Comedy is a serious business, and no one knows that better than Judy Gold

Judy Gold photo by Eric Korenman
Judy Gold photo by Eric Korenman

Judy Gold brings her no nonsense persona to bear on today in America

Over the course of three decades Judy Gold has become a familiar and hilarious industry presence. Gold is a celebrated stand-up comedian and actress. She is also an Emmy-winning writer of off-Broadway shows. TV appearances and extensive touring have cemented her brash, no-nonsense persona, and won her accolades from colleagues and comedy fans alike.

Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble

In a troubling time that has left many sidelined, the New Jersey native has been busy as ever with a little luck and a strong work ethic. She commenced her usual summer engagement of stand-up shows in Provincetown (this time sacrificing walls to keep her audience) and curate new episodes of her popular podcast Kill Me Now, where she and celebrity friends vent about the little things that drive them crazy.

Most noteworthy is her new book Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble, released in July.

The book’s concept came to Gold unexpectedly. After VICE News published a piece about college bookers telling comedians what they could or could not say on stage, she was asked to write a rebuttal. An editor from Harper Collins liked it so much she was soon asked to pen a full book on the subject.

Gold’s uncompromising frankness affords the tart honesty the topic requires. Part history lesson, part manifesto, Yes, I Can Say That… brings together her encyclopedic knowledge of the ebb and flow of the comedy business with a hard look at the fork in the road at which it stands in the social media age, where political correctness threatens to alter the very filter through which comedians reach their audience or muzzle them outright. Analyzing her predecessors and contemporaries helps Gold entertain while making her points.

Gold was kind enough to chat with me from her home in Provincetown in between dog sitting Maddie, her ex-partner’s Cockapoo (“Is that the most lesbian thing you’ll ever hear…?”) and her outdoor gigs.

Until I read this book, I didn’t realize how much someone in comedy needed to write it. When did you see a need for this discussion?

Judy Gold: Well, I’m in the clubs every night—or I was, pre-pandemic—and I would hear the most edgy, subversive comics worried: “Oh, I’m going to get in trouble if I say that…” and I’m like “What the fuck is going on here?!” And, to make matters worse, we have a “President” who says the most hateful, destructive, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, xenophobic things. They come out of his mouth and affect people and their lives… his words kill people! “Drink Lysol”? Are you fucking kidding me?! And then you’re attacking a comedian whose only goal is to make you laugh? If you don’t like the joke, then don’t listen to it. Leave the club. Turn off the radio. Change the channel. It’s not about you.

You outline so well how we’ve been having this conversation for such a long time. If you don’t like it, just turn it off.

JG: Exactly. Why are we holding comedians to a higher standard than the President of the United States?

Judy Gold book cover "Yes, I Can Say That"
Judy Gold book cover “Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble”

I’d like to know that one, too, Judy.

JG: (inhales) Oh, motherfucker… (laughs)

You mention that almost any subject matter can be on the table as long as the comedian tells a joke that’s funny. But what happens when some people don’t have a sense of humor anymore? Is that the problem?

JG: Once you take the intent of the comedian out of the equation, the context of the joke and any nuance associated with it, there’s no comedy left. When you murder someone—when you, because you will be murdering in the future—and you’re on trial for homicide, your sentence is determined by your intent, and yet the same consideration isn’t given to a comedian. People are now “triggered” by words—just the word, not a word in a context. That’s it. There’s no nuance in a Tweet.

Right, there isn’t, and yet we see these intense reactions.

JG: Listen, you can talk about any topic as long as it’s funny and a well-structured joke. Look, we’re gay—I know that’s a shock to you and your family—but us in the LGBTQ+ community, we experience the world differently than straight people, okay? So we tell our truth—that’s what comedians do, they speak truth to power, which is why people are threatened by comedians, and a great comedian makes you laugh and makes you think. You can’t be a comedian without a point of view. So if we’re using ours, living in this country as an LGBT+ person, who the fuck are you to tell us we can’t talk about something because you’ve decided it’s unacceptable or it makes you uncomfortable? What is this thing where we’re never supposed to feel uncomfortable? You need to be protected from a feeling? No!

