Sunday, August 14, 2016

"Can We Take a Joke?": review

"Can We Take a Joke?" is a documentary film directed by Ted Balaker and featuring insights from comedians Pen Jillette, Gilbert Gottfried, Adam Carolla, Lisa Lampanelli, Jim Norton, Heather McDonald, Karith Foster, and Christina Pazsitzky. Sponsored by FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), an organization that primarily defends the free-speech rights of university students and professors, the documentary explores the trouble that many standup comedians find themselves in, these days, as they face modern American "outrage culture," i.e., a culture in which people are easily offended by the sort of humor that used to be considered merely off-color. The film strongly contends that pro-free-speech liberalism from the Sixties, especially as pertains to Lenny Bruce and the cultural climate he created, has become a repressive monster that is now the ideological opposite of what it used to be. This problem is especially prevalent on college campuses, where students these days (often termed "crybullies" or "screaming campus garbage babies") will actually shout down people whom they consider to have opposing, or at least politically incorrect, points of view. The irony seems to be lost on these kids: university is supposed to be where a student confronts ideas that are foreign to him or her and debates them on the basis of their merits. College was, ostensibly, to be about a supposedly liberal value: the free exchange of ideas without fear of repression. Now, however, repression is the primary mode of interaction.

I found the documentary to be most enlightening, but a trip over to Metacritic shows that the film currently has a 49 score, indicating "mixed or average" reviews. Given that most movie critics for newspapers skew liberal, it's no surprise that they see the documentary as "biased" and "one-sided"—terms that surfaced repeatedly when I surveyed the various critical reviews of the film. I had to laugh: most documentaries skew wildly liberal—completely unashamed of their own bias—yet receive heaps of praise from this same journalistic establishment. A single not-so-liberal documentary shows up, and the critics execrate it, thereby proving how deaf they are to their own hypocrisy. Michael Moore, at least, has the honesty to make his agenda clear when he does his documentaries. He crafts his films according to that agenda, not according to any principle of objectivity. He has shown, in fact, that media people can safely and freely do away with any pretense of objectivity. Journalism, meanwhile, still labors under the delusion that its methods remain even-handed. The fact that this isn't true is one of the worst-kept secrets in American culture, and "Can We Take a Joke?" is just one attempt to declare that the emperor has no clothes, and that the self-delusion must end. If not—if a free exchange of ideas is no longer possible—the larger culture is doomed.

Personal note: it's an axiom among conservatives that "liberals eat their own." Based on what I've seen, I think this is very true. When Robin Williams died, there were video tributes to him that clearly showed his delight in making ethnic jokes. Many of the voices and impressions he did involved accents and utterances that were cartoonish distortions of the cultures he targeted. Quite a few liberals were vocal in posthumously bashing Williams for his perceived racism and bigotry—a charge that Williams himself would have responded to with confusion and hurt. I might not agree with Williams's politics, but I respect his liberal self-consistency in believing that there are no sacred cows, a comedian's doctrine that the great George Carlin also subscribed to. (Carlin mercilessly skewered conservatives, but he also famously targeted people on the left like environmentalists, users of politically correct language, and liberal race-baiters.) "Can We Take a Joke?" begins with a montage of comedians apologizing for having made offensive jokes that hurt the feelings of such-and-such demographics. The irony: these comedians are mostly liberals themselves. Liberals eat their own, and as several comedians in the documentary bitterly note, Lenny Bruce would not recognize today's America.


TheBigHenry said...

I was just "coming of age" when Lenny Bruce was in his comedic prime. And I also do not recognize today's America.

Dude, where's my country?

John Mac said...

Nice job with this Kevin. Agree completely with your assessment. It is indeed a sorry state of affairs and among the reasons why I have no desire to ever live again in the USA.