say what they want? Can We Take a Joke? serves a very useful function in stirring up this issue, which makes it both vital and entertaining.
At the same time, it kind of frustratingly leaves out a crucial fact: words matter. For instance, Gottfried famously made a joke at a Friar's Club event just days after 9/11. ("I have to leave early tonight. I have a flight to California. I can't get a direct flight — they said I have to stop at the Empire State Building first.") We can say that he was joking and that anyone who was offended should just accept that and move on. But when people are hurting as much as they were following the World Trade Center attacks, is such a comment really a joke, or is it plain old cruelty?
I suspect Can We Take a Joke? doesn't bring that up intentionally; it is, after all, trying to provoke thought. By and large, it does just that. Our society has become too sensitive, and when we're sensitive to everything, honest-to-goodness offensiveness becomes harder to spot. Anyone who thinks political correctness has run amok needs to see this film. Anyone who thinks it hasn't needs to see it even more.
( out of four)
Can We Take a Joke? is unrated, but contains examples of off-color humor. The running time is 1 hour and 14 minutes.
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