You give a voice to peoples’ frustration and anger that’s therapeutic because you’re funny. Do you think there would be less unrest these days if people were better able to express themselves?

JG: First of all, people need to stop taking themselves so seriously. Second, the joke isn’t about you. No comedian was thinking of you when they wrote the joke. Like this idea that everyone gets a trophy—you get a trophy for winning the race and breaking the record, and then you get one for smiling while he did it—no! They’re not equal! Sorry. That’s not the way the world is. Every safe space has a door to the real world. You have to know how to deal with the fucking shit that gets thrown your way.

Judy Gold photo by Justine Ungaro
Judy Gold photo by Justine Ungaro

Listen, I would even get flack from the Jewish press for doing my mother [in my act] and they would say “Oh, that’s a stereotype” and I would say “No, actually, that’s my mother. That’s the way she talks, and that’s exactly what she said, okay?” I go around the country—the world—and talk about my Jewish mother to people who’ve never seen a Jew or have preconceived thoughts about Jews, and you’re sitting in your apartment on the Upper West Side in a shell telling me how I should talk about my mother? I don’t think so.

What kind of feedback has your frankness about being a lesbian and your family life generated over the years?

JG: Well, in the mid-90s I came out as a gay parent. I would walk onstage and start talking about my family. Every comic does that, so why shouldn’t I? After a while, people in the audience would think “Oh, she has the same issues we have.” Comedy’s a weapon. That’s why people feel threatened by it. And once you have kids [and talk about it] people will say “Wait, why can’t they get married? Why are we different?” When marriage equality was coming to the forefront in the late 90s, I had a bit about how—because they were straight—Eric and Lyle Menendez, who killed their parents, got married in jail. I thought, “They can get married and I—with my partner of twenty years—am not entitled to a federal tax benefit? I can’t get married, and Britney Spears can get married for like four hours? That’s the sanctity of marriage? You’re fucking kidding me!”

I remember a show where a military guy came up to me and was like “Yeah, I can see why you guys wanna get married now…” and I thought “Oh my God! Maybe when he goes to the voting booth he won’t vote for the fuckin’ homophobe. Who knows?”

So if someone told you to be upset because you heard this word or that thought, well…who the fuck are you?

Comedy breaks stigmas by telling the truth and tricking you into thinking and laughing at the same time. A joke is a release of tension. It’s a surprise. So if someone told you to be upset because you heard this word or that thought, well…who the fuck are you?

And good luck relieving the tension.

JG: Yeah, exactly. Nice one!

I agree with what you wrote about what a shame it is we don’t have George Carlin and Richard Pryor to help us deal with the absurdity we’re facing now, but reading your book made me wonder if they’d be victims of cancel culture in 2020. You also point out Don Rickles would never succeed if he were starting out today with the same act. Do you think the era is just too puritanical?

JG: Look, we’re gay! Our goal is for people who are homophobes to evolve and realize everyone knows and loves a gay person. We’re exactly like you, but with better music, better bars, better food, better theater, better clothes—better everything… It was a badge of honor to get mocked by Don Rickles—and basically, he was saying that we’re all the same. But now? Forget it. Even at the end of his life when he would do material on late night it wouldn’t land the way it used to. We evolve and we change, and some things have different meanings now, and that’s fine, but don’t vilify someone for something they did ten, 20 or 30 years ago when the world was a different place. So when someone says “Listen, I was a different person, I’m sorry” then move the fuck on.

Bill Maher often says that it’s wrong to claim we wouldn’t have done something now considered offensive had we been around in an earlier time, because we would have been different people.

JG: That’s right. I go back to my material and I say “Oh, I wouldn’t do that joke now.” You’re different. You wouldn’t do half the shit you did 15 years ago! And now Randy Rainbow is dealing with a lot of this. When you look at Randy, all he’s doing is spreading good and humor, and ten years ago he wrote stuff he is mortified [by] at this point. Are we going to punish him? I hope not.

You mentioned that one joke got you death threats and years’ worth of (supposedly) random pat downs before flights.

JG: Yes, I did a Howard Dean benefit during Bush’s second term and I got really riled up at the end of my set. I said something like “we’ve gotta get that living, breathing piece of shit out of office!” Thank goodness that was before Twitter!

