Based on her on 2020 book—Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble—Emmy-winning veteran comedian Judy Gold’s thrillingly ambitious new one-woman show—Yes, I Can Say That!—examines stand-up comedy’s ability to speak truth to power, and the dangers of censoring and silencing comedians. Not only is it provocative, thought-provoking, and moving, it’s continually hilarious. Gold has discovered that free speech in comedy isn’t just a vital and timely topic that she’s fired up about, it’s also a rich comic seam.
Part memoir, Gold engagingly takes us back to her childhood—when she had a secret crush on Brooke Shields and a habit of putting on her father’s clothes before he got home from work—and her discovery of the pure satisfaction of making other people laugh, a pleasure that’s only increased over her decades-long career. She takes us through her experience of navigating stand-up as a “comedienne” in not just a male-dominated field, but one steeped in misogyny. In a particularly touching segment of the show, Gold talks about her admiration for the female comics who blazed the trail, as their faces are projected on to the stage around her. “Funny women” like Totie Fields, Lily Tomlin, Lucille Ball, Moms Mabley, Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, and her ultimate comedy idol, Joan Rivers. One of the reasons men say women aren’t funny, Gold points out, is the uncomfortable truths about men that they often bring to light in their work. In fact, most jokes are funny because there’s truth in them, Gold asserts.
Like Joan Rivers before her, Gold makes fun of topics that are closest to home first; her appearance; her Jewishness; her mental health; and her queerness, including her own internalized homophobia before coming out publicly in the mid-90s. She addresses her decision remain in the closet before that—in an age when Ellen, Rosie, and even Liberace weren’t out—before revisiting the joke that she did eventually come out to the world with, about being a gay parent (that’s still funny), and the reactions that she received as she toured nationally. The joke resulted in some walkouts, as well as some meaningful moments of audience members seeing LGBTQ folks in a new light thanks to her comedy.
At a time when the Earth itself is in crisis, reproductive, women’s, LGBTQ+, voting rights and more all in peril, Gold questions the distraction of policing language. Including PETA’s list of suggested “animal friendly idioms” to replace the likes of “killing two birds with one stone” with “feed two birds with one scone”. It’s part of a movement towards political correctness, Gold argues, that threatens to limit the scope of what comedians can joke about without calls for them to be cancelled.
In her defense of free speech in comedy, Gold makes clear that she is not here to defend “bullies or assholes”—they should be “called out on their shit”—but she’s not here to offer a “safe space” either, an idea that she rails against. “Art isn’t safe” she contends. She agrees with Fran Lebowitz’s observation that “being offended is a natural consequence of leaving the house”, but stresses that although she will say things that might take us out of our comfort zones and even trigger us, she won’t do it before she has earned our trust. Hence making herself a target first.
Using examples from her own sets as well as the work of her peers, Gold stresses the need for comedians to “cross the line”, to know when they’ve gone too far so they can take a step back and get the joke just right. For Gold, crossing the line happens when her audience is laughing at a joke for the wrong reasons. To illustrate, she revisits a joke that she told about removing a Hasidic woman’s wig, an extract of which was initially praised then heavily criticized online. While her intent had been to bring a defiant dose of comedy to an anti-Semitic incident—in the tradition of Jews, and other persecuted peoples and minorities finding resistance and strength, and retaining their humanity in laughter—she stresses that she wouldn’t want that joke to be taken out of context. Gold suggest, when criticizing a comedian shouldn’t the comedian’s intent be considered in the same way that it is in a homicide trial?
In surveying the history of comedy and censorship—which in itself demonstrates the perceived potential power in a comedian’s hands—Gold touches on the Nazi regime’s targeting of comedians as a dire indicator of what was to come, before looking at examples in the United States, like Lenny Bruce being arrested for content in his material in the 1960s in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. Something that led to legal cases that actually helped to assert the free speech rights of comedians. Gold brings up a quote from Bruce, projected on the wall behind her: “Take away the right to say ‘Fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘Fuck the government'”. Gold goes on to build a compelling argument that free speech in comedy is vital to a healthy democracy. After Michelle Wolfe’s controversial eye shadow joke in 2018 hit too close to home for some, comedy was cancelled at subsequent White House Correspondents’ Dinners while Trump remained in office. With Ron DeSantis banning books and implementing “don’t say gay or trans” laws in Florida, what would he do with comedy that he found to be distasteful if he ever got the reigns of federal power, Gold ponders. A phrase about the Holocaust that was drilled into Gold as a child lingers chillingly on the wall behind her: “It could happen here, if people believe it could never happen here”. Liberals, with a tendency to get offended at comedy by proxy, aren’t let off the hook by Gold either.
In examining what is and isn’t “appropriate”, Gold declares “if you feel that something is too serious to joke about, don’t joke about it, but that doesn’t mean they can’t”, observing that “a lot of great comedy is born from pain, from being marginalized, and from being othered”. She takes us through a whole host of comedians who’ve used their own dire circumstances and suffering as material for their comedy, like Tig Notaro and her battle with breast cancer and her friend Steve Moore joking about being HIV positive at the height of the AIDS crisis. As Gold sees it, comedians mining their own struggles for humour is something that not only helps to sustain the comedian themselves, but has the potential to “make us all smarter, more compassionate, and understanding”.
Comedians might discover that no one wants to laugh about certain things though, as Gilbert Gottfried found out when he made a joke in September 2001 about his flight making a detour at the Empire State Building. For that audience, in a city still in ashes, it was “too soon” for a 9/11 joke. But it wasn’t too soon to laugh again about other things, as a new season of SNL launched, playing its part in helping the nation to heal. While the holocaust might be further in the past, Gold admits that she’s cautious about where or if she tells a gas chamber joke that she has in her repertoire.
Co-written with Eddie Sarfaty, the jokes come thick and fast, but are never rushed, in this nuanced and at times deeply poignant piece of work. Every element has been well thought out and is brilliantly executed, from Kevin Heard’s sound design, to Anshuman Bhatia’s lighting, and Lex Liang’s set design, which looks like a traditional brick wall comedy club backdrop, but the “bricks” themsleves are actually comedy note cards. Shawn Duan’s projection design is impactful and inventive throughout. The work of these departments doesn’t just enhance Gold’s act, but delivers more humour, while BD Wong’s first-rate direction has a captivating flow and a satisfying clarity to it. Gold’s persona is straight-forward, passionate and sincere, speaking directly to her audience at 59E59 at the front of the stage, then making the distinction clear as she uses examples of material she’s done in her sets over the years, by moving to the stool and handheld mic “stand-up” set up at the back of the stage.
Yes, I Can Say That is a rich and stimulating work, that might trigger and offend some, but as Gold stresses “everything is not about you!” Gold argues stand-up is an art form, and proves it with this terrific work. It’s quite a feat to analyze comedy and laughter in a comedy show, take on such serious subjects, and create something that’s this entertaining and enlightening. It’s comedy gold.
By James Kleinmann
Judy Gold in Yes, I Can Say That! runs until April 16th, 2023 as part of Primary Stages’ inaugural season as 59E59 Theaters’ resident Off-Broadway theater company. For more details and to purchase tickets, head to 59e59.org.
After select performances, Judy Gold will be joined by a special guest for a talkback (included in that performance’s ticket price):
Friday, March 24th: Sandra Bernhard
Friday, March 31st: BD Wong
Friday, April 14th: Mary Trump