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Every Safe Space Has a Door: An Interview with Comedian Judy Gold

Comedian and author Judy Gold has a joke about her son that sometimes makes people mad.

My son Henry years ago was like, ‘I’m getting a tattoo.’

And I’m like, ‘no, you’re not.’ 

He said, ‘yes, I am.’ 

I said, ‘no, you’re not.’ 

And then, and I said, ‘all right, what are you going to get?’

And he said, ‘I think I want to get something that says I’m from New York. I’m thinking of getting our zip code tattooed on my arm.’

And I said, ‘Henry, you’re a Jew. You’re not getting numbers tattooed on your arm.’ 

“People really laugh because it’s funny,” Gold tells Lilith. “And then some people will be like, ‘I was uncomfortable with that.’” 

Gold has recently released her book Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians We Are All In Trouble (July 28), where she defends the risque or provocative joke from its detractors in comedy and beyond.

She also currently hosts the podcast “Kill Me Now.” Lilith Intern Rachel Fadem had a Zoom chat with Gold in late October about comedy, the current political moment, and her ties to Judaism. “Okay, so that joke brought something up for you,” says Gold of her tattoo line. “But every night, no matter where I am, I get on stage and talk about the Holocaust. And I talk about being Jewish.”

Lilith: In your book you talked a lot about comedy as a force for action, change and education. Do you see that with the current climate?

Judy Gold: Absolutely. I mean, the sad part is that it’s the perfect storm for stand-up because everyone’s in the same boat. It’s like having a palette that’s like “paint me.” And yet we can’t do stand-up because this guy fucked up the pandemic. Comedy is so much of our culture, and the arts are suffering the most here. We need the arts more than anything. 

Great comedy makes you think. But it can also sort of change your mind, change your opinion about things. Especially when you see someone who is the polar opposite of you, onstage, making you laugh. Comedy clubs are tiny and intimate and you could be sitting there as an audience member, laughing hysterically. And the people at the next table are laughing hysterically too.

Lilith: You’re starting to perform again outdoors. How are people reacting?

JG: The audience is starved for comedy, starved for laughter, starved to just have someone go, “Can you fucking believe what the fuck is going on?” And you know, that’s what comics do. It’s the most palatable way to talk about subversive topics. 

The difference now is that they’re so appreciative, you know, they’re starving!

Lilith: Have you ever adapted the way you create your acts based on who you think is going to be in the audience?

JG: I don’t write jokes specifically for the audience. So a lot of people get offended, and it’s like: the jokes are not about you. No one was thinking about you when they wrote the joke. You can write to me and say, I’m a homophobe, I’m a self-hating Jew. I’m whatever you think I am. But if I tell you a joke and you laugh and you’re like “Ooh I shouldn’t have laughed at that,” you still laughed! It doesn’t make whatever you’re laughing about worse. It doesn’t make the Holocaust more of a horrible thing. It’s such a natural coping mechanism, but it’s also a weapon, you know? And so because it’s such a powerful weapon you have to be intelligent to know how to use it or understand it. 

Incidentally, that is also why there’s so much misogyny in our business. We equate weaponry and power with men. I call it out as I see it. I’ve always been like that.

Lilith: There’s a whole discourse right now around what kind of humor is politically acceptable. 

JG: Right. Who decides what is politically correct? Once you stop talking about things, there’s no evolution, no discourse, we don’t grow, we don’t learn. Some things are uncomfortable to talk about. Good comedy brings you to this uncomfortable place where you’re like, wait, what? And then the punchline is a release of tension. 

We can talk. We have to. We have to talk about rape. We have to talk about racism. We have to talk about xenophobia, homophobia, antisemitism, misogyny. We have to talk about it. It’s not like if you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. What is this idea that we can never feel uncomfortable? That’s not the real world. Every safe space has a door that leads to the real world.

Life is full of shit that’s thrown at you. And if you’re constantly cutting yourself off, you’re not going to be able to deal with it.

Lilith: How does your Jewish practice impact how you think about comedy?

JG: When you’re a marginalized group, humor is such a major coping mechanism. 

But beyond that, Judaism as a religion: you’re reading the same passage at the same time every year and trying to find something new about it. So if you think about it, this passage is thousands of years old, and you need to make it about you or figure out a relevant angle. And that’s what a joke is! It’s looking at something from a completely different perspective. So my Judaism is in so much of the way I think.

I also have an overbearing Jewish mother. You can call it a stereotype, but if you were kicked out of every country or someone was coming to knock on your door while you’re having dinner with your family and just saying, get out, that anxiety travels from generation to generation to generation.

So there’s a reason there’s a whole chapter in my book about stereotypes. You can use them, but use them wisely and use them specifically. If I’m on stage talking about Jewish stuff and I feel like they’re laughing for the wrong reason, that is where I draw the line. I won’t get a cheap laugh. I will call that out. 

Lilith: I think you have to be able to laugh through the generational trauma.

JG: My mother used to say if we weren’t laughing, we’d be crying. It’s true. If you want to sit in your misery, fine. I talk about people on their deathbeds making jokes. It’s such a release of all that tension and trauma. It really is. I mean, when George Floyd was murdered, the following week, I think in the top 10 downloads on Spotify was a Richard Pryor bit from 1974 about the police. Which shows, A, not much has changed since then. And, B, then people needed to laugh and hear the truth. They needed a voice, you know, that’s why comedians are so threatening. We speak truth to power.

Lilith: You mention a shift in comedy. What do you hope the future of comedy will be?

JG: I feel like it should be more equitable. I would love to see three women on a show, not being a ladies night out or a special event for “Hysterical” [a 2019 stand-up comedy show in New York]. I hope that three people of color on a show isn’t called “Urban Night.” I hope that we stop holding our comedians to a higher standard than our elected officials, whose speech literally kills people and incites violence. A comedian’s only goal is to make you laugh.

Lilith: You’ve spoken about the connection between your LGBTQ identity and your belief in giving people a second chance.

JG: As an LGBTQ person, I think our movement’s goal is always to change people, to make them evolve so that they see that we deserve to live with dignity and equality. And that we’re a little different, but we’re just like you. There are so many times where people get to that point where they’re like, “You know what?…” And they get to that point always because a family member, someone they love, is trans, is gay, is bi, is lesbian, is intersex, is gender fluid. And when they realize, “Oh, this is so close to me and I have this child. This is the way they’re born.” When people realize that and they change their minds and their philosophy, that’s our goal. 

And when we go back and bring up the person they were before that, and keep crucifying them for that, that doesn’t help any of us. So we have to acknowledge when people have changed. So I just wish there was no more “cancel culture,” and our critics would stop bringing up jokes from 20 years ago. People don’t talk the way they did 20 years ago. The world is different than it was then.

But can you imagine a world without laughter? Forget it.