Fighting Back in the War on Comedy

November 10, 2015

By Karith Foster at New York Post

By now we’re all pretty well versed in the War on Drugs, the War on Terror and, more recently, the War on Christmas. But there’s a new war on the horizon, ladies and gentlemen — the War on Comedy.

I’d like to explain this using sarcasm, but that might be misconstrued, or worse yet, found offensive. Which is exactly the issue at hand. Humor is under attack, and the battleground is the unlikeliest of places, once thought to be the last bastion of true liberalism and ground zero for freedom of speech: the college campus.

A student at Washington State University was heckled by a mob of students paid by university administrators to disrupt his satirical play. In another case, the student newspaper at the University of Alabama was forced to apologize for using the satirical “thanks Obama” meme to mock the football team’s loss to Auburn in an editorial cartoon.

And this week we saw Yale students erupt over the suggestion that mildly offensive Halloween costumes be tolerated in the spirit of the day.

Do we have so few serious issues to garner our attention that we must look for something — anything — to be outraged about, aka #firstworldproblems? Is it an issue of misplaced altruism? Or are the members of this new generation of millennials a bunch of pampered, over-coddled wusses who George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce would be ashamed of?

This topic is the inspiration for the film “Can We Take a Joke?” which has its world premiere in New York City on Friday as part of the DOC NYC film festival. It also coincides perfectly with the 11th Annual New York Comedy Festival. (God made that happen.)

A friend and I joked that the abridged version of the film would be a plethora of comedians simply saying, “NO!”

The actual film is a more introspective version containing interviews from Foundation for Individual Rights in Education President and CEO Greg Lukianoff, free-speech champion Jonathan Rauch, “Twitter mob” critic and bestselling author Jon Ronson and, of course, comedians themselves: Gilbert Gottfried, Lisa Lampanelli, Penn Jillette and many more who share their views on this current ambush on their art, their creativity and their livelihood.

I also get to weigh in. In the course of my career in entertainment, I’ve migrated from stand-up comedian to a humorist who focuses more on writing. While I haven’t completely put down the mic, my concentration has been on using the skills I honed in comedy for something equally profound — empowerment engagement speaking with a focus on diversity and inclusion.

Sound humorless? On the contrary!

There’s simply no way to tackle such fraught topics as diversity and inclusion without using humor — despite what you might think by watching Yale. Without question this approach puts my clients at ease, subdues defensiveness and, most importantly, creates a safe space for people to express themselves and absorb the message. Yes, I said “safe space” — because it’s important to point out that comedy itself is what creates, rather than invades and disrupts, such spaces.

So for all of the civilians (that’s what we comedians call non-comedians) who don’t see the true value in comedy, I ask you to look at the history of comedy. For centuries it has often been the only legal and effective form of political criticism. Those who spoke out against government could be tried for treason — all but the court jester.

Comedy isn’t just something that makes people laugh so you can forget about your woes for an hour or so. Comedy is an art form — the most vulnerable, cathartic art form that exists. It’s a powerful tool used by some of the most brilliant minds on this planet to shed light on a vast array of serious issues and injustices.

Comedy’s beautiful, intricate design operates on so many levels. It can give you a chuckle while making you uncomfortable and pushing the boundaries.

This is how society evolves and how we grow and learn to be better human beings. So for this reason I beg you to put on your armor, defend your funny bone to the death and, yes — learn to take a joke.