Writing and telling funny jokes in the era of the Trump White House, polarizing politics and #MeToo may be increasingly tricky, but four smart comedians deftly brought a Lincoln Center theater audience to hysterical laughter on Thursday at the 10th annual Women in the World Summit.
“I’m really funny when things are effed up in the country,” said Wanda Sykes, whose new Netflix special tackling the current cultural moment will be out in May.
Still, comedians are navigating a tumultuous political climate. Sykes faced hecklers after telling a Trump joke in Red Bank, New Jersey, last September, and she said there appears to be a double standard in comedy. “It seems like it’s OK for straight white guys to bash the president, but any black woman or person of color, you better shut the hell up or you’re going to catch hell,” she said.
When moderator Juju Chang, a Nightline co-anchor, asked Judy Gold, “What’s pissing you off?” the host of the podcast Kill Me Now said, “Trump has no sense of humor. Zero. You have to have self-awareness. Humor is disarming and he always has armor up.”
“If you count how many comics have had to apologize in the past two years for old tweets or things they have said on stage, and yet this orange piece of crap has never apologized,” Gold continued. “He lies every single day. I don’t understand why we are held to a higher standard than the president of the United States — and we’re telling jokes. We’re not making laws. We’re not affecting people’s lives and liberties and separating parents [from their children].”
Trump’s ascension into the White House actually sparked a new special for Cameron Esposito, co-creator of the TV series Take My Wife, who turned her anger into fire in the form of a standup special called Rape Jokes, in which she talks about her own sexual assault: “I’m not going to be quiet anymore about the things that have happened to me,” she said. By offering the special free on her website with an option to donate, she has raised over $95,000 for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).
Amid growing wariness over causing offense — Gold no longer plays college shows because she says millennial college bookers are dictating what comics are allowed to say — where’s the line that crosses over into squelching free speech?
“I take my responsibility to young people and especially people in the LGBT community seriously,” said Esposito, who added that she pays attention to how language is evolving.
As a writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers, Jenny Hagel created a segment called “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” where she tells “taboo” jokes that Meyers, as a straight white male, can’t touch. “Part of what comedians do is speak truth to power, and making fun of someone who has a higher status than you is a very different act than if someone has a lower status than you,” she said.
There were also a few opinions about disgraced comic Louis C.K.’s return to clubs. “I feel like you can’t tell a painter not to paint, you can’t tell a writer not to write. You can’t tell an artist not to do their work,” Gold said. “He is a comedian and the only place he can do it is at a comedy club. I believe in freedom of speech no matter what. Don’t go see him. You can do whatever you want, but he’s still a comedian and he’s going to go perform wherever he can.”
Esposito said it’s too soon for a comeback and that other up-and-coming comics could use those seats. “I feel like homeboy can stay home for a while,” she said. “Just take a seat. Can you give us just a couple of years?”
All the comedians agreed a potentially “offensive” joke is less likely to offend if it’s actually written and told with skill. “If I hear a non-African-American use the N-word, it better be a damn funny joke,” Sykes said. “It better be the best joke ever. Like Jesus would have to write that joke.”
Can comedy be the great uniter? Esposito pointed to the importance of creating a physical space where people can have fun and let off steam. Hagel appreciates the opportunity to make people feel less alone: “Here’s what I’m scared about and here’s some jokes about it.”
Sykes said she has a great life — she’s healthy, her kids are healthy, and she has a little bit of money — and it would be easy to do jokes about the kids’ homework or something trivial, “but I care too much and I know how much people are suffering,” she said.
As Gold summed up at the end of the night: “It’s a powerful thing, laughter.”
After a day at the Summit of high emotions, powerful stories and, yes, even some jokes, that’s one thing everyone in the room could agree on.
With additional reporting by Nicole Savini.