What’s the best gift you could give a comedian for her birthday? How about a roast?
“I was sitting in my fucking chair at the Comedy Cellar while I got abused,” comedy legend Judy Gold tells me, talking about the surprise roast her partner, Elyse, and eldest son, Henry, threw for her birthday last November. “I was never happier in my entire life.”
As Gold says, nothing is off limits so long as it’s funny – and that applies to herself as well as to everything else. It’s a message at the heart of her 2020 book, Yes, I Can Say That!: When They Come For the Comedians, We Are All In Trouble, which she adapted for her one-woman show at New York City’s Primary Stages.
Directed by BD Wong, “Yes, I Can Say That!” previewed on March 4 and opened on March 21. It runs at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters through April 16.
Like the book, Gold’s new show delves into the complex history that intersects comedy, censorship, and social commentary through the 20th and early 21st centuries, interspersed with moments from the comedian’s own career as a performer. In both, Gold explores the dangers inherent with censorship and defends the right of any comic to speak out – aka, to tell a joke – without fear that her, his, or their career might hinge on whether or not someone is offended. It’s a message close to Gold’s heart, which resonated with readers and which she now hopes to bring to a live audience.
“I want people to know what it’s like to be a comedian, and in this climate,” she says. “I want [the show] to be really personal.”
What it’s like being a comedian in this climate is no laughing matter. Broach the wrong topic and someone, whether they be on the left, right, or center, might call for your head. This isn’t an exclusively modern phenomenon. Comedians have been causing offense since the world’s first open mic night. Comedy is an irreverent art form, made to poke fun at social mores and sensibilities. But at a time of entrenched political polarization, where everyone’s a critic thanks to social media, the stakes seem higher.
And not just for comedians, either. I last spoke with Gold back in 2020, after the launch of her book and before the 2020 election, when Roe was still the law of the land and “Don’t Say Gay” was a mere glint in Floridian legislators’ eyes. Since then, some things have gotten a lot bleaker. Abortion is now a state’s prerogative. Conservative legislatures are banning transgender healthcare, critical race theory, and drag shows. Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars for cracking a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith — an actual assault on a comic, caught live on tape. Gold, watching the ceremony at home, had gotten “physically ill” seeing the incident unfold.
“That’s not okay. It’s just a stupid, fucking joke. You don’t assault someone.” We need laughter more than ever, but it’s becoming increasingly dangerous to provoke.
While she’s been performing stand-up for 30 years, Gold isn’t merely a comedian. She’s also a writer, actress, podcaster, and social commentator – an all-around Renaissance woman. She’s won two Emmys for her work as a writer and producer on The Rosie O’Donnell Show. As an actress, she’s appeared in a range of shows from sitcoms (All-American Girl) to procedurals (Law and Order: SVU) to prestige dramas (The First Lady). And she currently hosts the podcast, “Kill Me Now With Judy Gold” (oh, and there are the two previous one-woman shows under her belt).
But comedy is central to her pursuits. It’s a passion that comes across clearly in conversation with her, whether talking about a certain thin-skinned former president or memes of Bernie Sanders and his mittens. The former is an example of the dangers of taking oneself too seriously, the latter for how comedy can, at its best, bring us all together and in on the joke.
Gold saw this power firsthand early in her career, performing comedy at straight clubs where she’d joke about the trials and tribulations of being a gay parent at a time when being “out” was considered career suicide. Sure, there were a few people in the audience who fled at the mention of any lesbian stuff, she recalls. But there were more who stayed and laughed at the shared pains of parenting — gay or straight.
Comedy is “a weapon for the marginalized,” she says. “You’re hearing the world through someone else’s eyes, and in the most palatable way possible. It tricks you. You’re like, Oh, I didn’t think of it that way. That’s what great comedy does.”
But in order for great comedy to achieve this, the audience needs to listen, which, Gold fears, audiences are doing less of these days.
“No one takes the time to say, ‘Well, what’s the comic trying to say?’ or ‘Why did they use that word?’ or ‘What? Oh, I get it!’ It’s at the point where people say, ‘I heard that word. And I’m not listening to the rest.’”
This fear, that we’re losing our ability to listen – and, subsequently, to laugh – was the driving force behind Gold’s book, and her subsequent decision to turn it into a one-woman show. “Yes, I Can Say That!” is Gold’s third one-woman show, following the 2011 “My Life As a Sitcom” – a homage to classic comedy television – and “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother,” based on a book of the same name which she co-wrote with Kate Moira Ryan. That latter show won the 2007 GLAAD award for outstanding theater. Her new show was co-written with Gold’s long-time collaborator, Eddie Sarfaty, and directed by gay actor/director BD Wong, whom Gold has known since their time together on Margaret Cho’s 1994 sitcom All American Girl.
The process of adapting the book for the stage “has been really challenging, but challenging in a good way because it’s made me go really deep into who I am,” Gold admits. In this regard, she has a lot of help from Wong, a theater person who brings a perspective to the process that’s unique from Gold’s.
“He knows how to see things that I don’t see,” says Gold. During rehearsals, she recalls, “He will literally be like, ‘Why are you saying that?’ It’s layered. I could say something and make a joke and then move on, but not in this process. It’s like, ‘Why do you think you feel this way?’ I know it sounds like therapy, but it’s really about the storytelling.”
That story asks us all to think about comedy as part of a broader social context: to understand the history of comedy as a means of speaking truth to power, lightening our moods in the darkest of times, poking fun at our own foibles if only to remind ourselves that we are all human. To enjoy a good joke is to exercise critical insight, and sometimes humility, challenging us to think more deeply about ourselves and the values we hold. It’s a pursuit Gold fears we’re losing in a hypersensitive and partisan age, where it can sometimes feel as if our laughter must be relegated to the prevailing sensibilities of our political ideologies.
Which isn’t to say all jokes are equal, Gold admits. They can be sloppy, lazy, or make listeners uncomfortable in the wrong ways. Gold has spoken openly about times when she’s been uncomfortable by jokes that have failed to provoke in intelligent, thoughtful ways (see her response to Dave Chapelle’s SNL monologue). But, Gold says, there’s a difference between acknowledging that discomfort — or even vocalizing how and why those jokes fail — and calling for a comic’s cancellation. Doing the latter sets a dangerous precedent by allowing personal response to dictate what others can or cannot listen to.
It’s a message that’s close to Gold’s heart, and not just because she’s a comedian. In fact, to say that comedy, and laughter, are important in Gold’s life would be an understatement. Bringing, “Yes, I Can Say That!” to the stage has made her realize just how vital humor is.
“It keeps me alive,” she says. “I can’t even imagine living in a world where you can’t laugh.”
“Yes, I Can Say That!” directed by BD Wong, runs at Primary Stages 59E59 Theaters in NYC from March 24 through April 16. Tickets are available online.
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