The Story Behind The New Documentary ‘Can We Take a Joke?’

It started with a comment from a comedian about playing on college campuses.

08/11/2016 12:26 pm ET | Updated Aug 11, 2016

Last week, we honored the 50th anniversary of the death of the late, great, iconoclastic comedian Lenny Bruce.

As older generations know, but the current one might not, Lenny Bruce was the last comedian in America to be sentenced to jail for jokes he made in a comedy club. Indeed, he was sentenced to four months in jail for telling jokes after midnight at the now-shuttered Cafe au Go Go in New York City. He fled to Los Angeles to avoid serving time. He died of a drug overdose on August 3, 1966 in the middle of an epic court battle to clear his name.

Last week also marks the official release of a documentary, of which I’m an executive producer, called Can We Take a Joke?. The film takes a humorous look at modern “outrage culture” and makes the argument that we can have either great comedy or a “right not to be offended”we simply can’t have both. It includes interviews with famous comedians like Penn Jillette, Gilbert Gottfried, Adam Carolla, Lisa Lampanelli and Karith Foster, as well as authors Jon Ronson and Jonathan Rauch, who talk about the interrelationship between comedy, free speech, social media, and the culture we create on America’s college campuses.

You can catch Can We Take a Joke? on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Instant Video. It is also available in 228 million North American homes via most cable and satellite providers, including Verizon, Comcast, and DirecTV.

The story of how the film came to be is a bizarre and winding road that begins, appropriately enough, at New York’s world-famous Comedy Cellar. The Comedy Cellar—where the list of previous performers is a Who’s Who in comedy—asked me to do a podcast way back in 2012 shortly after the release of my first book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. I was doing the podcast with a panel of comedians, and we were discussing the state of free speech on college campuses. Towards the end of the night, one of the comedians said that he didn’t like playing campuses anymore because he couldn’t use his best material—students found it too offensive.

The fact that you can get in trouble on campus for unpopular speech was not news to me. I’ve been working to defend free speech on campuses since 2001 and have been consistently horrified at how easy it is to get in trouble for what you say. But what was interesting about this particular comment was that the speaker was comedian Lee Camp, who described himself as “the most liberal speaker on the panel.” I wouldn’t be particularly surprised if, say, Adam Carolla or Bill Maher got in trouble on a campus; both are known for making the kind of remarks that upset college students. Camp’s candid statement, however, really grabbed my attention.

Inspired, we at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) decided to add a short educational film on the threats to comedy on campus to the list of videos we planned to work on with the great filmmaker Ted Balaker. After all, we had plenty of examples of students getting in trouble for comedy, satire, and parody.

At first, the film was only about 10 minutes long, but then we had the idea to talk to two lawyers we knew—the great Ron Collins and Bob Corn-Revere—who in 2003 had gotten Lenny Bruce posthumously pardoned in the state of New York. We wanted them to tell their story, tell the story of Lenny Bruce, and make the argument that, as far as we could tell, “Lenny Bruce would not survive five minutes on the modern campus.” I mean this in all sincerity. Lenny’s acts, which included the hurling of epithets in order to get people to understand that we have to stop letting words hurt us, pushed boundaries much further than the kind of stuff I see people get in trouble for on campus today. If you’d like to hear more about the trials of Lenny Bruce, check out the most recent episode of FIRE’s podcast, So to Speak: The Free Speech Podcast—Ron Collins is the featured guest.

With the addition of the Lenny Bruce content, we had half an hour of footage on our hands and no idea what to do with it. Enter Phil Harvey, co-founder and president of Adam & Eve, one of the world’s largest sex product companies, and president of DKT International, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing couples with affordable and safe options for family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention through social marketing. When I mentioned the idea of the film to Phil, he loved it. The next thing you know, Phil and Ted decided to work together to make our initially short video into a full-length documentary.

Watching the documentary come together over the last couple years has been nothing short of amazing. Filming interviews with some of my personal heroes, including Jonathan Rauch, was a wonderful experience. Getting well-known people like Penn, Gilbert, Lisa, Karith, and Jon Ronson to come on board was also exciting.

Since comedians are uniquely gifted at critiquing deeper issues within a culture, they are the perfect candidates to teach younger generations that without the freedom to challenge taboos, we would be left with a dreary kind of forced conformity. It was also interesting that as the film progressed, it seemed to become more relevant, not less. Indeed, the very same day we interviewed Penn Jillette, the Charlie Hebdo attacks were taking place in Paris. And just as we were completing the film, major comedians like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld made waves when they announced that they didn’t like playing on campuses anymore because the students are so uptight.

I’ve made no bones about the fact that Can We Take a Joke? is another of my attempts to “trick” people into learning about the philosophical principles that undergird freedom of speech. I say “trick” because I believe that far too few people know about or even care that much about freedom of speech, unless or until it’s their speech being censored.

So far, audiences have been raving about the film, giving it a 95% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, and the movie has soared as high as the number three documentary spot on iTunes. Several critics have noted that the movie doesn’t really present “the other side” and neglects to mention the unfortunate downsides of unfettered free speech, like Internet harassment. I find this criticism a little odd. The movie does, in fact, spend a great deal of time talking about how online harassment through “Twitter mobs” can genuinely ruin people’s lives. Indeed, we do a lengthy interview with Jon Ronson, the guy who literally wrote the book on the topic. The film also shows examples of speech that many viewers might not find at all sympathetic, including the universally hated Westboro Baptist Church. We are arguing that while free speech isn’t always pretty, it is valuable to know what people think, especially when it’s bad.

So, yes, much in the tradition of practically every successful documentary, from those of Michael Moore, to Blackfish, to Waiting for “Superman,” to Super Size Me, Can We Take a Joke? is a documentary with a strong point of view. Knowing that going in, I think you’ll find it both a funny and thoughtful defense of freedom of speech that could just as easily have been made to the people who saw Lenny Bruce arrested in the ‘60s as to audiences today.

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