Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ted Balaker on free speech and if we can take a joke

CAN WE TAKE A JOKE? is a great film. It is a wonderful exploration of the state of free speech in America today, particularly in comedy and on college campuses.

It is a vitally important film that everyone really should see, especially when one of the candidates for President of the United States seeks to shut down any sort of discussion of his life and policies. Despite giving to lip service to free speech it seems that one of our leaders would actually like to stifle it. It’s also important when one of our major institutions of higher learning, the University of Chicago, has to announce to the world that it not going to stand for the stifling of free speech via trigger warnings and safe places.

When I saw the film last November I raved about it. I tried to get as many people as possible to see it. I also realized after it was over that I had made a major mistake and I had not tried to interview the director Ted Balaker. Here was man with a deep passion for keeping the 1st Amendment to the Constitution fully operational. Listening to him speak after the DOC NYC screening I realized that here was someone to admire.

Sometime just before the film hit theaters and VOD I reached out and tried to contact Ted in the hope of getting an interview. While there can never be too much discussion of free speech, in the present political climate it is something we must never stop doing. I wanted to see what Ted thought of all of the craziness. It took a little bit but Ted and I finally connected and last week we sat down and talked to each other.

While the discussion is predicated on CAN WE TAKE A JOKE?, what follows is for the most part a discussion of free speech in comedy and on college campuses. You don’t need to have seen the film to follow or appreciate the talk that we had. This is simply a discussion of our right to express what we believe or to discuss what is going on around us freely and openly.

I want to thank Ted Balaker for taking the time to do this.

CAN WE TAKE A JOKE? is available at iTumes and other VOD and Pay per view services now

Gilbert Gottfried, DOC NYC programmer Basil Tsiokos and director Ted Balaker  at DOC NYC November 2015

Steve: I'm curious it seems like all the films you've directed are freedom of speech related, especially relating to college campuses. What made you so interested in freedom of speech and campus?

Ted: I guess IMDB page is kind of incomplete because I've done plenty stuff not related to freedom of speech. But free speech has been an interest of mine for a lot of years.

It's been an interest of mine for, for a lot of years. We work closely with the group FIRE,& nbsp;the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and have done for, uh, I don't know, four years or so now. And, um, they're a great group. We, we interviewed, um, you may remember Greg Lukianoff, um, the red-haired guy, uh, in "Can We Take a Joke?"

Steve: Right.

Ted: He's  the president of FIRE. And so we've been working with them and have become very aware of what's going on on college campuses. It's also something that, since I went to college, have started noticing it.

I really like the idea of college. Like everybody gets together and throws around a bunch of crazy ideas and tries to [laughs] , to find out what's true. Um, but unfortunately these days that's not happening as much as it should be. Too often colleges are bastions narrow-mindedness.

And they should be the opposite. And so they're kind of pull, pulling this bait and switch on students and the, the parents that pay for these increasingly expensive educations because they... In all their official communications, they say, "Oh yeah, you know, our college is all about the First Amendment and, you know, free exchange of ideas, and, and it's so important, and blah, blah, blah." But then when you get right down to it, a lot of them don't make good on those promises.

Steve: Do you, do you think it's, it's the college themselves, or do you think it's just a fear of litigation?

Ted: Yeah, that's a good question. Fear of litigation is one reason, and in recent decades it’s become a bigger issue. The Obama administration has broadened the definition of what constitutes sexual harassment, for instance.

And so it could be even like unwelcomed speech that's sexual in nature, and then in practice, the definition of what that is can be very broad. And so a lot of, of colleges are worried about losing their federal funding if they run afoul of these federal guidelines.

And so the fear of litigation is one. And didn't start with the Obama administration. This, this is something that's been going for a long time in this direction, and over the years, in recent decades the administrators in colleges has exploded.

So you hear things like "Adjunct professors" on college campuses, but you never hear like "Adjunct administrator." They’ve got lots and lots of jobs, and they, they busy themselves with maintaining and enforcing these speech codes.

Steve: When I saw the film, I didn't realize the degree to which free speech is being shut down on the college campuses. I haven't been to college for 20 years but I didn't realize that it had it had slipped so much.

I mean where, y-you know, where you had the one, the, the one gentleman -- forgive me, I don't remember his name -- who had put the play on and, you know, a-at every point was telling you, "This is going to offend you. This is going to offend you." And people still went, and then still got upset, and they had been told, from start to finish there were triggers. I mean, that's totally crazy.

Ted: Oh, yeah, it is crazy, and I think a lot of people are in your position, they don't really understand the extent of what's going on and that's why I'm really gratified by the film, the film tends to provoke a lot of discussion. That's one of the, the things I'm most proud about.

