Interview'Comedy dies when the audience decides what's inappropriate'

Can you laugh at that? Comedian Judy Gold on where to draw the line – then cross it

The comic, a proud gay Jewish mom, is moderating a June 16 panel on humor in today’s world where working comedians will weigh in on how they navigate hatred and hypersensitivity

Reporter at The Times of Israel

  • Comedian Judy Gold. (Anne Whitman)
    Comedian Judy Gold. (Anne Whitman)
  • Comedian Judy Gold. (Justine Ungaro)
    Comedian Judy Gold. (Justine Ungaro)
  • Comedian Judy Gold. (Courtesy)
    Comedian Judy Gold. (Courtesy)

NEW YORK — Sometimes the best weapon against hate is a well-placed quip. In the decades since she stepped up to the microphone at Rutgers University to perform stand-up on a dare, Judy Gold has delved into politics, motherhood, gay marriage, and antisemitism.

“It is our job to be social commentators,” said Gold, who in addition to being a comedian is also an accomplished author and actor.

On June 16, Gold will moderate an online panel discussion, “Can I Laugh at That?” with fellow comedians Alex Edelman, Negin Farsad and Mike Yard about how they do their jobs in today’s world, where toxic politics, racism, misogyny and violence are commonplace.

It’s also a world where a failed joke is liable not only to go viral on social media where it’s dissected, but to get the comedian canceled, as well.

With a relentless onslaught of bad news, well-crafted comedy can offer both a catharsis and a critique, Gold, 59, told The Times of Israel in a phone interview.

“Some comedians want to talk about shopping, about porn, about girlfriends. It really depends on who you are and what your passion is,” the two-time Emmy Award winner said. “For me, it really is free speech and being authentic to who I am. We need to laugh. It’s part of the human condition.”

As the author of “Yes, I Can Say That,” and host of the podcast “Kill Me Now,” Gold, who is active in both the Jewish and LGBTQ communities, said the demarcation between a joke that crosses the line and one that is acceptable has blurred in the past six years.

“Comedy dies when the audience decides that whatever way they take the joke is the only way, even when it’s not what the comedian intended. As George Carlin said, the comedian’s job is to find the line and cross it,” she said.

Raised in a religious Jewish home in Newark, New Jersey, Gold shares two grown children with her ex-partner of 20 years, Sharon Callahan. Her son Benjamin Callahan-Gold plays Division I basketball at Tulane University. Next month she’ll travel to Israel to root for him as he takes part in the Maccabiah Games.

Comedian Judy Gold. (Justine Ungaro)

Gold said she looks forward to discussing the past two presidential elections, the spike in antisemitism and racism, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic with her fellow comedians.

“It’s interesting to see what makes people laugh from their life experiences,” she said.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Times of Israel: So, why do this panel now?

Judy Gold: There is this assault on comedy and on satire and on humor. I wrote a book that came out in 2020, “Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians We Are All in Trouble.” I feel the First Amendment is what makes this country just amazing. We really can say whatever we want.

But what’s happening is people are taking the intent out of the humor. One of my friends who is a writer said, “Getting upset that you got offended at a comedy club is like getting on a roller coaster and getting upset that you got scared.”

Part one of the problem is thinking about the comics’ intentions, asking what is the comic trying to say? What are the nuances? Part two is what people are doing afterward. Everyone has a soap box. Comedians are having to defend themselves because people are taking things out of context.

Comedian Judy Gold. (Courtesy)

So are we losing our sense of humor? Are we primed to be offended?

The thing is, it is the right and it is the left. The left is just as culpable in this. There are people who are offended by proxy. There are people who will laugh and then cover their mouth, to say “Oh right, I’m not supposed to laugh at that.” If your instinct is to laugh, there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re not lessening the horrors of a tragedy; you’re seeing something from a different point of view. A great comic makes you laugh and think.

Vilifying someone for a standup act they did 25 years ago is simply unfair. Words have different meanings now. The world is a different place. I don’t want to live in a world without laughter. If you don’t like a comedian, change the channel.

Why do you think this is happening?

