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Way back when I was promoting my first book, Unlearning Liberty, I did a podcast at the Comedy Cellar in which the most liberal member of the panel of comedians I was talking to said that he didn’t like playing campuses anymore. Really, given the kind of things that can get you in trouble on the modern college campus, I was not surprised. Satire and parody are risky business in higher education and have been throughout my entire career at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
A few years ago FIRE started working with director Ted Balaker on a small video about the censorship of comedy on campus. Now, with the help of the DKT Liberty Project, Ted is completing a new major feature documentary titled Can We Take a Joke? The documentary already features interviews with Adam Carolla, Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette, Jim Norton, Lisa Lampanelli, Heather McDonald, Karith Foster, me, Jon Ronson, Chris Lee, Ron Collins, Bob Corn-Revere, and Jonathan Rauch.
The timing is perfect. The year kicked off with comedian Chris Rock saying that he did not like playing campuses anymore, and that comedy legend George Carlin didn’t like to either. Now, with Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher condemning the oversensitivity and humorlessness of college students, the world seems ready to make a stand for comedy. The through-line of the film follows the life and career of famous iconoclastic comedian Lenny Bruce, making the argument that Lenny Bruce would not stand a minute on the modern college campus. The film also features a few important FIRE cases in which censorship tried to crush satire, parody, and comedy on campus — sometimes successfully.