Roger L. Simon

Richard Pryor in the Era of the 'New Racism'

In the days before I was exiled by the HTP (Hollywood Thought Police), I wrote screenplays for several comedy stars. The greatest of those, without doubt, was the late Richard Pryor, thought by many (including me) to have been the greatest stand-up comic of all time.

I wrote the script for the film Bustin’ Loose for Richard and, while working on the revisions, traveled with him across country while he was on tour. He had me write one-liners for his stand-up as well, but used almost none of them. Maybe they weren’t funny enough, but he didn’t need them. Pryor didn’t do jokes. He just told the truth as he saw it and somehow it would be wildly funny.

One of the routines he would do, as I recall, was a comparison of a black person and a white person walking through a dark woods at night. He made fun of how both sides dealt with their terror. It was hysterical. These days it would seem so insulting, no one would laugh. It would be deemed racist.

In fact, almost everything is deemed racist these days.  Sly Stone should do a remake of his great “Everybody Is a Star” as “Everybody Is a Racist.” Since this is The Diary of a Mad Voter, I should point out that both Clinton and Trump are accusing each other of being racist. Neither is. It’s all part of this general swim from politics to media to entertainment to, most sadly, the academy, which has been overtaken by that unbearable neologism “microaggressions.”

But if everybody’s a racist, the word means nothing.  Right?

Wrong! We are in the era of the “New Racism.” “Racist” has a new definition now. Roughly, it means: I-hate-you-you-miserable-son-or-daughter-of-a-bitch-you-should-eat-shit-and-die.

Or words to that effect.

It also means: Shut up. I don’t want to hear what you’re saying.  Ever.

And further it means… and perhaps this is the most important part… that’s not funny! 

Why is that so important?  It’s not for no reason that Umberto Eco chose the burning of Aristotle’s writings on comedy as the MacGuffin for his monumental The Name of the Rose. When humor is under target by the thought police, totalitarianism is on the way, if it isn’t already here.

These days, to say the least, we “wise off” at our peril. Richard Pryor, genius though he was, would not be able to function. (He had a hard enough time functioning when he did, alas.)

I thought of that last night while viewing the riveting new documentary Can We Take a Joke? directed by Ted Balaker and featuring such comics as Penn Jillette, Adam Carolla and Gilbert Gottfried, not to mention vintage footage of the great Lenny Bruce. The film is about the wave of censorship of edgy comics sweeping our society in the name of “sensitivity.” In other words, as mentioned above, shut up.

More than anywhere else this affects our campuses, which have been turned into “safe spaces” for the so-called “snowflakes.” No Richard Pryors or Lenny Bruces for these sensitive souls, heaven forfend.  No jokes are allowed by these “social justice warriors” or whatever they choose to call themselves, at least not jokes they have not previously vetted.

(A special shout-out here must go to U. of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, who has just warned incoming freshmen not to expect his university to be a “safe space” or censor controversial speakers. Let’s hope he’s reversing a trend that has engulfed such august institutions as Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth. Wouldn’t an intelligent student want to choose Chicago over those Ivies?)

But back to Can We Take a Joke? It’s very much worth noting the executive producer of the documentary is Greg Lukianoff, sometime Instapundit contributor, but, more importantly, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). For more than a decade now that organization has led the way in the battle for free speech on campus, quite possibly the most important battle we face in the defense of our democratic republic.

You can find Can We Take a Joke? on iTunes, Amazon, etc.  Download it.  You’ll get a few laughs along with the message.

Roger L. Simon is a prize-winning novelist, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and co-founder of PJ Media.  His most recent book is—I Know Best: How Moral Narcissism Is Destroying Our Republic, If It Hasn’t Already.  You can read an excerpt here. You can see a brief interview about the book with the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal here. You can hear an interview about the book with Mark Levin here. You can order the book here.