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Can Millennials Take a Joke?

Or is “offensive comedy” just outdated?

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In the spring of 2005, a Washington State University theater major named Christopher Lee wrote, directed, and starred in a play that, he says, “was specifically designed to offend everyone.” The Passion of the Musical was a satirical reimagining of the last two days in the life of Jesus Christ; Lee cast himself as Satan. The playwright had painstakingly ensured that no marginalized social group — women, gay people, black people, Latinos, AIDS patients — was spared from his mockery. According to one reviewer, The Passion contained a scene in which “newborn babies were shot onto the stage, apparently from a Mormon mother’s offstage womb, and Jesus, like a good outfielder, caught all 16 of them.” One musical number, set to the tune of Whitney Houston’s biggest hit, was called “I Will Always Hate Jews.” “The whole point was to show people we’re not that different, we all have issues that can be made fun of,” Lee said at the time. He later added, “I want to write something that makes people go, ‘Yeah, that was hilarious,’ or they’re so mad that they go, ‘I’ll tell you why my religion is important,’ or why women’s rights [are] important.”

Unsurprisingly — how ever did you guess?! — The Passion did not provoke this kind of thoughtful, civilized dialogue. Instead, mobs of protesters heckled the show so loudly that the audience could barely follow the plot. During one performance, two actors, fearing for their safety, ran out of the theater in the middle of the show. The cops were called, and when they arrived they were so offended by the play that they warned Lee not to continue lest he incite a riot. Depending on what you think it was trying to prove about human nature and the charged environment of the modern college campus, Lee’s social experiment was either a horrific failure or a resounding success.

Perhaps the only thing we can all agree on is that it was pretty prophetic. If you’ve been following any of the recent controversies about college students, identity politics, and so-called “political correctness,” the clash over The Passion will seem like just another Tuesday on campus. At universities, we’re told, students now call for trigger warnings to be affixed to classic literature and provocative words to be banned from classrooms. Speakers and musicians who have questionable pasts (or even questionable lyrics) are routinely barred from speaking or performing on campus thanks to student-organized petitions. This dynamic extends far beyond the campus wars, though: On the internet, representatives of dominant social groups, races, and genders are often told to “check their privilege,” and in a lot of online communities, “white dude” has become a derogatory insult, if not an outright punch line. This charged atmosphere has produced a backlash from two groups of people who rarely agree on anything: conservatives and famous comedians, who believe that sensitivity to offense is stifling free speech in comedy. Chris Rock told New York magazine last year that he now avoids performing at college campuses because he finds them too “conservative”: “Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody.” Jerry Seinfeld has been one of the most outspoken anti-PC comedians, and last June he gave an interview in which he condemned the critics of so-called offensive comedy. “They just want to use these words,” he said. ‘“That’s racist. That’s sexist. That’s prejudice.’ They don’t even know what they’re talking about.”

Christopher Lee’s saga is one of many stories recounted in a new documentary called Can We Take a Joke?, directed by Ted Balaker, which interrogates our culture’s supposed obsession with political correctness and censorship in the world of comedy. The movie begins with a montage of news footage showing recent, televised apologies: A solemn Jimmy Kimmel stands at a press conference atoning for a joke that included the line, “kill everyone in China.” Jonah Hill asks Tonight Show viewers to forgive him for, in a video circulated by TMZ, getting angry and calling a paparazzo a “faggot.” Fashion Police cohost Giuliana Rancic apologizes for the remark she made about Zendaya’s dreads at the 2015 Oscars. Placed back to back to back, the formulaic nature of these apologies — whether they’re sincere or not — becomes clear; we’ve just as quickly come to expect the celebrity apology as we’ve become strangely desensitized to it.

