Comedian Judy Gold
Judy Gold in ‘Yes, I Can Say That’ at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse

The Rundown

B.D. Wong directs comedian and solo performer Judy Gold in a stage adaptation of her 2020 book Yes I Can Say That, When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble. Onstage, Gold makes a valiant stand for two modes of performance: The standup comedy routine and the solo show. Co-written by Eddie Sarfaty, she argues — mostly successfully — for preserving standup as a form of free speech and, in doing so, questions when and where it’s valid to cross the line.

No Tea, No Shade

Gold is a towering performer. She’s tall. She’s loud. If you know her work (which includes a role on Margaret Cho’s short-lived 1994 sitcom All-American Girl co-starring Wong, a writing gig on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, and nearly 400 episodes of her podcast Kill Me Now), you know what you signed up for. Within the opening moments, Gold tells us, “I have a lot of important sh*t I need to tell you tonight.” Then, somewhat deflatingly, “It’s all in this book I wrote about free speech and comedy that came out during the lockdown…”

Nevertheless, what ensues for the next 80 minutes may or may not be cribbed from the pages of a book I didn’t read. She reveals its promotion was “canceled” because of Covid. But that’s not why we’re here.

We are here to be taught a lesson, apparently. And that lesson is “that a comedian’s only goal when they get onstage is to make you laugh,” and “your childhood trauma” should not get in the way.  

Amen.

But in saying this, Gold has set herself a hell of a challenge: To be funny while scolding us. But let’s be honest — we need the scold.

Comedian Judy Gold
Judy Gold in ‘Yes, I Can Say That’ at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse

Gold, who is two minorities (Jewish and lesbian, and a third if you count ADHD), doesn’t want to be handled with kid gloves. Comedy is not for pussies. Neither is solo performance. Gold commands the stage, at one point treading over a band of light that appears to zap her whenever she crosses a line, and uses a clicker to summon visuals and headlines, creatively brought to life by Shawn Duan’s projection design. It is a hybrid of monologue and TED Talk. It’s a lesson delivered by a comic, which is a rare thing.

In her argument, Gold summons the ghosts of many great comics, including Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. “I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately,” she attributes to Carlin. 

Gold’s performance is all about what makes that line and why we have suddenly become allergic to crossing it.

The show could also be titled You Need To Hear This! — if you came expecting a standup routine, think again. A heart surgeon performing a triple bypass doesn’t tell the patient to get off the operating table and do more cardio. Because it’s too late.

Is standup comedy taking its last gasp? Hannah Gadsby has deconstructed the art form, showing us how the punchline depends on a punch down and is, therefore, a form of socially sanctioned abuse. Social media often dictates who is allowed to say what in jest — and a click-happy pack of faceless folks could cancel the wrongdoer with a Twitter tsunami.

Let’s Have a Moment

Comedian Judy Gold
Judy Gold in ‘Yes, I Can Say That’ at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse

Gold rails against new rules that ban certain types of language. Some of what she tells us is very true and feels vindicating. Other moments, like the half-thought-through swipes about gender-nonconforming folks, are a little cringe-inducing. “They’re taking away women’s rights, banning books — mass shootings, and people are furious if you mistakenly use the wrong pronoun?” Some of these things are connected. The book banning is happening largely because of the discussion around gender pronouns. “Do you think someone living in a yurt in Mongolia can’t do their job because their coworker misgendered their Yak?” she asks. Well… perhaps. But in 2009, a Mongolian neo-Nazi group kidnapped and sexually assaulted three transgender women.

But when Gold talks about her comic influences — Totie Fields, Lenny Bruce, Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers — her argument comes alive. These performers became household names by subverting or standing up to the status quo. Her reverence is heartfelt. And thinking they would be silenced today by our own cultural guidelines tells us we have gone too far. “Joan was like her punchlines — unpredictable, always saying what everyone was thinking but was too afraid to say,” says Gold.

The punchline of the night isn’t meant for laughs: Comics in China, North Korea, and Egypt have been penalized for their material; The Taliban murdered Afghani comedian Khasha Zwan and in the video the killers made of the execution, he was cracking jokes up until the end. And there’s the point: Comedy is not only a matter of free speech; it’s a matter of life and death.

The Last Word

Comedian Judy Gold
Judy Gold in ‘Yes, I Can Say That’ at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by James Leynse

“So I’m gonna show you that silencing comedians not only robs us of joy, but it’s also a danger to our democracy and even a threat to our very survival,” says Gold.  

Sounds big. But at the core of Gold’s show is the belief that we should laugh at fear, terror, and differences that make us uncomfortable. At cancer, even. At the Holocaust. Possibly even at 9/11. Oh, and HIV/AIDS (of which she quotes late comic Steve Moore: “Don’t f*ck with me. I’ll open a vein and take out the whole front row!”). Why? Because it keeps us free.

Freedom is a risky business and is certainly not a safe space. That’s the point. Comedy, as a profession, is already dominated by “Jewish or Black or women or Asian or fat or funny looking, or some kind of outsider,” says Gold. “Fact is, there aren’t a whole lot of hilarious hetero, cis, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant men out there. Okay, Jim Gaffigan. That’s it.”

It’s a helluva sermon. Come for the moments when Gold quits telling us and shows us: When she hilariously becomes Chuck Schumer; or her ex-partner with C-section stitches berating her for not coming out as a lesbian co-parent.

Or when she recalls how most of her parents’ friends survived the Holocaust and laughed. Not laughed about it. That would be another show. They laughed to survive.

Yes, I Can Say That! plays Off-Broadway at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters through April 16.

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