We had our LA premier. We did a Q&A and then people, for hours afterwards were still asking questions in the lobby, and it was really great to see everybody not just...have a good laugh and enjoy a film, but then to have it spur more conversation. And I'm hopeful that it'll also help people pay attention to what's going on campuses.

And people who are entering college are always shopping for colleges based on all kinds of different factors. I think one of the factors they should consider is, "Does this college support free speech or not?"

And at they rate colleges, red light, green light, and yellow light, uh, green light being where they, where the, they respect free speech, and red light meaning they don't. So students can go online and check it out and see if, you know, if they want to go to whatever university, they can check out the free speech profile, by university.

I think parents should do that, too, and, and alumni. One of the things I saw, there was an article recently in the New York Times about how certain, universities are really feeling it in the pocketbook these days, because after high profile eruptions of outrage and censorship a lot of their alumni are saying, "What's going on?" [laughs]

It's just ridiculous, you know. "This isn't what college is supposed to be about, so, don't expect me to write you a big fat, fat check anymore." And I think, you know, as is so often the case when people start feeling it in the pocketbook, that's, that's when change happens.

Steve: Do you think that this, this outrage is the result of students wanting to shut down the free speech? Is this the administration? Do you think it's like over protective parents? Is that the way it's, this is coming from, or do you just think it's just the guidelines from the federal government?

Ted: I think  there are a lot of different factors, and definitely, uh, over protective parenting is one, you know, sometimes called "helicopter parenting" where parents try to protect their kid from anything uncomfortable that happens in life.

And when they go off to college, they just keep on with that helicopter parenting, and so a lot of times these administrators pick up on it too. So, lot of times people say, "Oh, it's the snowflake generation. They can't take, they can't take criticism."

And I think there's a good degree of truth to that, but I think people are blaming the 18-year-olds maybe a little too much and, and not putting enough blame on the parents,  you know the parents who raised them and then other adults, namely the administrators at universities who kind of carry on for the parents and and often times the professors, too.

It's a bunch of different factors, and definitely over protective parenting is one of the important ones.

Steve: When you, when you put the film together, did you have a focus? You deal with the comedians but, then there is the colleges. Did you put the film together to highlight one thing or just see where it went?

Ted: I wanted it to be entertaining to people, and I wanted them to think about free speech. In terms of, of the elements in it, I knew that we wanted to highlight what's going on in colleges, because that's how this all started in that we were looking at college comedians who are getting shut down for parody satire brand of comedy.

There are plenty more that we could have included we didn't. [laughs] You know, unfortunately  there's a bunch more examples. And then the other element that we knew that we wanted was Lenny Bruce, because number one, he's so important to the history of stand-up comedy, and number two, he's a good reference point.

He shows us how things have gotten better and worse since his time. So you have those, those two elements and the other big element were the comedians

Steve: How much material did you shoot? I was talking to so Kevin Pollack. And he said that he shot...hours and hours and hours for his film [ed Misery Loves Comedy], and he said "I have like tons of stuff that I shot, but it couldn't fit in the film." How much did you shoot? Did you end up with tons of stuff?

Ted: Yeah, there's a lot of great stuff that we just couldn't include in the film for one reason or another. One of my hopes is that we find a way to get that out into the world in, in some form. I'd love to, because the issue is so multi-faceted and there's so many different things and directions you could go.

I mean it would be great to do  a sequel or something in this space again, because the film deals with a topic that's really, really  vast, and, no documentary can be the last word on anything because of the nature of the medium. They're about an hour and a half typically. You're not going to be able to cover every angle in that amount of time. So I'd love to, to find a way to get some of the stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor out into the world.

Steve: Did you end up taping or recording any of the Q&As that you've done? I saw the first showing at DOC NYC. And then I talked to people who saw it at the second one. And they said everybody was talking in the hallway,  in the lobby and this and that. And I just was curious if you recorded any of that, because, as you said, even LA  you had these long discussions,  even after the...

Ted: We recorded, I guess somebody at DOC NYC recorded at least some of it, because I've seen the video. We did have someone in LA record the, the Q&A. It's not up online yet. But, we can probably put it online.

But it would have been nice to see [laughs], you know B roll of all the people even after the formal Q&A, because, you know how it goes. There's the formal Q&;A, and there's talking in the lobby.

And it was just so cool to see people not just watching the movie and file out and go on with their day but  actually watching the movie, and do the Q&A, and then stick around after the Q&A. [laughs] And, and they're just talking and talking and talking.

