Review: Judy Gold's Yes, I Can Say That! Is an Unflinching Defense of Free Speech
Stand-up comedians are the vanguard of our culture. This has a lot to do with their solitary creative process, which requires no small amount of bravery. It's just the writer and her transgressive observations up against the brick wall — meaning she is the one who will be executed if met with a hostile crowd. The act can change from night to night, and this facilitates the kind of rapid response to current events that the theater struggles to deliver.
In fact, the aspect of theatermaking that we so often praise as virtuous — its embrace of collaboration — can lead to the kind of ruinous groupthink that will see propagandistic plays (blessed with a secular prayer called a "land acknowledgement") on our most prestigious institutional stages for years to come. The broader culture has moved on, but the theater remains stubbornly trapped in the summer of 2020.
At least Primary Stages has taken a bold leap away from the death spiral of irrelevance by inviting the stand-up stalwart Judy Gold to appear at 59E59 with her new show, Yes, I Can Say That! Part stand-up routine, part memoir, and part TED Talk, it's based on Gold's book (which inconveniently came out in the summer of 2020). Hilarious and provocative, the show is a full-throated defense of free speech — even speech that offends us.
"CALM THE FUCK DOWN!" shouts a visibly uncalm Gold as she takes aim at an elite culture more obsessed with manners and microaggressions than the real material injustices undergirding our society (the show is co-written with Eddie Sarfaty). She scoffs at the propensity of liberals to be "offended by proxy" and pines for a time when you could just declare someone an asshole and move on with your life without making a federal case about it on Twitter. "I had a safe space…it was called the closet," the 60-year-old lesbian states, appropriating a quote from Fran Lebowitz: "Being offended is a natural consequence of leaving one's home."
Such sentiments might have once been dismissed with an eye roll and a muttered cliché: OK, Boomer. But in 2023, Gold undoubtedly speaks for a majority in every generation exhausted by the expectation to be better. She's far from the first stand-up to explore this territory: Dave Chapelle, the clearest successor to the legacy of Lenny Bruce, has been there for years. So why does Gold's act feel so edgy on an off-Broadway stage?
It's certainly not about her politics. Gold is a liberal, and she seems to particularly relish mocking the book-banning, drag-queen-hunting gestapo that increasingly makes up the center of Republican enthusiasm. No one should be under any delusion that these are champions of free speech.
But in the grand liberal tradition, Gold recognizes that there's untapped ore in poking fun at your own side (she does a very funny impersonation of Senator Chuck Schumer delivering a press statement and lapsing into the mourner's kaddish). She also reminds the audience of the crucial role taboos play in comedy with a quote from George Carlin: "I like to find out where the line might be, cross it deliberately, and then make the audience happy I did."
Gold radiates admiration for her brother and sister comedians, even when she discusses comics who have clumsily stumbled over the line, like the late Gilbert Gottfried, who quipped in the weeks following September 11, 2001, that he couldn't get a direct flight from New York to California because "they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first" (Gottfried had the words "Too Soon" printed on his gravestone). Much of the show is a tribute to them, especially the pioneer women who blazed a trail for her, like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers. Her words about the late Bob Smith are particularly touching.
Director BD Wong has worked with Gold to shrewdly balance the competing impulses of this piece, which informs and delights in equal measure. Lex Liang's set suggests an unfinished space festooned with joke notecards, which is a fair visual representation of comedy. Sharply timed projections (Shawn Duan), lights (Anshuman Bhatia), and sound (Kevin Heard) cues support Gold's routine without overwhelming it. This is an excellent example of how a stand-up's act can be expanded and enhanced for the stage.
I hope more comics get this opportunity, mostly for the sake of off-Broadway. Something needs to shake the theater out of its fearful holding pattern, and we might as well be laughing when it happens.