'Yes, I can say that!' review: The freedom to offend

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'Yes, I can say that!' review: The freedom to offend
The comedian Judy Gold in her new solo show, “Yes, I Can Say That!,” at 59E59 Theaters in New York, March 3, 2023. Gold’s show is deliberately uncomfortable — and packed with laughs. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

NEW YORK, NY.- The knuckle-dragging notion that women aren’t funny makes only a cameo in comedian Judy Gold’s new solo show, “Yes, I Can Say That!” It’s tucked amid her homage to pioneering forebears like Totie Fields and Joan Rivers, who, Gold tells the audience, “said out loud what women whispered about when their husbands weren’t around.”

The slur about unfunniness, she says, was handed down through generations of men “who did not want to see some brassy broad onstage making jokes about them and the part they played in their wives’ unhappiness.”

Directed by BD Wong for Primary Stages, “Yes, I Can Say That!” is a deliberately uncomfortable, laugh-packed show seeded with stealth missiles like that one. Though Gold insists at the outset that a comedian’s only goal is to land the joke, this is not entirely true. As in her smart and impassioned book “Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble,” released in 2020, she wants at least as much to make us think.

Onstage at 59E59 Theaters, Gold builds a vehement case for the vital importance of the freedom to offend in a healthy democratic society. For starters, she would like us to get over the kind of hair-trigger touchiness about language that leads to social media pile-ons, and focus on genuine threats.

“They are taking away women’s rights, they are banning books, we have mass shootings, and people are furious if you mistakenly use the wrong pronoun,” she says. Then, urgently: “We had an insurrection, people!”

As much as Gold is in favor of some general toughening up across the political spectrum, she’s not anti-sensitivity — “I [expletive] hate bullies,” she says — just anti-preciousness and anti-absurdity. What worries her is the freedom of expression that gets taken away when the freedom to outrage is banished.

Written by Gold and Eddie Sarfaty, “Yes, I Can Say That!” interweaves a brief history of American comedy (Lenny Bruce is of course invoked) with Gold’s personal history, including comedy-club flashbacks, like the time she took rapid revenge on an emcee who was witless enough to insult her just before she took the mic. She does some terrific impressions, including an uncanny Rudy Giuliani.

What she doesn’t quite do is make palpable any current threat to comedians’ speech, so a moment when she explicitly frets about that — in the context of speaking truth to the president at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner — feels like a relic of the previous presidency, when Gold wrote her book. The show’s argument could gain strength by paying just a little more attention to some of the other First Amendment issues currently in the headlines.

Gold’s larger point is that the ugliness of the past isn’t as long ago as we like to think. She notes, unnervingly, that her birth in 1962 was just 17 years after the death camp at Auschwitz was liberated.

“Hashtag ObjectsInMirrorAreCloserThanTheyAppear,” she says, almost as if it’s a throwaway line.

She gets a laugh, but the joke is a warning.

‘Yes, I Can Say That!’Through April 16 at 59E59 Theaters, Manhattan; 59e59.org. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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