Judy Gold knows the value of a good joke—and the steep price of silencing comedians. Unnerved and infuriated, the comedian and author shares her reverence for the intimacy of collective laughter and her passion for the vital work comedians do to bring us together, make us think, and speak truth to power.
Based on her book, Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble, this new play tells the fascists and crybabies to shove their hate and political correctness up their respective asses. This wickedly funny, new one-woman show is a big-mouthed and big-hearted call for truth, kindness, common sense, and most of all, laughter.
WM: We’re here with comedian and author, Judy Gold, to talk about her new show, Yes, I Can Say That. Welcome Judy.
JD: Thanks for having me, Winnie.
WM: Absolutely. Now this comedy show is based on your July 2020 book Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble. And I wanted to ask first, how was it to publish and promote this book during Covid?
JD: We took the book and we turned it into a play—a one-person show. And yes, you’re right: promoting a book during Covid was awful. I had no book tour. It came out in the summer, when a lot of shows were on hiatus. I remember I was doing Zoom on The Drew Barrymore Show or The Today Show and my ring light falls, right in the middle of the interview. So yeah, it was challenging, and 98% of books that came out in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies. But it’s still relevant, so people are still buying it.
You can say whatever you want!
They can spread conspiracy
theories and insight violence, but a
comedian can’t tell a joke?
WM: I feel like we’re at a really dangerous time in history where comedians are being castigated if they joke about politicians who are, frankly, beautiful fodder for jokes. And I wanted to ask you: When did things change from seeing it as a badge of honor for a politician to be lambasted on SNL to instead being sued if someone tries to lampoon you.
JD: Well, I think we all know the answer to that… Our country has a long tradition of comedians taking our leaders to task. You’re young, but there was a show called The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and they would skewer President Lyndon Johnson every week. He called the head of the network and was like, “Can you ask them to tone it down?” And they said, “Okay, fine, we’ll tone it down if you let us have Pete Seeger.” And they thought, fine, a folksinger. But they ended up getting cancelled.
After that, Johnson wrote his mother’s brother a letter saying, “You know, although it was hard for me, the greatest thing about our country and being president is that I was fodder for your material. So, I wish you all the best.” And then we get to 2016 where we have a president who, like tyrants around the world, silenced comedians all the time because we speak truth to power. As Mark Twain said, “Nothing can stand against the assault of laughter.” Comedy is very powerful. We knew that Trump had called the DOJ and the FCC and tried to get them to investigate SNL, but now we also found out that he called Jimmy Kimmel’s bosses at Disney and asked him to stop making fun of him. This is the behavior of fascists and tyrants. But we have First Amendment rights. So, it just pissed me off. I had to write this book because it was like, “Wait a minute, you can say whatever you want! They can spread conspiracy theories and insight violence, but a comedian can’t tell a joke?”
WM: Okay. Yeah. What kind of danger are we in when even the court jester can’t say the emperor has no clothes?
JD: Exactly. And the court jester was always protected, but now we have Ron DeSantis banning books. Hitler did that, a year before he passed the Treachery Act of 1934, which said that if you told an anti-Nazi joke, it was an act of treason. That was the next thing that happened after banning books. So I say, beware.
WM: But then on the other hand I also have heard you say that anything can be fodder for a joke, but the joke has to land; it has to be funny. Can you give an example of one of your jokes about a dicey subject around which you managed to craft a beautiful joke?
JD: I have a joke that I really don’t do anymore because my son doesn’t like it, because it happened so long ago. But he had told me when he was 18 that he wanted to get a tattoo and I said no. We had this big fight and he’s like, “I’m 18, I can do whatever I want.” I said, “Fine, what are you gonna get?” He said, “Well, I want to get something that says, I’m from New York. So, I was thinking of having our zip code tattooed on my arm.” And I said, “Henry, you’re a Jew. You’re not getting numbers tattooed on your arm.” And it got a big laugh, but some Jews were uncomfortable with that. And I was like, “Why? I am saying every night on stage that we Jews had numbers tattooed on our arms.” I mention the Holocaust every single time I get
onstage. And that’s a true joke. That’s a true story. That’s my experience. The greatest thing about humor is that it makes you laugh, but it can make you think.
WM: And you have famously said that being offended is a choice.
JD: It is a choice. I mean, you’re allowed to get offended, but the way you respond to that? That is a choice. You can either let it take over you and say, “I can’t move on with my life,” or you say, “You know what? That offended me. I’m gonna move on. I don’t want to watch that comedian again.” But you don’t have to silence them. I mean, we have elected officials who can’t get fired for lying—look at George Santos…
I’m doing the best I can to call it all
out. I don’t want to live in a world
WM: And it always has been the comedians who have pushed this line. If you look at Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor or George Carlin, they’ve always been at the forefront of culture change and that’s why I want to ask you, how are you currently working to save me from this increasingly fascist world?
JD: Well, I have a microphone. I hope to use it in the best way that I can, and this show really does address that. There are comedians who don’t ever talk about political stuff; they just are silly or observational. But, you know, I don’t have that choice. I’m a lesbian. I’m a Jew. I’m a woman. I’m a mother. I have passions and I have feelings and I’ve navigated this world being all of those things—and it hasn’t been easy. I feel like it’s an obligation to call people’s attention to it and the most palatable way to deal with this subversive topic is through humor. It is the best way, and it disarms people. I’m doing the best I can to call it all out. I don’t want to live in a world without laughter.
WM: Yeah, I’m counting on you, Judy.
JD: All right, no pressure…
WM: As we wrap up this interview, I wanted to talk about your team. You wrote this show with Eddie Sarfaty, who is well-known around the city, and with BD Wong as your director. I just wanted to touch out on how you ended up with this great team.
JD: Well, Eddie’s been a friend of mine for a long, long time. And when I was writing the book, I asked him to help because the book is sort of a polemic—each chapter, we argue something. We would spend hours arguing to make sure that we covered every possible angle. And when Primary Stages said that they would like to do my next solo show, I really wanted it to be about this and I said, “Eddie, will you write it with me?” And I’ve known BD since we were on All-American Girl together in the ‘90s, Margaret Cho’s real first Asian-American family sitcom on network television. He has the most incredible, wicked sense of humor, and he’s so brilliant. I feel so lucky. He’s a genius.
WM: That is so great that you have such a supportive team behind you. This play will be opening this weekend running through April 16th. Any closing words before we say, ‘So long.’ (points to lapel button).
JD: Oh, I love it! That’s the button from the joke about my mother where she says, ‘So long’! I love that!
WM: I believe they refer to that as a ‘callback’ in the comedy world.
JD: Well, I just want to let everyone know it’s not at Primary Stages; they’re just producing it with Jamie deRoy. It is at 59E59 Theaters—and don’t anyone ask me the address, because then you’ll sound like an idiot.
WM: Fantastic! I want to thank you so much, Judy, for taking time out of your schedule to briefly speak with us and I hope everyone goes and sees your show. Break all the legs. So long!
JD: So long! Q
Yes, I Can Say That runs March 4-April 16 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St.,
NYC. Tickets $60-125. For information, visit primarystages.org