Lenny Bruce (Getty)
Lenny Bruce (Getty)

This culture of apology isn’t just limited to comedy, though. Earlier this year, Kanye West tweeted a much-quoted line lamenting the dearth of contemporary rappers who were bold enough to risk offending: “I miss that DMX feeling.” If Balaker were to write his own version of this nostalgic refrain, it would go, “I miss that Lenny Bruce feeling.” Bruce, the pioneering and provocative comic who basically invented modern stand-up as we know it, hovers over Can We Take a Joke? like a patron saint. Bruce certainly did his fair share of suffering for his art; in the early ’60s, he was arrested on obscenity charges over a dozen times and was embroiled in what’s now seen as a landmark free-speech case, one that continued past his death by overdose at age 40. Still, Bruce was a trailblazer because of the self-deprecatingly autobiographical nature of his work, and part of his genius was that he was able to work his legal troubles into his act in a way that made authority figures and his detractors appear absurd. In 1961, shortly after he was arrested in San Francisco for saying the word “cocksucker” on stage, he told a crowd, “They said it was vernacular for a favorite homosexual practice. A 10-letter word … You know what the word is. It’s weird how they manifested that word as homosexual, ’cause I don’t. That relates to any contemporary chick I know … or would know, or would love, or would marry.”

“Lenny Bruce would not last a minute on the modern college campus,” Greg Lukianoff, the CEO of a free-speech advocacy group, says in the documentary. A chorus of talking heads vehemently agrees. But that’s probably because there’s not a whole lot of variety of perspective and opinion in the comics who were interviewed for the film: Jim Norton, Adam Carolla, Gilbert Gottfried, and Lisa Lampanelli all to some extent represent the type of established, abrasive, midlevel comedian who has always argued vehemently for doing and saying anything, regardless of who ends up the butt of the joke. But for all the boldness of their arguments in favor of offensive comedy, their commentary — and the film itself — crackles with the anxiety that this perspective is quickly going out of fashion.

Another campus, another controversy: Sal Rodriguez — a lanky student comedian with (if I’m being very generous) a Mitch Hedberg–esque affect — performed his act at a 2012 show at Reed College.

“Women who go to college have a tendency to major in fields like women’s studies and English,” he says at one point. “And those women in women’s studies, sociology, and other useless fields, they will spend their useless academic careers bitching about the lack of women in math and science.”

A female heckler shouts, “Fuck you!” Rodriguez, claiming to be upholding the age-old comedy club rule that anyone who heckles a show is asking to be heckled back, calls her a “fucking loudmouth cunt.” The young woman then storms the stage and takes the mic from Rodriguez’s hands. “Women aren’t in math and science fields because of fucked up male mentorships,” she yells, her voice shaky. “You wanna hear that shit?” Then she screams in Rodriguez’s face, “Sit the fuck down!”

Trevor Noah (Getty)
Trevor Noah (Getty)

In some sense, this profanity-laden shouting match is a pretty accurate representation of what happens on the internet every day, in our cultural moment of offense and outrage. Think of the controversy surrounding Trevor Noah’s old tweets, or even the rather extreme #CancelColbert hashtag that emerged when the Colbert Report Twitter account, in the voice of “Stephen Colbert,” tweeted, out of context, a joke that offended some Asian viewers. There’s no doubt that the billions of tiny megaphones created by the internet amplifies the cacophony of outrage, though this energy often fails to produce anything more than a bunch of noise. Jia Tolentino analyzed this phenomenon last year in a sharp essay called “No Offense,” which called into question the futility and the psychic energy-suck of performing conscientious outrage all the time. The stakes, in so many of those cases, are low; the so-called outrage mob preaches to the choir, tunes out nuance, and often fails to incite real, productive change.

If a group of people is morally right but also a little extreme and obnoxious in the way they go about proving that, though, does that negate their viewpoint entirely? Is the girl who raises her shaky voice in the crowd inherently less important than the guy on stage with the microphone — and does this dynamic change at all when she throws his own aggression back in his face? Can We Take a Joke? is not brave or incisive enough to touch any of these questions with a 10-foot pole. Balaker does not risk interviewing any of the people who were actually offended by these jokes, and in omitting their perspectives he misses a huge opportunity to start an intelligent, nuanced, two-sided dialogue about offense in comedy. The heckler is made to look hysterical and villainous, and her worldview is not taken seriously; that we agree with Rodriguez — and the documentary’s cast of relatively old-school comics — is taken for granted.