I hope that that's, that's what the film continues to do, and on about 241 college campuses, during what we call sneak peek week in, in April, and it's the same thing happened there, which is really great.

And, and a lot of times this is where I'm not quite as down on the millennial generation as some people, because I saw how they reacted to the film in April. And there were some cases where you have the kind of narrow-mindedness that we've come to expect from college campuses and people are tearing down promotional posters. Or in one case someone pulled the fire alarm, basically canceled one of our screenings and a Q&A I was scheduled to participated in.

So you have that, but on the other hand you had cases of students have different political points of view coming together, watching a movie, and then talking about it, and talking about why free speech is important and that they disagree on all kinds of issues, but at least they can agree that, that free speech is important if we want to fix society's biggest problems.

We hope to go back on college campuses in the fall. It's always just, a matter of finding funding to do these things. But I'm very hopeful and gratified so far by how it's been able to, to get people talking.

Steve: What was the reaction to people to Lenny Bruce? Because it's very strange.  I'm a huge Lenny Bruce fan. I've been all my life.

Ted: Oh, cool.

Steve: But you know, there's a point where I was talking to some people, and, some were even a little younger than myself. You know, since I'm 51, and even some people not that much younger than me, don't know who Lenny Bruce was. They sort of have a vague idea, and it's like they don't realize what he actually did. Did you get a lot of, you know, like, "Who is this guy" and, you know, that sort of stuff?
Lenny Bruce's mug shot

Ted: Oh yeah. I think you're far more knowledgeable, I gather, about comedy than the average consumer, because we found that, especially among people who are 30 and under, say they've never heard of him before. Or maybe they had a vague idea. But it's been really cool to see that a lot of times people single out the, the Lenny Bruce content in the film as some of their favorite stuff, because they didn't know the story.

And now they do know the story and they recognize that the big contribution he had not just to comedy but to free speech. And it seems bizarre to people that you could get actually [laughs]  get hauled off in cuffs for cursing at a Greenwich Village comedy club.

It seems like, "Well, that couldn't happen in America." And people are, are shocked to find out that actually it did happen in America.

Steve: Yeah.  I love,  Penn Jillette’s comment about that it's so cool that he got arrested, but at the same time...

Ted: [laughs]

Steve:, you have the sense that, you know it's horrifying that he got arrested.

Ted: Oh yeah.

Steve: It's a cool thing to do. But you don't really want that.

Ted: Totally, and you see that, Jim Norton and others in the film, they're saying, nowadays if we get in trouble the punishment is corporate and then we lose our gig on Comedy Central, but we're not getting arrested. [laughs]

And just to be a comedian today or, to just be someone who goes to a comedy club, I mean, can you imagine going to The Comedy Cellar and looking around and seeing cops [laughs] just waiting to arrest a comedian if he steps out of line. That, it just seems like that would never happen here, and, and yet it did.

Steve: Yeah. It's crazy. Which forces the question with this weird shift in the country with Donald Trump and   Hilary Clinton running for President and you have people screaming at each other, "You can't say that about Hilary.” “ You can't say that about Donald." And, you have Donald saying crazy stuff "You can't say that, you can't say anything bad about me." Do you see any change in civil rights coming with the upcoming presidential election?

Ted: Oh yeah, the whole thing is just, just makes my head hurt. [laughs] I'm not a fan of either one, and I don't think either one is particularly good on free speech.  I think if there's any good that can come out of it, it's that people see that they're just screaming at each other. And then they're saying, "You can't say this. You can't say that."

I'm hoping that maybe we'll reach a point where people say "OK, this is peak crazy." [laughs] Hopefully people recognize that this isn't the way to conduct national discourse, that we shouldn't just be  jumping to conclusions and saying everybody is worse than Hitler every time they say something you, you disagree with.

I think Donald Trump is a mixed bag, because he proudly says he is anti-political correctness. But he,  as you, as you kind of laid out a little bit, he's not really for open discussion. I worry that he would just  switch one group of sacred cows for another group.

So he likes to talk about things that are sensitive to other people who he disagrees with, but, if you talk about something and are critical of something that is sensitive to him, look out. Like he's going to, he's going to go ballistic. He's going to probably call you a name.

There, there was some journalist who said that Trump tweeted like a little like a teenage girl or something. And then Trump wanted to get him fired, so  I think Trump isn't like anti-outraged mob. [laughs] He's, I think he would be part of the outraged mob too.

Just like in the film it highlights  most of the outrage that's coming from the left. At least in the film,  that's what was highlighted, because these days, it does seem to be where it's most prevalent. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't come from other directions too.

