J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Can We Take a Joke?: Losing Our Right to Laugh

In 2010, only 40% of incoming college freshmen agreed it was safe to hold unpopular opinions on campuses. When polled again as seniors four years later, only 30% agreed. That is terrifying, because it suggests future adults have been acclimatized to an environment without free speech. As a result, in a recent Pew survey 40% of millennials supported curbs on free speech on social justice warrior grounds. That is obscene. It is our rights they are willing to trade away, but it is comedians who are the canaries in the coal mine. Director Ted Balaker and a platoon of outspoken comics ask WWLBD or “what would Lenny Bruce do?” in the funny and alarming documentary Can We Take a Joke? (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

No comedian has been arrested on obscenity charges since Bruce’s 1964 trial in New York. His biographer and posthumous attorney readily point out the irony that the cops and politicians who once targeted Bruce would now respect his First Amendment rights, but he could never play college campuses today. Chris Lee is a case in point. Washington State University administrators actually recruited a mob to disrupt the staging of his gleefully tasteless campus production, Passion of the Musical. Now that’s obscene.

Some of stories of rampant political correctness are just plain ludicrous, like Gilbert Gottfried getting fired from his gig as the voice of the Aflac duck because of a joke about the Japanese tsunami. Seriously, what part of Gilbert Gottfried didn’t they understand? Obviously, they never saw him on the Comedy Central roasts. Clearly, Gottfried is not about to shut-up anytime soon. Indeed, he offers plenty of no holds barred commentary throughout the film, along with unintimidated colleagues, like Adam Carolla, Penn Jillette, Heather McDonald, and Jim Norton.

On the other hand, Justine Sacco remains in hiding, but her story clearly illustrates the point. She became the face of internet mob justice when she Tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” before boarding a plane. While she was offline, she was pilloried by the righteous (naturally led by Gawker) and fired by her employer, IAC (they own Tinder and Chelsea Clinton sits on their board of directors) without giving her a chance to tell her side of the story. That’s obscene. For the record, it was a bad joke, but it was meant to be satirical.

Indeed, this kind of political correctness deliberately deafens the masses to notions of context, which profoundly impoverishes the level of public discourse. The implications for a relatively free democracy are absolutely chilling.

There might be a little too much Lenny Bruce love slightly unbalancing Take a Joke, but its analysis is always spot on, particularly that of Greg Lukianoff, the president the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). It will make you offended by the professionally offended and outraged at kneejerk outrage. Timely but hopefully not too late, it also features a good deal of laughs (albeit often bitter ones). Highly recommended for free-thinkers as well as any Millennials not afraid of getting their feelings slightly bruised, Can We Take a Joke? opens this Friday (7/29) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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