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Can We Take A Joke?

Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Directed by Ted Balaker

Jul 28, 2016 Web Exclusive
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A group of comedians walk into a bar and tell some horribly offensive jokes. People don’t appreciate it and cry foul. A conversation about free speech does not follow; instead, it’s a series of condescending ramblings and angry retorts. Progress is not made.

This is Can We Take a Joke?, the new documentary from director Ted Balaker, which focuses on the perceived problem of society’s sensitivity. The argument at the center of the film is not something to be flippant about as the right to free speech is inherent and important even, or perhaps especially, when people say contrarian or outright challenging things. This movie is not a modern day version of Voltaire, however. Comedians like Adam Carolla, Lisa Lampanelli, Jim Norton and others spend their time lamenting about how easily people get offended by edgy and offensive material. They see it as their duties to push the envelope and engage when challenged. This is great. The problem arises when it comes to what is effectively communicated as the movie’s mission statement: freedom of speech should be unlimited with no exceptions. Norton in particular uses this notion to talk about how far ahead of the curve the United States is in this idea, where the rest of the world is participating in mass censorship.

Taking such a hard line, however, is akin to the behaviour from the overly sensitive public being depicted. Neither side wants to have a conversation. The film, unfortunately, just tells people to ‘suck it up and deal with it.’ This is not a constructive method of sharing ideas or creating a dialog. One example is French comedian Dieudonné who has been banned from performing in certain places, like Montreal, Canada. This is a very slippery slope, but the movie only looks at one side of it. The message is “let him perform” and deride him afterwards. There is an alternate look where cities or towns have the right to deny a platform for people to express views they feel are damaging or cemented in hate. The answer isn’t necessarily one way or the other, but Can We Take a Joke? doesn’t explore this societal issue with any depth or nuance.

The section dedicated to comedian Lenny Bruce is when the documentary hits its thesis strongest. Bruce was jailed for obscenity charges in the 1960s. Seeing it unfold on screen seems like another world, not just another time. No other part of the film showcases the perceived danger of ideas as well. Balaker and the comedians present seem to be warning about the possibility of returning to this type of atmosphere, and Dieudonné is used as a present example as he went to trial for condoning terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in 2015. While the comedians don’t agree with what he says, they defend his right to express his views.

That’s the problem with speculation. They suggest any regulation or restriction is the birth of 1984 into reality. Instead of exploring both sides with care and consideration, the film hand-waves real concerns and barrels through treating everyone who doesn’t agree as someone easily offended with nothing of substance to add to the discussion. Can We Take a Joke? is a movie for people who want their opinions parroted back to them.

Author rating: 3/10

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Average reader rating: 4/10


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