And, and I think what we find about America is that everybody likes when they have a chance, to engage in outrage. And they like to, when they have the chance, censor people they disagree with. And that, that's whether you're conservative, liberal, or, or whatever. It's just unfortunately a human impulse to want to shut up and muzzle people you disagree with.

Steve: Is t anything that offends? Is there any line for you personally?

Ted: Oh yeah. There's stuff in the film that offends me. And I figured that if I was going to be honest with the audience, I couldn't just  leave my sacred cows alone. [laughs] You know, I, I'd have to include things that offended me too, because if I'm saying to other people, "You've got to learn how to take a joke," then I, I've got to learn how to take a joke, too.

And I think that's part of just growing up and becoming an adult.  I think far too many times these days, when people laugh at something they're really saying, "I agree with that."

And I think it's a mark of a grownup if you can name comedians that you disagree with on, you know, politics, or religion, or whatever issue is important to you, uh, but still say, "Wow, I think that guy or that, that girl, they're really funny."

I think that's a good sign. And I think that far too many people, so much of comedy has just become hyper politicized that they can't even, uh, that they only laugh at things if, if they agree with them politically or, you know, religiously, or whatever the big issue happens to be.

Steve: Who are your favorite comedians?

Ted: Oh wow...a tough one, because there are so many. [laughs]

Lately  my wife and I have been watching, some of the late great Patrice O'Neal and just really remembering how great he was. And even Greg Giraldo. My brother, actually, is writing, co-writing a, a biography on Greg Giraldo. My brother is a stand-up comedian and he was probably the world's biggest Greg Giraldo fan.

Richard Pryor, of course is up there if you're looking at all-time greats. Um, even Dave Chappelle, um, you know, Bill Burr, Louis C.K., um, uh, oh, Jim Norton. Frankly, I love all the comedians [laughs] that are in our film.

And that's part of why we targeted them, Its because it's always better  if you find them interesting and entertaining, ,when you're, when you're editing something for hours upon hours [laughs].

I really love all the comedians we have. I really love all the comedians we have. I mean, take someone like Gilbert Gottfried. Noam Dworman, who we interviewed, the owner of the Comedy Store. He once called Gilbert a comedic savant. And  I think that a lot of people don't fully appreciate like what a comedic genius Gilbert is because he can go totally filthy and blue and he's hilarious, or he can just go on these bizarre tangents and then he can be hilarious that way.

You can see it with some comedians andyou can tell he was influenced by this guy. But Gilbert, he''s just like he was hatched in outer space and landed on Earth, [laughs] and he's just like his own dude.

Steve: There's no one like Gilbert.

Ted: Yeah, exactly. [laughs]

Steve: I've been following his career the whole time, and he just amazes me more and more.

Ted: One of the best times I had was when my wife and I just YouTube'd a bunch of his stuff and just random, you know, watched it one after the next. And he just...he's got this, you know. It's just...he's got this jackhammer tongue, and he just does things in a way.

He's just a very unique thinker and comedian. It's so hard just to be funny, and I have such tremendous respect for comedians because I think it's just a really, really hard thing to do to make an audience laugh, but if you can be funny and like completely original the way he is I think that's a whole new level.

Steve: Was there anybody you wanted to talk to for the film and you didn't?

Ted: Oh, yeah . Unfortunately I'm not going to get into really specific names because  you don't really know why they said no. You can only speculate. Is it because they didn't want to stick their neck out about this issue?  I think probably what most of it was was just going back to it was  a really tough pitch.

You're offering them no money and no exposure. They didn't know it was going to happen. They're assuming it's just another indie documentary. And these guys are really, really busy, and they get tons of requests from of all kinds of people.

Steve: Was there anything...was there anything that you really wanted to get in but you couldn't fit or was there anybody you interviewed and you got really great stuff, you just couldn't get it in? Or did you get like everybody in? Did you...?

Ted: Oh, yeah. Well, everybody's in, but there's so many anecdotes. I mean Karen Foster, she had this whole separate episode where she was Don Imus's sidekick after the whole Nappy-Gate thing.

Steve: Right.

Ted: But she ended up, you know, saying how difficult of a job that was, and she doesn't like Imus, um, but she defended him in that. The whole Nappy-Gate thing was in many ways maybe the first example of modern outrage.

I'm not really an Imus fan, but when I investigated it,& nbsp;it seemed pretty clear based on what Karen and others said that it was just like an old dude making, you know, just a clumsy attempt at humor. So that was an episode we couldn't include.

And actually another one which is doesn't have anything to do with comedy, but it was a Holocaust denial, of all things, because that's kind of like the most extreme or one of the most extreme forms of speech.

