Comedy on campus is under threat, as more students choose comfort over openness and creativity. Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld have hit out at American colleges for being too “politically correct”. A new documentary about free speech and comedy, set for release this summer, seeks to amend this state of affairs.
Can We Take a Joke?, which features comedians and free speech advocates including Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette and Jim Norton, examines the link between comedy and outrage.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) partnered with DKT Liberty Project and director Ted Balaker of Korchula Productions to produce the film, which was originally released in November 2015. However, Samuel Goldwyn Films has now acquired the distribution rights to the film meaning it will be in cinemas across the USA this summer.
FIRE’s president and CEO Greg Lukianoff, who is featured in the film, said in a recent announcement: “I am absolutely thrilled about Samuel Goldwyn Films purchasing the rights to the documentary. I think everyone could use a reminder that you can either have a right to not be offended, or you can have good comedy, but you can’t have both. I hope every living person in this universe (and every other) goes to see it.”
Through interviews, Can We Take a Joke? gives viewers an insight into the perspectives of comedians and free speech advocates with the aim of showing the importance of free speech in the context of comedy.
Lukianoff told Index: “Far too many people today don’t value free speech as much as they should because they can’t imagine getting in trouble for what they say. But even if you don’t ever personally get into trouble for what you say, a world without free speech – a world with a right to not be offended – is a world without comedy.”
Ahead of its summer release, FIRE will be screening the film at 300 campuses across the USA between 13 April and 20 April, in partnership with political organisation Young Americans for Liberty. The hope is that the film will introduce many to new themes.
With universities in the UK and USA both facing criticism for no-platforming and protecting people from being offended rather than protecting academic freedom, Lukianoff believes it is important the film is shown on campus.
He told Index: “I think we as a society do a poor job of teaching students about the importance of freedom of speech, and I think Can We Take a Joke? is an entertaining and funny way to help them learn more about the history of comedy and the current situation on campus.”
I still laugh every time I think of the funniest thing I’ve ever said, even though it was about 18 years ago.
Trouble is, I can’t tell you what it was. It was in rather poor taste. It was of such you-had-to-be-there nature that there would be literally no point in repeating it, then explaining it, then justifying it, then eventually apologising because you know, honestly, you’re right, it was in poor taste.
It was still funny though.
Jokes are unbelievably precious things, which is why they’re taken so seriously. Aside from actual touching, the most intimate unguarded moments we have with people tend to involve laughter.
Which is what makes the whole idea of comedy kind of odd. We pay professionals to provide us with our moments of joy, of sheer unthinkingness.
But for all the rapture of laughter, jokes are also extremely complicated, and mired in context. Like music, there comes the inevitable point where one decides that what one thinks is funny is funny, and what isn’t isn’t. What isn’t, is usually what comes after one’s own peak of interest.
So, everyone knows that the first nine or ten series of the Simpsons were solid comedy gold.
By everyone, I mean, for the most part, males between 32 and 45, who can easily bond over Simpsons quotes at otherwise awkward parties.
For many, Seinfeld performs the same function, an infinite mine of references and in-jokes. It’s a show I came to a bit late, and I can sometimes shout “No soup for you” and get a laugh, but my heart’s not quite in it in the same way as when I make the Sideshow-Bob-stepping-on-a-rake noise.
Still, Jerry Seinfeld is part of my comedy world, his comedy part of a particular golden age of 90s US sitcom that as well as the Simpsons and Seinfeld, spawned Friends and Frasier (less cultishly adored, perhaps, but very successful) and a host of less impressive impersonations.
Jerry Seinfeld, in comedy terms, is still important.
So it was of note when he recently told a US chat show that “PC” culture made him wary of playing university campuses.
Seinfeld gave the example of a joke about people’s obsession with staring at their smartphones: “They don’t seem very important, the way you scroll through (your phone) like a gay French king.”
The comic suggested that he could feel the audience’s nervousness about the deployment of the word “gay” in the gag. “[C]omedy is where you can feel an opinion. And they thought, ‘What do you mean gay? What are you talking about gay? What are you doing? What do you mean?’”
I feel some sympathy with Seinfeld here. We all know the feeling when a line we thought was perfectly good just drops, clangingly, to the floor and then through it, to hell: the feeling must be magnified a thousand times when you are used to getting laughs, and when getting laughs is what you do for a living.
But honestly, I also kind of feel for the crowd. Jokes about people staring at their phones do not really constitute cutting-edge humour in 2015. In fact, Seinfeld’s joke provokes approximately the same melancholy as the phrase “Brand new Simpsons” (“Homer has an argument with FKA Twigs on Twitter! This is going to be brilliant!”), turning us all into Comic Book Guy (“Worst. Topical reference. Ever.”)
But is Seinfeld entirely wrong? There is probably some truth in the idea that so-called “social justice activists” are a little too keen on policing speech, and not massively enthusiastic on the mildly transgressive nature of comedy of the type Seinfeld deals in.
There is also the more basic point that people are more forgiving of people they like. It’s possible that, say, the universally-adored Amy Poehler could have made the same joke and got a different response. But then, would she have made the same joke? Unlikely. Much like his PC complaint, it has a bit of an Old Man Yells At Cloud feel about it (See? Simpsons references are great).
Every so often (roughly generationally) there are upheavals in mores and language. We’re on that cusp now. When I was younger, the battle was to stop people saying words like “coloured” (and much, much, worse) and move on to “black”. Now, we’re moving towards “People of Colour” [POC]. This isn’t a tearful lament for the good old days when “gay” meant “carefree” and no one really thought about who Larry Grayson slept with. I retain just enough self-awareness to avoid that. And besides, it’s a ridiculous lie. No one tuning into the BBC’s Round The Horne in the 1960s, for example, was under any illusion about Polari-spouting Julian and Sandy’s references and double entendre. Much of the delight for many listening was a glimpse into the previously closed (criminalised) world of gay subculture, recently brought into the light in the debates following the Wolfenden report, which had recommended a relaxing of anti-gay laws.
The problem that the likes of Seinfeld and me, a bit, have is that we resent the implication we’re wrong when we think we are, at very worst, out of step. We (I’m sure Jerry won’t mind me speaking for him here), believe we’re pretty much good people. And people should know we’re good people. Jerry Seinfeld is sure people should know he’s not homophobic, so is a bit freaked out when people get uncomfortable with him using certain words in certain contexts. But not everyone does know him, and not everyone is totally on board. Is their disapproval censorious?
Probably a bit, yes. In the same way yours would be if I told you the funniest thing I’d ever said. And, I suspect, as I would be if you told me about the things you and your closest friends laughed longest and loudest about. Funny is about how and when and who with. Comedy is all about…timing.