“Can We Take A Joke?” explores the outrage culture against comedy on and off college campuses. It should be required viewing by everyone in this country, stat. (Just to be clear, I’m not the type of dude who says “stat,” but the stakes have never been higher.)
The film, which made its world premiere at the Doc NYC Comedy Festival in November, features Jim Norton, Gilbert Godfried, Lisa Lampanelli, and a host of other big-name comics giving their takes on the rise of joke shaming.
Why is it a must? For one, it’s hilarious, and two, it shows how our obsession with outrage has moved on from us comedians and is now hurting people like you, who had stable upbringings.
But the real eye-opener here is that the filmmakers had the ingenuous idea of giving comics, the people who actually know how to be funny, a voice in the debate over how comedy should function in 2015.
Comics Deserve Their Say
Think about it. You wouldn’t have a conference on redefining surgical procedures and only invite the guys in the waiting room, would you? Of course not. But somehow, this is exactly where we are in comedy in 2015. We’re letting the people who know the least about it influence the way it’s written and consumed.
Enter director Ted Balaker and The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), who shine a black light on the sleazy practice of claiming offense as a form of social currency. Along the way, they also explain that to reverse this God-awful trend we’re going to need help from a lot more than college kids.
That’s because although the outrage movement got its diversity wings on campuses, it only began to affect societal behavior when the social media mobs began to form. And form they did, usually after Godfried got done tweeting about a tragedy.
There are so many great comics in this film, but no one’s experience illustrates the growth of the outrage industry like Godfried’s, who was criticized for telling 9/11 jokes and fired for telling Japanese tsunami jokes. Was one more offensive than the other? I say no, but I’ll let you decide.
Post-9/11, he said: “I have to leave early tonight, I have to fly to L.A. I couldn’t get a direct flight. I have to make a stop at the Empire State building.”
Post-tsunami, he said: “I was talking to my Japanese real estate agent. I said, “Is there a school in this area?” She said, “Not now. But just wait.”
When Gilbert told the 9/11 joke three weeks after the tragedy at a Friar’s Roast of Hugh Hefner, the biggest price he paid was a man in the audience yelling “too soon.” (To his credit, Gilbert said he took the man’s comments to mean that he didn’t pause long enough between the setup and the punchline.)
No endorsements were lost, no boycotts were threatened, In fact, he actually landed a film role because, to get past the 9/11 joke, he launched into an old street joke called The Aristocrats, which went over so well that it helped inspire a film of the same name.
How Dare You Joke on Twitter
Fast-forward ten years to the Twitter age, and within minutes of Gilbert tweeting a joke, there was a massive campaign underway to have him fired by Aflac. Gilbert attributes this to nothing more than our need to have a “Villain of the Week.” Agree or disagree, the fact remains that he was fired two days after the tweet.
It was a stunning turnaround, but it was nothing compared to a story in the film about Justine Sacco, who lost her public relations gig while flying from New York to South Africa because of a tweet she posted right before she boarded the plane.
Sacco was finishing a layover at Heathrow Airport when she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get aids. Just kidding. I’m white.” Now, you might argue that, as a PR person, she should know better, but it would be hard to argue that anyone deserved what came next.
At the time she shut off her phone during boarding, Sacco had zero responses from her 170 Twitter followers. By the time she landed 11 hours later, she was the number-one trending topic on Twitter, the subject of a thousand death threats, and she was unemployed, all of which had happened unbeknownst to her.
Her company had caught wind of the scandal and tweeted a condemnation, revealing in the process that Sacco was unreachable because she was still in-flight. This touched off a hashtag called #HasJustineLandedYet that incited so much self-righteous glee that people began showing up to the airport to capture her reaction as she turned on her phone and learned the news.
It was grotesque, perverse, and nothing about it was funny. But enough about the new Adam Sandler movie, let’s get back to her story.
Sacco was immediately branded a racist by millions of people who never met her or had any background on her work in support of the African people. She came from a family of racial equality activists and her tweet was an attempt to expose the inequities of being black and white in Africa. But never mind all that, because the Twitter mob saw it as offensive, and there is only one sentencing guideline for the rage police, and that’s a firing.
Getting Offended Gives You Power
This, as the filmmakers point out, is where joke-shaming became a problem for all of us. To sort of quote the Beverly Hillbillies, “the next thing you know, old Jed is a racist.”
Why does the Twitter mob live to take jobs from people? Godfried says it gives them the validation that they know better than that week’s bad man. But Norton points out the darker truth that getting offended has become a form of currency, as it brings tons of attention, and ultimately helps the “victim” control the narrative of what gets said around them.
This, the film makes clear, is exactly what’s taking place on campuses nowadays. Someone makes a joke that’s deemed offensive, a shame campaign ensues, and its participants crush anyone who gets in the way of the mob. There is no point-counterpoint. There is only point-forced apology-resignation. Thus, freedom of speech has gone the way of the Cowboys’ playoff chances.
Adam Carolla mentions that the problem with all of this weaponized outrage is that nothing is ever done to help the “victims” once a shame campaign gets its payoff. He’s 1,000 percent right. If you don’t believe me, ask Cecil the lion’s buddies. You think anyone is handing out bulletproof vests to the lions now that we’re done trashing that Minnesota dentist?
But that’s the filthy little secret of this film: The more we claim to care about things on social media, the less we seem to be doing to physically help them. Remember that conversation we were going to have about race once they fired Don Imus for his “nappy headed hoes” riff? Never happened. The mob got their digital pound of flesh, accepted it as progress and moved on.
How many people joined Michelle Obama in tweeting to “bring back our girls” from Boko Haram, only to move onto the next slactivist cause without any progress being made (Michelle included)?
Millions of Twitter and Facebook users have recently put the French flag on their profile picture. Heck, even the MySpace users are putting it on their white vans. But very little, if anything, is being done to help victims.
That’s because in 2015, outrage, concern, and compassion are nothing more than accessories to one’s social media avatar. The sooner we realize this, the sooner jokes like the “offensive” ones in this film can go back to being what they were always meant to be: an escape from the horrors and frustrations of everyday life, a way to take the power away from our problems for a few seconds at a time.
Watch this film if you enjoy riotous laughter and support the open exchange of ideas. Avoid it if you think that, deep down, anyone on Twitter gives a flying f#@k about you or your protected class.