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D: Ted Balaker / 75m

Narrator: Christina Pazsitzky

With: Jim Norton, Lisa Lampanelli, Gilbert Gottfried, Karith Foster, Penn Jillette, Heather McDonald, Christopher Lee, Noam Dworman, Greg Lukianoff, Jonathan Rauch, Adam Carolla, Jon Ronson

They say that humour is subjective, that what one person finds funny is likely to leave another person unmoved. But what if a joke is deemed offensive? And what if that joke, or comment, is deemed so offensive that the person making the joke is condemned by an audience member, or perhaps the whole audience, or worse still, thousands (perhaps millions) of social media users? How does that work, and why is it happening so often in the United States? Why has free speech come under so much threat, and why is one person’s idea of free speech more important than someone else’s? Why, in short, are so many people now quick to be or feel offended?

This is the central conundrum of Can We Take a Joke?, a documentary that explores the notion that if you tell a joke that’s offensive, and someone takes offence against that joke, then they’re right to do so, and it’s the comedian’s fault for stepping over the line – deliberately or not. It seems outrage is all the rage now, as jokes have to pass a kind of cultural litmus test of what’s acceptable and what’s not. And woe betide you if you’re the one stepping over that line, because you will be pilloried. And don’t think that you’ll find support from the liberals in America, because in reality, they’ve become even more stringent than the conservatives. What’s a comedian to do? The answer’s easy: keep on doing what you’re doing.

The movie takes us back to the early Sixties and the rise to prominence of Lenny Bruce, the godfather of modern comedy. Bruce was uncompromising and he regularly skewered the fascist tendencies of a heirarchy that ensured the police were in attendance at his shows, waiting to arrest him if he said anything the authorities deemed offensive or inflammatory or obscene. The point here is that no one in the audience at a Lenny Bruce gig ever complained or said they were outraged or offended. The end result of Bruce’s several arrests? Since then, not one comedian has been arrested for being offensive, inflammatory or obscene. Progress, then. Except, as Can We Take a Joke? shows, in the years since, there has been a sea change, a growing reluctance by some people to accept that comedians can, and will, use offensive material in their routines.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t ask why this has happened. It makes the point – and it’s rightly a bit of a blow to realise – that some audiences are now less tolerant of political satire, or attacks on sexist and racist attitudes, or just about anything that they don’t like. And they are increasingly vocal about it, whether they’re heckling performers (sometimes they’re organised, as at a college show that was advertised as deliberately offensive), or taking to social media outlets such as Facebook and/or Twitter in order to make their intolerance known. The movie shows just how pervasive this intolerance can be through the restrictions put on comedians when they do campus gigs – some, like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld won’t perform at campuses because they have to self-censor their material – and the unfortunate tale of Justine Sacco, who in 2013 tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She tweeted this while at Heathrow Airport, then turned off her mobile phone. Eleven-and-a-half hours later, she arrived in South Africa, turned her mobile back on, and discovered that her tweet had generated enough online outrage that she lost her job.

Sacco’s tweet was clearly ill-considered, but the sheer scale of the backlash against her was also clearly disproportionate. So why is comedy targeted in this way, and why do the complainers and the outraged respond with such venom? Again, the movie doesn’t have an answer. What it does have is a roster of comedians who are recognised for their use of offensive material in their acts. The movie’s quick to make the point: what do audiences expect if they go to see comedians like Lisa Lampanelli or Gilbert Gottfried? These are comedians who are renowned for the offensive nature of their material, for the challenging, uncomfortable mirror they hold up to the rest of society. And they’re condemned for doing so, and all because it seems that modern audiences have no idea about context, or perversely, won’t tolerate the idea of free speech if it goes against their own ideas about what’s funny and what isn’t.

So, with the battle lines drawn, what’s a comedian to do? The answer appears to be, go on the offensive (no pun intended). None of the interviewees are prepared to back down, and some, like comedian and podcaster Adam Carolla are actively attempting to challenge the anti-free speech brigade while continuing to engage in the kind of comedy routines that are likely to rile said brigade in the first place. There’s a hint that Carolla is just as militant in his opinions as the people who take exception to offensive jokes or routines or shows. But the movie skirts round this particular possibility, and provides a succession of comic talking heads who espouse their own distaste with the people who don’t like their material. There’s an irony here that seems lost on director Balaker and his production team, and which allows for a certain amount of mirth as we see nominally thick-skinned comedians criticise the people who criticise them.

In the end, the movie asks a lot of questions, makes several relevant points, provides a few clever insights (mostly thanks to author and activist Jonathan Rauch), but lacks both balance and answers. That the movie lacks balance isn’t necessarily a negative, as it’s clear that Can We Take a Joke? is intended as a riposte to the very hyperbolic hysteria that seems to follow in the wake of offensive material being aired. That it doesn’t offer the “other side” a voice is likely to upset some viewers, but the idea that a fair-minded approach should be mandatory in documentaries is ridiculous; how would any debate on any issue ever get started? And as for answers, the movie’s relatively short running time and plethora of questions doesn’t allow for too many answers, and those that it includes are all from the comedians getting to air their views unchallenged.

If there is one answer that the movie does accept (and wholeheartedly at that) is the one to its title. That answer is definitely: no. But if it’s no because tastes have changed, or because society is less tolerant of so-called taboo subjects (for some reason), or because of some hidden agenda within society itself – well, these are the questions that aren’t addressed but could have been. The movie’s one over-riding consensus is that offensive comedy is good and venomous criticism is bad. This may be true (if a little trite), but then we’re back to the same point made at the beginning of this review: that humour is subjective, and that will always be the case.

Rating: 7/10 – a documentary that has a tendency to waste too much of its short running time on repeating the same claims re: the necessity for offensive comedy, Can We Take a Joke? is nevertheless a caustic response to those who feel it isn’t; by accepting that there is a need (though without explaining why), the movie doesn’t always do justice to the questions it asks, but as a platform for debate, it’s much more successful.