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Producer Ted Balaker said, “There has always been outrage, but now with technology, we can supercharge outrage.”

Anthem Film Fest: Help Me, Obi Penn Jillette – You’re My Only Hope

Producer Ted Balaker said, “There has always been outrage, but now with technology, we can supercharge outrage.”

Heather McDonald
Heather McDonald and Courtney Balaker working on ‘Can We Take a Joke?’

How our society can deal with the environment of continuous anger was the focus of the Anthem Film Festival panel: “How Comedy Can Save Us from Outrage Culture and Censorship,” July 9 in Las Vegas. The session also featured a sneak peak of Balaker’s upcoming film, Can We Take a Joke?

The Film

Currently in post-production, Can We Take a Joke? presents comedians talking about the anti-humor, anti-sexuality attitude raging on campuses, and extending out to the rest of the world through the Twitterverse. The preview of the film showed how Lenny Bruce was persecuted in the 1960s just for using profanity in his stand-up act. His efforts opened up society to a more wide-ranging and adult exchange of ideas. Now, the film argued, a generation later, society seems to be slipping back to a new puritanism and era of censorship.

Penn Jillette
Penn Jillette being interviewed by Ted Balaker for ‘Can We Take a Joke?’

The film features interviews with Penn Jillette, Gilbert Gottfried, Jim Norton, Lisa Lampanelli, Heather McDonald and Karith Foster and shares their encounters with the “outrage machine.”

The Discussion

The panel was moderated by Can We Take a Joke? director Ted Balaker. Panel members included producers Courtney Balaker and Zach Weissmueller, and author Greg Lukianoff, who is president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Weissmueller agreed with Ted Balaker about “supercharged outrage.”

“The outrage mob works a certain way,” he explained. “It was bad back in Lenny Bruce’s day that there was a police officer in the back of the nightclub where he was performing waiting to arrest him for saying a certain word. But what we have now is a combination of private and corporate censorship which is much worse.”

Weissmueller cited an example involving comedian Amy Schumer who got in trouble because she told a “Mexican joke.” ”It follows a pattern,” he said. “One or two bloggers start writing about ‘the offending incident’. It gets some traction, so some bigger sites pick it up and start writing about it. Typically, the comedian will stand strong for a while, but then the story gets picked up by the main stream media. The Washington Post or someone will run an OpEd connecting the joke to, for instance, the Charleston shootings. Then a press release comes out which has been deeply massaged by a PR person saying how sorry the comedian is. Then we move on to the next cycle.”

Ted Balaker lamented that even Amy Schumer buckled. “We want our comedians not to buckle,” he said.

Courtney Balaker argued that more action was needed. “It’s one thing for Jerry Seinfeld or others to tweet out their feelings. It’s another thing to take a stand on a platform. To take the time to attach yourself to a movement. That’s a bigger stand.” She acknowledged that comedians take a risk in doing this. “They can lose jobs, corporate gigs and shows, but people are beginning to respond. Because of a joke, Gilbert Gottfried lost his job as the Aflac duck, but he would not apologize.”

Lukianoff added, “Yes, and Gottfried nailed it. He said what people are really doing when they engage in this public outrage is saying, ‘Look at me. I’m offended, so I’m a good person.’”

Ted Balaker and Greg Lukianoff at Anthem Film Festival.
Ted Balaker and Greg Lukianoff at Anthem Film Festival.

Ted Balaker suggested that free speech was more than just a law, it was a cultural asset.

Lukianoff said that college students may actually be unlearning liberty and the first amendment. “The kind of stuff that can get you in trouble for on a college campus is incredible because they are missing the cultural underpinnings that support free speech such as hearing people out and not assuming you know everything.” He recommended the book Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Rauch. “Even though it was written in 1995, it anticipated the problems were having today.”

Courtney Balaker brought up “The Aloha Incident.” Balaker said, “Cameron Crowe apologized and I was really disappointed. He was criticized for casting Emma Stone in his movie Aloha as a character who was half-Asian. This created a storm in the Asian community because he didn’t cast an Asian actor. But the person upon which the character was based had red hair, and that made her feel isolated from the Asian community. It was an important plot point, but that shows how afraid people are of being tagged racist or homophobic.”

Courtney Balaker
Courtney Balaker and Zach Weissmueller discussing comedy.

The panelists agreed that one of the biggest dangers to the first amendment were proposed “hate speech” laws. Lukiannoff cited the incident in Ireland where a Belfast preacher gave an angry sermon about Islam. “He was arrested,” Lukianoff said, “in Belfast for giving a Catholic viewpoint on people slaying members of his own faith.”

Weissmueller concurred, saying, “We should not give an inch when it comes to free speech. Hate laws are always the first step, and the slippery slope is built in.”

Lukianoff said, “The way to make the protection of free speech more of a mass movement is to get the comedians involved because kids respect the comedians. The thing that should happen when someone says they’re offended is to say, ‘Noted, but what’s your argument?’”

Seeing the Film

Balaker explained that Can We Take a Joke? is not yet in distribution. “You can keep up with what’s happening with the film and the issue,” he said, “by signing up on our mailing list at or checking our Facebook page. Questions about the film can also be sent to [email protected] or Tweeted to @korchula.”

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About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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