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Comedy, Outrage, and Free Speech: Can We Take A Joke is Available for Download Now!

The documentary features comedians Gilbert Gottfried, Lisa Lampanelli, Adam Carolla, Penn Jillette, and more.

Can We Take a Joke, a feature-length documentary about stand-up comedy, "outrage culture," and censorship is now available for digital download on iTunes, Google Play, and on-demand through most major cable providers. The film was directed by former Reason TV producer Ted Balaker and co-produced and co-written by yours truly.

The reviews already have begun to roll in, with the LA Times saying that "Can We Take a Joke? poses a valid question at a juncture when freedom of speech is a hot topic," and The Hollywood Reporter writes that the film delivers "sobering commentary" and "strongly makes the case that we've all got to get over ourselves."

The movie features several stand-up comedians who've had unpleasant encounters with the online outrage mob, including Adam Carolla, Lisa Lampanelli, Jim Norton, and Gilbert Gottfried, who famously lost his job as the voice of the AFLAC duck after he sparked outrage on social media after making Twitter jokes about the 2011 Japanese tsunami.

"When people are outraged, they're also patting themselves on the back," says Gottfried. "Like, 'Hey, I'm a good person. I was outraged.'"

Everyone, of course, has the legal right to be offended and the right to demand the firing of comedians for telling jokes. The First Amendment only protects against the government censorship of ideas, not corporate or mob censorship. But the film argues that the very idea of "free speech" requires more than simply government protection of the press.

"The First Amendment, although it's necessary, it's not sufficient. It has to rest on a social foundation of First Amendment values," says Jonathan Rauch, scholar at the Brookings Institute and author the book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. "Once you get into the business of saying you are going to prohibit things you find offensive or wrongheaded, that's where the most sensitive person in society gets to determine what all the rest of us can hear."

The documentary also features Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit that fights for free speech on college campuses. Lukianoff helps connect the culture of instant outrage and offense to developments on college campuses, which have seen a rise in speech codes and rules requiring "trigger warnings" for offensive content. Watch the Reason TV interview with Lukianoff on that topic below.

Lukianoff and social scientist Jonathan Haidt wrote eloquently about some of the themes touched upon in Can We Take a Joke in a cover story for The Atlantic magazine entitled, "The Coddling of the American Mind" and singled out an impulse that they term "vindictive protectiveness":

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into "safe spaces" where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

This notion of pushing back against vindictive protectiveness is perhaps what excites me most about Can We Take a Joke? While there are concrete policies, such as FIRE's advocacy for the abolition of all speech codes on campus, that can help nudge American culture back towards a greater appreciation for free speech, the documentary is also a call for self-reflection. Being offended is an emotional state, not a rational one. Instead of reacting immediately, the movie implores the viewer to examine his or her own emotions: Why am I offended? Is it possible that the offensive statement is a joke? Am I giving the speaker the maximum benefit of the doubt? Are these words really causing me harm?

And the best part is that developing this mental process, also known as "growing a thick skin," doesn't require attending an expensive seminar or years of counseling and meditation. One of the best—and most fun—ways to thicken your skin and gain a deeper appreciation for novel, thought-provoking, and sometimes shocking viewpoints is to frequent your local comedy club.

Click here to buy or rent the film on iTunes. And check out an interview with the film's director, Ted Balaker, below.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    We should have a National T-Ball match where we don't keep score. That'll set things right.

  • Zunalter||

    Sure, that's all well and good, but then...what do I do when I hear an idea that offends me? Surely i'm not expected to have to listen to things that I might happen to not agree with? Freedom of Speech is Freedom from Speech, amirite?

  • Zach Weissmueller||

    Sure. Just don't make it your mission to stop OTHERS from hearing the speech the offends you.

  • $park¥ is totally a Swifty||

    Do you know what it's like to find out that the contributors are H&R novices? Do you? It's like a punch to the thyroid.

  • Zach Weissmueller||

    My troll/sarcasm detector is miscalibrated from responding to earnest objections of this nature all week.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Now THAT's funny!

  • Zunalter||

    Now THAT's funny!

    And also crushingly depressing.

  • Zunalter||

    But it offends me that other people are listening to it. Why wouldn't I want to stop it?

  • $park¥ is totally a Swifty||

    You said comedians then failed to list the names of anyone funny.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    What're you talking about? Gottfried's line at the end of the clip is 24k gold.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    My bad, these aren't clips Reason detailed last time.

  • $park¥ is totally a Swifty||

    I can cook up a funny line from time to time too. That doesn't make me a comedian.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I can cook up a funny line from time to time too.

    SEZ YOU!

  • $park¥ is totally a Swifty||

    Hey, I've made people laugh before. And not because I got hit in the balls.

  • BearOdinson||

    "You, Jerry Seinfeld, are NO comedian!"

  • BearOdinson||

    I am all in favor of everyone growing a thicker skin. But the problem with a lot of this, is that they are conflating freedom with the right to say whatever they want without going to jail or be fined, and not have to face any consequences involving a paycheck. Gottfried's stuff about the tsunami was hilarious. Awful, but hilarious. But AFLAC had every damn right to fire Gottfried. They are in business, and if one of their spokespeople says something that can piss off customers, they have the right to get rid of that spokespeople.

    If a cable channel says a comedian crosses their line, so be it. (Unless they signed a contract which allows the comedian to say anything they want).

    I just think this muddies the waters because the owner or board of directors of a company have rights as well.

  • $park¥ is totally a Swifty||

    Good call. It was the same when A&E dumped the duck dude. Although it looks like they brought him back.

  • Bobos||

    Watch the movie. They mostly talk about censorship by the left on college campuses, as well as the US government going after Lenny Bruce. The AFLAC thing takes up all of maybe 5 min of the movie, and Gottfried certainly isn't crying any tears for himself over it.

  • MichaelL||

    Can't take a joke? Just ask our amateur politician about it! I guess if your name is Trump, you are not allowed to make a joke about the Russians and hacking emails!

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