Judy Gold is one of those journeywoman comedians who’s earned a rep for her stand-up act, and her occasional appearances on TV, without ever becoming a household name. She uses that relative anonymity to her advantage in her new show, Yes, I Can Say That!, an adaptation of a book she published in 2020, mid-pandemic, when she says it was surprisingly hard to get publicity. (Her appearance on The View was pre-empted by John Lewis’s funeral.)
Instead of a traditional stand-up act, Gold structures her show (co-written by Eddie Sarfaty and opening Tuesday at 59E59 Theaters) as a somewhat awkward mulligan’s stew of memoir, comedy and TED talk, complete with slides and supporting quotes about the importance of comedians in society and the dangerous modern impulse to censorship. She mentions foreign governments jailing comics in an effort to suppress criticism, but her bigger concern is progressive American audiences who bristle at particular jokes — and sometimes even halt performances mid-act or seek to cancel supposed offenders.
“Comedy clubs are not a safe space,” she argues, adding that art is not intended to be safe. Since the days of Lenny Bruce, and even before, comedians have been able to push boundaries, and to speak truth to power. Which means that sometimes artists (including comedians) do cross the line — though the context and the timing of supposed transgressions do matter. “Laughter is the best medicine,” she says, “but different people need different doses.”
None of these arguments is particularly fresh, of course, and the use of projected quotes on the back wall of the stage feels artificial and uncomfortable for a performer renowned for a looser performing approach, including her crowd work. (She had a hard time reading the audience at one recent performance, pausing for laughs that did not come as expected and commenting when other chuckles erupted.)
She’s stronger in her all-too-brief biographical digressions, about her upbringing in a Jewish household in New Jersey, her struggles as a rising female comic in the ’80s who had to plead for stage time (“You’d think they’d want to hire more women so they can save some money”), and her decision to come out as a lesbian on stage after she and her partner became parents.
But her defense of comedy, and of allowing comics to occasionally give offense, is more didactic than demonstrative — and she gives all too few examples from her own act of jokes that lean up the edge of respectability (or tumble over it for some audiences). Or how the current cancel culture is prompting her — or at least tempting her — to hold some punches.