Can We Take a Joke, a new documentary by director-producer team Ted and Courtney Balaker, won the “FreedomFest Grand Prize” and “Excellence in Filmmaking, Documentary Feature” awards at the Anthem Film Festival, part of FreedomFest, July 13-16 at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. These will not be the only awards this amazing film wins.
The film examines the “outrage culture” common on many campuses and even comedy clubs today and the impact it has on free speech. I had seen the trailer and a preview and was expecting a mildly amusing compilation of comedians complaining about how people dislike their politically incorrect jokes. The complaining comics were there, but the film was so much more than that.
It documents the attacks on humor as an aspect of free speech, starting with Lenny Bruce and George Carlin in the 1960s, and takes it up to the present. It combines historical and new footage, to show the impact of the anti-free-speech forces. Lenny Bruce’s tragic life story is intertwined with attacks being launched against outspoken comics today. If you don’t know who Lenny Bruce is, you should see the film just for his story.
The film illuminates the irony that the people who demanded free speech for Lenny Bruce in the 1960s come from the same societal/political camp that demand today’s funny people be silenced. Comedians who speak out in the film include Penn Jillette, Adam Carolla, Gilbert Gottfried, Lisa Lampanelli, Heather McDonald, Karith Foster, and Jim Norton.
During the question-and-answer session after the screening of the film at Anthem, director Ted Balaker and producer Courtney Balaker were joined by comedian Chris Lee, who has been continuing Lenny Bruce’s battle against the word police.
Part of the film documented Lee’s activities while a student at Washington State University. As his final student project in psychology, he decided to put on a show. “I wanted to put on a show that was so offensive to everyone,” Lee explained, “that they would have to talk about the things that were important to them.”
I saw less than five minutes of the show that was included in Can We Take a Joke and I was offended. Good job, Chris. NOTE: I did not throw a chair at the screen.
Lee did not just face the “outrage mob” figuratively, he faced a real mob.
At WSU, the university administration organized and encouraged various student groups to come in and disrupt Lee’s show. Even when the police showed up, they didn’t stop the demonstrators.
“Protesters were yelling, ‘I’m going to kill you,’ and still the police did nothing,” Lee recalled. The WSU police – at the instruction of the administration, we must assume – continued to do almost nothing even though protesters surrounded performers and threatened their property and persons with physical violence.
An audience member at Anthem asked Lee, who now does stand-up comedy, if there had been any long-term repercussions of the WSU incident.
“Universities will hire me as the bad guy,” Lee said. “They even put things in the contract that say I will be removed from the stage as soon as the students get angry. But it’s OK, I already have the check by then.”
“Colleges will bring in controversial performers like me and try to set up a confrontation,” Lee explained. “It’s been eleven years since the WSU incident. They still call me the ‘Black Hitler.’ Why can’t I just be the regular Hitler?”
Director Ted Balaker summed up the situation for the Anthem audience.
“This is a crucial time for free speech,” he said. “We are reaching peak crazy. There are two possible outcomes. We get trampled or the rest of us wake up and start fighting the people who are trying to stifle free speech. America, as has often been the case, is again the last best hope for free speech.”
Balaker admonished the audience to take action: “Talk to your friends. Go out and shake them by the shoulders to get them to pay attention. Remind them that Lenny Bruce’s legacy is not only about comedy, but about free speech as well.”
Can We Take a Joke opens theatrically on July 29 and will be available on VOD August 2. Preorders can be placed on iTunes now. In closing, Balaker pointed out that August 2 is one day before the 50th anniversary of the death of Lenny Bruce, “the hero of our film.”