Can We Take a Joke? is a surprisingly self-righteous and unfunny documentary in which shelf-dated comedians spend 74 minutes misinterpreting the First Amendment to mean that behaving like an asshole should have no social consequences. The film and all of its subjects — including Penn Jillette, Lisa Lampanelli, Jim Norton and Gilbert Gottfried — persistently conflate criticism with censorship. They don’t just want “freedom of speech”; they want total silence from anyone who disagrees with them, free speech for themselves and nobody else.
Nowhere is the generational divide more apparent than in the film’s mockery of college students. Somehow, this demographic, which proved that it can take a joke by elevating Amy Schumer, Broad City, Dave Chappelle and Sarah Silverman, is too “intolerant” and “conservative” to appreciate truly edgy comics like Lampanelli, whose act consists of bleating racial epithets and untargeted rape jokes. “My play was written to offend everyone,” says one blinkered playwright, who was then somehow surprised when college students were offended by it. Cause and fucking effect, idiot.
Teller, Lampanelli, Gottfried and Norton demand free speech — which they already have — and spend an enormous percentage of the film comparing themselves to Lenny Bruce, a genuine trailblazer who was actually targeted by the state, a degree of persecution these coprolite-pooping old comics will never, ever experience in their dwindling lives. It’s not the state that has turned against them; it’s audiences. The real issue is that, like everyone’s embarrassing, bigoted grandpa, they wish it was still 1979, when crowds would applaud them for saying “faggot” into a microphone.