Or, you know, when people say what kinds of speech should get you in trouble that's often near the top of the list. You know, if you deny the Holocaust, uh, you should be punished in some way.

And so in one of the cuts we had an episode about this British guy who I guess is some kind of historian, and he went to Austria, and he got, uh, thrown in prison for Holocaust denial. Um, and he was in prison for something like four years and so much of the time he was in solitary confinement.

And when he came out of prison he gave this speech to like 10,000 people, and he's greeted like a returning hero. And so I think that example shows that censorship is a great way to turn crackpots into martyrs.

That a lot of times people think that censorship they're shutting down "Hateful" ideas is a really enlightened progressive thing to do, but in practice it backfires so often, and here in the United States we have the First Amendment. You wouldn't have that situation here. You know, someone could deny the Holocaust all they want in the US, and, and what would happen is people would have to use arguments and evidence to point out that he's wrong.

And so I think that's a powerful example that shows even in these really extreme cases...we're all better off if we  combat bad speech with more speech as Penn Jillette says in the film.

Steve: You mentioned the Holocaust just I'm curious. There's a, there's another documentary. Called THE LAST LAUGH on the Holocaust and humor,...

Ted: Wow. Wow, I'd love to see that.

Steve: ...but do you think there's subjects...the real question, and the point of that film was is there anything that you can't make fun of?

Ted: There might be.  I think the thing is that there are always going to be...I'm not going to be the one to say what that thing is  because humor is so subjective, and I could crack a joke about something that offends somebody else,  and it doesn't bother me, but then you could totally reverse the situation where they crack a joke about a topic that doesn't bother them, but maybe it bothers me.

I think what you get into a situation where that if we just made a big list of topics that offend somebody and said all these topics are unavailable for comedians, you know, what would we be left with? Just a bunch of knock-knock jokes, probably, because no matter what topic you're talking about almost any topic somebody can be offended by it.

I think there's another equally important point that a lot of the people who think they're doing God's work by shutting people down and forming Twitter mobs they forget the power of dark humor, the therapeutic power of dark humor that people that jokes that are really, edgy and dark.

I think there's this idea that comedians are telling all these jokes about these horrible things making fun of people who are in these tough situations. And that is almost never the case.

Like Bill Burr has a routine about where he says the word "Faggot" a lot. And if you hear the routine it's very clear that he's not making fun of gay people. He's making fun of homophobia but people kind of hear that, and they have a knee-jerk reaction.

And they don't realize that a lot of the people who get angry about those types of jokes oftentimes a comedian is on their side. [laughs] They have the same point of view as the people getting outraged.

And, since this film has come out I've had so many open and frank conversation with people. One woman told me about like that she was molested as child, and that she was really worried about comedy that incorporated that topic. But then she heard Louis CK's routine in which he talks about it. And she said she laughed, and it helped her. And I think you see that a lot. There's a female comedian who's...I can't remember her name, but she's bipolar and she incorporates jokes about that in her routine.

And what you find is that people who are dealing with these very toughest things in life if they can find some humor in it, it kind of defangs the issue, and it puts the person, it puts the victim back in charge, because that person is seizing power from that evil thing that happened to them and they're using humor to cope with some of the toughest things in life. And  as we quote Joan Rivers in the film, she says that, "Life without humor, it's hard."

Steve: So essentially anything is fine. It's more situational in how it's presented rather than necessarily a blanket, "These subjects are taboo."

Ted: Yeah. I mean I'm not going to be the person to say that this...I'm not going to be the person to draw the line.  Certainly criticize if you want, but people also have to understand the power of context.

We bring up the issue of suicide, for instance, briefly.  Jim Norton talks about Henry Rollins and how he got hammered because he wrote an op-ed saying that parents shouldn't kill themselves because of the damage that it does to their kids.

And then Norton kind of laughs saying now we have punk rockers apologizing for things that we've written. [laughs] And, you know, once the punk rockers are apologizing...we've reached a new level of absurdity. That's what  more important  than comedy. How are we going to discuss the most important issues of the day?

And if you're just going to pounce on people because they say something like "Suicide is selfish," they may be right, they may be wrong, but let's not just shut them up and force them to make a phony apology. Let's talk about the issue. Let's, you know, let's argue it using evidence and good arguments and not just calling people names and demanding that they shut up, because if we can't speak frankly about these really sensitive topics then we don't really have much of a shot of solving the biggest issues that we face.

Steve: And I think I'm going to end here if that's OK with you because  what you've said is so perfect I have nowhere to go.

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