Can We Take A Joke?


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Can We Take A Joke
"It's not that there's no value to Balaker's argument, rather that the elision of alternative viewpoints and seriously challenging material undermines it and makes it look naive."

How much do you value free speech? A good deal of speech, these days, is spent on debating this. With its impressive list of contributors, which ranges from Gilbert Gottfried and Heather McDonald to Bob Corn-Revere and Pen Jillette, one might expect Ted Balaker's documentary to be one of the more incisive contributions on the topic, but, whilst it's impressively produced, it focuses so hard on making its point that it overlooks the nuances that make the subject interesting.

The old line about how you can say anything you like as long as it's funny is often repeated here, and it makes a valid point, but one which is underexplored. Part of the problem with this film is that pretty much all the comedy we see in it is funny. Since that's essentially subjective, let's qualify: the humour here is intelligent, sophisticated, astute in as far as it goes. A discussion about the appropriateness of rape jokes, for instance, is illustrated with a joke that mentions the subject but whose target is racial stereotyping. That's a world away from jokes that target rape victims, and it's a whole lot easier to accept the argument that nothing should be off limits when we don't actually see any material that's targetting the vulnerable or kicking down. The absence of such material also removes the difficulty of distinguishing between offence and harm - words that merely upset people and words that can endanger their safety. It's fine to say sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me until the words in question are being used to direct somebody to throw sticks and stones.

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In considering this, it's worth remembering that the US has no real concept of hate speech in its laws. Internationally, this puts it in an almost unique positions, and it means that this film is likely to play very differently inside and outside its borders. It's not that there's no value to Balaker's argument, rather that the elision of alternative viewpoints and seriously challenging material undermines it and makes it look naive. This is unfortunate given that there is very little said in it which is directly problematic, and much of the interview material is itself both entertaining and smart. Overall, the film is very well produced and, were one unfamiliar with the subject it might come across as an excellent piece of work.

Balaker's history of the censorship of US comedy is affectionately delivered and, though somewhat slight, interesting throughout. His survey of recent incidents is better than average and points up the particular problems faced by young comedians apt to blunder as they find their feet, as opposed to making the usual mistake of focusing on people so offended about not having a voice on college campuses that they rant about it at length in national newspapers. The young people interviewed here are articulate but not too much so, letting us see the slight clumsiness that makes them vulnerable. There's also a short section about the damage that can be done when vast numbers of people turn against joke-makers on social media, though this becomes problematic when it implies that certain kinds of speech ought to be protected but the speech of the mob, of the dreaded Twitter users, oh no.

Therein lies the rub. Very few people are comfortable with completely free speech, including most comedians, and there's a tendency for people to confuse free speech with speech that has no consequences, that can't be criticised. The latter difficulty is pointed up here early on but then ignored for the rest of the film. This makes it all too easy to maintain the illusion that free speech can exist in the real world as well as conceptually, as if it were perfectly spherical and operating in a vacuum. In the real world you can say what you like, but if you say only what suits your case, you might miss the punchline.

Reviewed on: 23 Jul 2016
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Can We Take A Joke? packshot
An exploration of outrage culture through the lens of stand-up comedy.

Director: Ted Balaker

Starring: Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette, Adam Carolla, Jim Norton, Heather McDonald, Lisa Lampanelli, Chris Lee

Year: 2015

Runtime: 74 minutes

Country: US


DOC NYC 2015

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