Can We Take a Joke is the type of film where the actual filmmaking is beside the point. Do you think that special little snowflake millennials need to toughen up and maybe consider some viewpoints that don’t automatically make them feel safe and secure? Then you’ll like it. Do you think that there are some jokes that should never be told and personal feelings should be respected in the public sphere? Then you’ll hate it. Do you not care either way? Then you’ll be bored.
The film assumes your interest in the subject, which may be a perfectly valid stance for a documentary to take. It doesn’t do much of anything to draw you in. The filmmaking overall is pretty standard, talking-heads fare. My biggest gripe is that I can’t stand the on-screen graphics; they seem created by a teenager exploring the possibilities of an animated PowerPoint™ presentation.
That’s really all the review you need. You can stop reading here, if you’d like. I won’t judge you. But I would like to take a couple of paragraphs to refute some criticisms I have seen against the film, which I feel aren’t warranted.
‘People have a right to free speech, but not the right to freedom from the fallout of their speech.’ This idea is discussed in a few negative reviews of Can We Take a Joke, including Chris Packham’s pan of the film in the Village Voice. I don’t see how it applies. There are scenes in the film that show hecklers storming the stage during performances, ripping the mics away from the performers, and shouting them down. The argument that ‘People have a right to free speech, but not the right to no social consequences’ only works if the offenders get the speech in the first place. If you censor, drown out, or otherwise prevent the speech, there can be no social consequences. Packham accuses the film of ‘conflating criticism with censorship,’ when it is clear that he, himself, is the one engaging in conflation.
Packham is provably, demonstrably, empirically incorrect when he says the movie ‘spend[s] 74 minutes misinterpreting the First Amendment to mean that behaving like an asshole should have no social consequences.’ The film clearly makes the point that no one has been arrested for speaking obscenities since Lenny Bruce. You may lose a corporate gig, or a movie opportunity; you may be compelled by social media to apologise. But the film itself undeniably makes a distinction between actual censorship and social consequences. I don’t know Packham, and want to assume good faith, but it almost seems like he didn’t watch Can We Take a Joke to the end.
Matt Zoller Seitz
Another bizarre statement comes from Matt Zoller Seitz, who appears to be paid by the word and obviously disagrees with the film’s premise. He agrees that the heckler grabbing the mic away from Rodriguez, the college comic,
is indeed outrageous—no comedian performing in front of a paid audience should have their act terminated by a single audience member, no matter what the cause. And the idea of establishing a support group for anyone traumatized by his set does sound silly on its face. But as you watch the clip, you might also be struck by how poorly Rodriguez handled what most professional comics would consider a pretty unremarkable initial push-back by an audience member. If you can’t shut down a heckler by being clever, conciliatory, surreal, or otherwise imaginative, you shouldn’t be in standup comedy.
Allow me to retort: if you’re so oblivious that you can’t see what’s on the screen in front of you, you shouldn’t be in film criticism. In the very same sequence dealing with Rodriguez, a professional stand-up comic makes the point that college comics don’t have any experience with hecklers, and are still trying to find their voice. People are not born seasoned, experienced professionals—and even some seasoned professionals have difficulty with hecklers sometimes. There are no college courses to take on how to deal with hecklers; you have to engage with some and eventually develop an appropriate response style. Which obviously Rodriguez hasn’t had the time to do. His tack plainly didn’t work, and he learned from the ordeal.
Seitz also attacks the identities of some of the talking heads and attributes motivations to them that he cannot possibly know, but I’ve tired of discussing him. I don’t begrudge anyone for disliking Can We Take a Joke—I’m lukewarm, obviously—but we must be clear about what’s objectively on the screen. Because, if a film critic can’t do that—well, then, they aren’t a film critic, are they?
Bottom line: This movie is unlikely to sway anyone’s opinion. If you agree with the premise, then you should see it, because it will strengthen your viewpoint and maybe give you some extra talking points. If you disagree, then it will provide some nice outrage for your social media outlets. But what we emphatically do not have here is the next nominee for Best Documentary Feature. Can We Take a Joke simply isn’t sophisticated enough.