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‘Can We Take a Joke?’ New FIRE-Supported Film Examines Collision Between Comedy and Outrage

Earlier this year, comedian Chris Rock went on record saying he doesn’t play colleges anymore. It’s “not in [students’] political views,” Rock said, “but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. … You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.”

It’s not just college campuses, and it’s not just Chris Rock, however. Jerry Seinfeld, Patton Oswalt, and others have also noted the conflict between comedy, hypersensitivity, and political correctness on and off campus.

Bill Maher recently said, “Americans have got to learn how to take a joke.”

We at FIRE couldn’t agree more. That’s why we are proud to announce that we’ve partnered with DKT Liberty Project and director Ted Balaker of Korchula Productions to produce Can We Take a Joke?, a documentary about what happens when outrage and comedy collide.

Due for release this fall, the documentary will explore topics and cases familiar to many Torch readers, including the case of student Chris Lee, whose satirical play Passion of the Musical was disrupted by a group of students who had been organized by Washington State University administrators. It will also include interviews with FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff, long-time FIRE friend and Brookings Institution scholar Jonathan Rauch, and Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project attorney Bob Corn-Revere.

But what would a documentary about comedy be without the comedians?

Can We Take a Joke? has plenty of those, too. Adam Carolla, Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette, Jim Norton, Lisa Lampanelli, Heather McDonald, Karith Foster, and others sat down for interviews to offer their perspectives on the state of comedy and free speech—and to tell stories of their own run-ins with the outrage buzzsaw.

Interviewing Penn Jillette in Las Vegas for the film

The story of comedy legend Lenny Bruce is a major focus of the film. His career—and ultimately his life—ended because his routines led to obscenity charges in cities throughout the county.

It used to be the case that comedians like Lenny Bruce had to fear the police cracking down on their more edgy routines. But now, according to many comics, the audience has become the police—and its tolerance for jokes that push the boundaries is waning. It happens all the time: a comedian tells a joke, someone gets offended, and outrage blasts across the land.

These days some people seem more interested in being outraged than having a laugh.

Korchula Productions’ Ted Balaker and Zach Weissmueller with comedian Jim Norton

A release date for the film will come soon, so stay tuned. In the meantime, to learn more about the documentary, please “Like” the new Can We Take a Joke? Facebook page, follow the Can We Take a Joke? Twitter account, and sign up for email updates at the Can We Take a Joke? website.

Most of all, as Greg wrote earlier this week, “start getting psyched for what is turning out to be a riotously funny romp about the importance of both free speech and comedy at a time when they are sorely needed.”

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