Someone said “it took balls to write this book” and I thought “It did?”

What are the implications of that for a comic? How do you do the job without compromise?

JG: Look, I’m at an age where I have nothing to lose. Someone said to me “it took balls to write this book” and I thought “It did?” I have younger people who say “You could be kinder, blah blah blah” but I am kind! There’s a reason it’s called an act. If you don’t like my comedy, you don’t have to watch it, but you don’t get to tell me I shouldn’t ever be able to tell another joke or work again. It’s a living, breathing art form. A painter doesn’t paint one tenth of a painting and then invite people to see it. We need you guys—the audience—to tell us what’s funny. It’s the only art form like that.

I take issue with Yondr pouches, where you have to lock up your phone at a show, but until I read your book I didn’t realize as a non-comic how someone in the audience can so easily use their phone to record something out of context and potentially damage a comedian’s reputation.

JG: They take a portion of it and can destroy someone’s career! Just put the phone away. You can’t focus for an hour? Comedy is a uniter—the people at the next table could be people you’d hate and you don’t even know it—but yet we’re all laughing together. Why would you want something to take you out of that?

You mentioned that when you said the idea of appearing as a T-cell at an 80s themed parade for Carnival Week in Provincetown that a couple older friends thought it was hilarious, but that someone younger was appalled. Do you think its life experience that explains the difference in reaction?

JG: Yes! As my mother used to say “If we weren’t laughing, we’d be crying.” Sometimes the only way to deal with certain situations is gallows humor. I experienced the AIDS crisis. I lost friends. I watched people get sick. It was awful. That’s my experience, and humor is my coping mechanism. If you’re 20, you don’t have that experience or knowledge. Maybe you don’t understand where it’s coming from, but that’s on you.

I’ve spent my entire adult life fighting for LGBT rights and dignity, I worked at God’s Love We Deliver—I was right there in the middle of that whole situation. So don’t tell me that I can’t say it when you haven’t had the same experience I had.

Also, why do we want to stop ourselves from laughing? Laugh! It doesn’t make any situation worse. It’s just a release. Remember, we have a president with no sense of humor, no self-awareness, who wants SNL to be investigated because they make fun of him, and can’t even sit through a White House Correspondents Dinner because he can’t handle that. Satire and humor are so important and so much a part of our culture, so if you’re going to banish, banish wisely, because a world without humor is not a world I want to live in.

“I say what everyone’s thinking and afraid to say.” – Joan Rivers

You write beautifully about your friend Joan Rivers in this book. I know you miss her voice now as many of us do. What did she teach you that helped you to come into your own as a comedian?

JG: Oh, she really embodied free speech, and she was never more relevant than when she died at 82. She always said “I say what everyone’s thinking and afraid to say.” I related to that. She always made you laugh—not chuckle—but belly-fucking-laugh. Just the truth, always. Fearless, kind, classy, smart… and humble! I would say “Joan, you don’t know what you did…” and she’d say “Oh, I did nothing.” I would think “You did everything.” Chris Rock said “she is the Mount Rushmore” and she is.

You performed in Provincetown this summer for live audiences by taking your act outdoors. Was it fun, or can you not wait to get back indoors?

JG: I had people come up to me and say “That was my first show in four or five months! I feel like a normal person. I laughed!” Just to forget for an hour, like, oh my God, what a shit show we’re living in! I even performed on a flatbed truck in Queens where people flashed their lights to show they were laughing. I’m just so happy to be able do it.

This is my livelihood. It’s not ideal…it’s hard to get into a rhythm outdoors because the sound goes all over the place. The audience is so far away. But it’s important…people need laughter. Of course, I can’t wait to walk into a comedy club again, but who the fuck knows when that’s gonna happen?

Since you’re a New Jersey native, can we take any credit for your comic bite?

JG: Oh, absolutely. I mean, my filthy language, filthy vocabulary (Laughs) I am so New Jersey roots I can’t even tell you. I went to Rutgers and my father did too. So did my brother. Growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey made me who I am and gave me this caustic humor I have to this day. I love New Jersey. You can’t take the Jersey out of the girl.