Though it does raise some good, thought-provoking points, in the end this film is too one-sided — and that’s a shame. Christopher Lee’s dream that comedy can lead people to rationally explain to others who disagree with them is a tad idealistic, but we’ll certainly never get there if we fail to humanize both sides of the debate. Can We Take a Joke? might hold Lee and Lenny Bruce up as its outlaw heroes, but it isn’t interested in playing host to the sort of dialogues they actually wanted to start.

There are two recurring narratives about “millennials” and comedy. One is that they’re so coddled, sensitive, and easily offended that they can’t take a joke; the other is that they’re so calloused that the only things they find funny are jokes about 9/11, ISIS, and a dead gorilla. Like most narratives about young people, these ideas are in direct conflict with one another, because any generation is much too large to sum up with a simple story.

A great comedian is alive to the moment, which means being tapped into its tensions, its injustices, and, most importantly, its contradictions. I agree with the documentary’s many-headed talking head that Lenny Bruce’s 1961 act couldn’t exist in today’s cultural climate. But that is because Lenny Bruce was a brilliant and forward-thinking comedian, and if he were alive today I’m sure he would have developed an entirely new aesthetic and ideology that responds specifically — and searingly — to whatever is going on in our culture right now. It’s a central paradox of comedy, and of all art: You only become timeless by being hyper-attuned to your present.

It’s worth here invoking another Kanye West–ism: “Listen to the kids, bro.” Each generation rebels in its own way; we must learn how to cross the line even as it’s being drawn in chalk in a rainstorm. A culture that forces us to be a little more aware of the world around us, that doesn’t rely on outdated conventional wisdom and thus makes us work a little harder and look a little deeper for a joke, is not necessarily a bad thing. Young people right now are becoming increasingly vocal about structures and abuses of power; maybe a joke that reheats old stereotypes about women or race or AIDS isn’t offensive so much as played out. Maybe “offense,” as this documentary so narrowly defines it, just isn’t that funny anymore. Maybe, to a younger generation, it reeks of the old guard.

By and large, the comedians that are currently striking a chord with millennials are not interested in offending marginalized groups so much as deriving humor from their specific truths. (South Park cocreators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are interesting transitional figures in this debate: Like Christopher Lee, they pride themselves on being equal-opportunity offensive, but the literal cartoonishness of their comedy allows them a distance from those offended by their punch lines. You can’t exactly tweet your outrage at Cartman.) The success of Aziz Ansari, Amy Schumer, Ali Wong, Key & Peele, Chelsea Peretti, Samantha Bee, Jessica Williams, and Tig Notaro all, to some extent, bears this out. In their own ways, each of these comics represents a viewpoint that has been underrepresented in the art form’s history: Bee brings a refreshingly feminist point of view to the male-dominated genre of the late-night talk show; Ansari derives humor from being the American-ized child of immigrants; Wong taped her latest special, Baby Cobra, while seven months pregnant. If comedy is all about boldly confronting taboos, what could be more taboo than giving voice to those who have so often been shut out of conversations?

And the further you get from the mainstream, the less “meanness” and offense seem to signify cutting-edge comedy anymore. Recently, The New York Times’ Jason Zinoman wrote a piece about “sweet-tempered stand-up,” arguing that comedy’s current avant-garde — the fringes from which Lenny Bruce once sprang — is currently experimenting with a kind of radical niceness. “When transgression is the norm, it loses some of its comic punch,” Zinoman observes. He calls Jo Firestone, a comic whose act riffs on insecurity and vulnerability, “the most distinctive experimentalist in New York right now.” You can sense a similar vibe in shows like Broad City — which feels so fresh and subversive because of how much it revels in joy — and Mike Birbiglia’s poignant new movie Don’t Think Twice, which depicts the improv scene with an almost support-group-esque warmth. Comedy that engages with its political moment, doesn’t shy away from tenderness, and dares to suggest that old stereotypes just aren’t that funny anymore? To quite a few people, that just might be the most offensive thing of all.