Consider the source: Jews, comedy and the First Amendment

Comedian Judy Gold has written a new book, “Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble.”

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

Freedom of speech is no laughing matter – except in the hands of comedian and author Judy Gold. She analyzes threats to the First Amendment of the Constitution from the perspective of a stand-up comic. 

The book makes the case that PC police and “cancel culture”  sometimes go too far in their quest to avoid offending anyone. That’s a real problem for stand-up comedians who are often funniest when they aren’t bound by the niceties of polite society. 

Gold also devotes a good portion of her book to the contributions of Jewish talent in the history of comedy and why Jews make great comedians. 

Gold is a two-time winner of the Daytime Emmy Awards for her work as a writer and producer on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.” She spoke with the Jewish Lightrecently about her book, “Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble.” Her responses have been edited for space.

In a 25-year-old episode of the “HBO Comedy Half-Hour,” you did a set in which you talked about the importance of free speech to comedy. Is it fair to say this is a subject that you’ve had strong opinions on for quite a while?

I have always, even when I was a little girl. I was always like, wait, wait, why can’t we talk about that? My mother was always like, ‘Judith! Oh, no, we don’t discuss that.’ Why? Why don’t we discuss that? I think a lot of Jews are like that: Let’s just keep a low profile.

When we were kids, didn’t our parents try to protect us by talking in hushed tones about certain subjects?

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Right. There’s always a lot of whispering or Yiddish sprinkled into the adult conversations when you’re a Jewish kid. You know, you have no idea what they’re talking about. And then you hear your name and you’d be like, ‘Wait, what?’

In the foreword to the book, you said you were asked to write about freedom of speech from a comedian’s perspective, which seems like a pretty good idea. It makes you wonder why somebody didn’t think of that before.

When they asked me to do it, it was because I was on “Vice News.” They were doing a piece on college bookers who were telling comedians what they can and cannot say on stage. Young kids were telling these comedians who were booked that they can’t say certain things. And so they asked me to be the opposing viewpoint, which I gladly said yes to. That went viral, and then I heard from HarperCollins, who said to me, ‘Would you write this book?’ And I said,‘Absolutely.’

One of the pitfalls of being a comedian is that an ill-timed comment can have a significant financial cost. For example, when Gilbert Gottfried made a joke about the tsunami in Japan he subsequently was fired by Aflac insurance, where he had a lucrative voiceover contract doing the duck’s voice. You described the situation with him in some detail in the book.

Right, of course, if you work for a corporation, you sort of are selling your soul. If you want that money, then you may have to give something up. And, you know, there’s another layer to the Gilbert Aflac thing. When he tweeted those jokes, no one knew how bad the tsunami was at that point. He had his followers on Twitter, and his fans were asking him, ‘Aren’t you going to make some ridiculous jokes?’ And he did. And if you’re a corporation and you’re going to hire a comedian, then do your due diligence.

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You got into a situation that you mentioned in the book in which a corporate client gave you a list of things to do and not to do, which you actually used in your set. The client was not amused, but the audience was. Exactly who did they think they were hiring?

Right. You don’t get a plumber to come to your apartment and tell him, ‘Oh, no, I turn the pipes to the right,’ and he’ll say,‘Get away from me! You want me to fix your toilet? I’m going to fix your toilet. But don’t tell me how to do my job. I don’t tell you how to do your job.’

If comedians get too concerned about whether a joke might offend an audience and they start to censor their own material, does that inherently curb free speech and curtail creativity?

When you try to silence us, that’s the end of free speech. That’s the end. It’s over. Think about all the sitcoms we watched as kids and the topics they tackled, and the reason it was so impactful was that we were so invested in those characters. Like ‘All in the Family’ and the episode of ‘Maude’ where they decide to terminate a pregnancy.

It’s kind of amazing, given how cautious the network executives are, that Norman Lear got as much content in as he did.

He threatened them multiple times. If there’s a hierarchy deciding what America should watch on television, it’s so ridiculous. Why doesn’t the individual decide? If you don’t like the comedian, then then don’t listen to them. But don’t say they should never be able to do stand-up again. It’s like you go to an art exhibit, and you love this artist and you see they have 15 paintings and three of them you don’t like. Oh, I don’t like that one. You say they should never paint again? Or if there’s a song on the radio that you don’t like, you can change the channel.

Sir Michael Palin was asked about free speech and comedy. He said comedy has to reflect the way life is, and that it’s especially important in times of crisis because people need laughter more than ever. 

Right. Think about this past Saturday night [in early October], everyone I know couldn’t wait for ‘Saturday Night Live’ to come on. I was doing shows outdoors all summer in Provincetown, Mass., and people were dying to laugh, and it is such a part of our culture. Think about Bob Hope in the in the 1940s, going to visit the troops and bringing comedians along. And comedians still go to visit the troops. What other country has the military abroad, and they bring people to make them laugh? I mean, it’s so much a part of who we are.

Speaking of “SNL,” during comedian Bill Burr’s opening monologue in the Oct. 10 show, he took aim at privileged white women and subsequently generated a mini-controversy on Twitter. Was Burr out of line with his jokes or are audiences becoming way too sensitive?

Bill Burr was not out of line and, yes, audiences are becoming way too sensitive. It’s as if their natural instinct is to laugh because it’s funny, and then they pivot because they realize that the joke isn’t politically correct. Funny is funny. 

A Jew can make a joke about Jews. Blacks can make jokes about Blacks. A white non-Jewish comedian probably is playing with fire making jokes about Blacks or Jews. Bill Burr is a white man, and he made jokes about Pride Month, Blacks and mostly, white women. Fair game?

One hundred percent fair game. As an LGBTQ person, I thought his joke about Pride Month was actually about Black History month being in February and I thought it was hilarious. And I loved how he called out hypocritical white women. Yes, Bill Burr is a white man, but are you aware that he is married to an African American woman and his children are mixed race? His brilliance as a comic comes from his ability to take us to an uncomfortable place and relieve the tension with a great punch line. He speaks the truth, and it’s an unfortunate state of affairs that people feel threatened by that. I laughed.

In the book, you talk a lot about the many Jewish comics throughout history. Can you elaborate on the close connection between Judaism and humor?

Well, we know that humor is in the Talmud. In Judaism, everything is a question or an argument, and that’s what a joke is. A joke is looking at something from a completely different perspective. Your bar or bat mitzvah: You’re taking a piece of the Torah and being told,‘OK, here, find something new. Make it your own.’ That’s what we as comedians do. Also, being a persecuted race of people, we use humor as a weapon. It’s gotten us out of a lot of trouble. We all we know that during the Holocaust, that they were entertaining each other in the camps and also in the late ’30s, it was the Jewish comedians who were getting onstage in Germany and talking about what the hell was going on. And then Hitler had the Treachery Act, where you could not make a joke about him. That is how powerful comedy is. 

Why do you think Jews make good comedians?

As my mother always said, ‘If we weren’t laughing, we’d be crying.’ Judaism is a thinking person’s religion. Comedy is a thinking person’s art.