We’re not nice to each other, people are angry. I don’t want to blame our previous president, but, you really see how the leader of the free world’s behavior really seeps into the culture. It gives people permission to behave the same way. I’m not talking about politics, I’m simply talking about the behavior, the name-calling.

There was also an assault on comedy. The president wouldn’t go to the White House Correspondents dinner. He wanted SNL [Saturday Night Live] to be investigated. We became sort of the enemy of the people. And we’re not.

Why is it all of a sudden I have to be protected for any feeling I feel? Why do I need a safe space? That’s now how the world works. Yes, we can be more sensitive, and we can take a moment and think about things we say. But, and I know I’m going to be attacked for this, the world isn’t a safe space. People don’t want to develop a thick skin, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a thick skin. Look, I get hurt all the time. I’ve had to follow antisemites and homophobic people and misogynists on the stage. It’s what I do with that hurt though.

Comedian Judy Gold. (Justine Ungaro)

What in your mind crosses the line, or is there a line?

When I think the audience is laughing for the wrong reason, that’s where I stop. You have a responsibility to call them out.

What I’m trying to say is we aren’t giving misinformation, we aren’t saying things that incite violence. We’re just trying to make you laugh. Our only goal as comedians is to make you laugh and sometimes we miss the mark. You’re seeing life through someone else’s life.

You’ve talked about how Joan River, Phyllis Diller and Jean Carroll influenced you. Tell me about why you also count Big Bird and Carol Spinney among your influences.

Well, it’s funny. I was six feet tall when I was 13, and I was called Big Bird my entire life. When Big Bird walks on the screen that’s all you see. That’s how I have lived my entire life. I’m 6’ 2’’ now. I was 6’ 3’’ but I shrunk because I’m old. Anyway, walking onto a set and being the thing that just appears because you are so large becomes the only thing that people see first. But inside Big Bird, if you took away that big huge body of Big Bird, is the sweetest person. If the way you look defines you, people have to take an extra step to get to know you. I really identified with that because first of all, women aren’t supposed to take up a lot of space.

During your interview with Malcolm Nance on your “Kill Me Now” podcast he talked about how curiosity was essential to his career in cryptology. Talk about how curiosity is a key ingredient for a comedian.

It is so important to be curious. Comedy is critical thinking. A show is a surprise in a way — you want the audience to think, “I can’t believe they noticed that too!” Comedy is a tool to get people to see things from a different perspective.

The way you build your jokes around your identity as Jewish, gay, woman, mother and daughter gets both criticism and praise.

Look, I’m a Jewish comedian. I’ve been attacked by some in the Jewish press for years as playing into stereotypes of the Jewish mother. I couldn’t be prouder to be a Jew. I shout it from the rooftops. I travel all over this country and I talk about my Jewish mother, my Jewish kids. When people get upset about that, that’s not about me, that’s about them and their neurosis. It’s about assimilation and how they think others are going to see us.

So that upsets me the most because I am not going to hide my Judaism. There is more than one way to be a good Jew. Some people think being a good Jew is following every one of the rules and laws. I do follow some of them, but only the ones I identify with.

I have been in places where there are no Jews in the audience. I get up there and talk about being Jewish and my Jewish mother. Afterwards people come up to me and say, “Oh my gosh, your mother is just like mine.”

Comedian Judy Gold. (Anne Whitman)

How do you turn the rising antisemitism or homophobia into humor?

I came out in 1996. I would tell some jokes about it but I would have to explain. Now, when I hear a comedian say they’re Jewish, I am so thankful they don’t have to explain anymore. When I hear them say “my husband” or “my wife,” I am so thankful they don’t have to explain.

I think it’s important to dispel why people hate us. I get on stage and talk about how over 60 percent of hate crimes in the past year were against Jews. I’ve found a way to insert that into my act.

I think the dark humor comes from generations of trauma. We’re sort of used to being in uncomfortable situations and we know how to fight back with a quip or a joke. The greatest gift of comedy is you have a tense moment, and that tension is released with laughter. And that is great comedy.

For more on humor, check out this podcast episode:

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