Female Comics Sound Off on Kevin Hart, Louis C.K. and Comedy in the Age of Trump

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Judy Gold, Wanda Sykes, Jenny Hagel and Cameron Esposito on a panel at the WITW Summit

Wanda Sykes, Cameron Esposito, Judy Gold and Jenny Hagel gathered at the Women in the World Summit to talk about the current state of comedy.

Wanda Sykes, Cameron Esposito, Judy Gold and Jenny Hagel all have careers dedicated to making people laugh, though it’s an increasingly tough gig these days. One joke could set off a Twitter storm, or worse — the leader of the free world. As part of the 10th annual Women in the World Summit, the slate of comedians gave their take on the aforementioned, along with speaking truth to power, Louis C.K.’s comeback and the importance of humor in today’s political climate.

“For me, it’s like the elephant in the room if I don’t talk about what’s happening in the world and in politics,” Sykes said on Thursday. “I’m really funny when things are effed-up in the country. There’s just more to draw from.”

She hasn't been the subject of a presidential tweet, but Sykes did make headlines back in September after a number of people left her New Jersey show when Trump was the subject of her jokes.

“Honestly, it seems like it’s okay for straight white guys to bash the president, but any black woman or a person of color, you better shut the hell up," she said. "You’re gonna catch hell. That’s what it seems like.”

Also, why would anybody assume Sykes to be a fan of Trump?

“You’re ridiculous if you come to my show if you’re a Trump supporter," Sykes said. "Why are you here? What are you doing? You are a bad decision-maker.”

While jokes about the president are otherwise widely acceptable, there's an ongoing conversation about topics that are off-limits — whether for certain people or for anyone at all. Inevitably, Kevin Hart's old homophobic tweets came up.

"To me, that’s the one time I will say to a comic, ‘Hey man, that’s wrong. You can’t say that,'" Sykes said. "Because I personally know kids who have been kicked out of their homes, have been abused, because that is who they are. And also, the joke just isn’t funny."

Gold, a comic who hosts the weekly podcast Kill Me Now, agreed: “You can talk about anything — any subversive topic — as long as it’s funny.”

But this wasn't an opinion all of the women on the panel shared.

Hagel, a writer and performer for Late Night with Seth Meyers, invoked the phrase "punching up."

"Part of what comedians do is speak truth to power, and making fun of who has a higher status than you is a very different act than making fun of someone who is below you," she explained. "So, I think when people make jokes about the president, part of why I think we all feel like it’s fine to do that is because he has a lot of power. We’re not taking anything away from him really by doing that.

Hagel put things into perspective by explaining that she can get away with telling certain jokes that Meyers can't.

"Seth is a straight white guy and if he wants to make jokes at lesbians’ expense, it kind of feels like a bummer because he’s punching down," she said. "That’s a group of people who have less social power than he does. I identify as lesbian — if I make a joke about lesbians, it’s in a different kind of fun.”

That's not to say someone won't have an issue with the joke she makes. However, Hagel said she would welcome that concern.

Esposito, the comedian known for Take My Wife and her stand-up special Rape Jokes, explained that she's actually been in a situation like that before. "I take my responsibility to young people and to especially people in the LGBTQ community, so seriously," she said.

So, when somebody asked Esposito to change the term “women” in her joke about periods to “people with periods,” because there are trans men who have periods, she did. Esposito said it was simply “no skin off my back."

Gold, however, said she would’ve made a joke about the situation.

“I just feel like, that’s somebody whose life is already so hard," Esposito responded. "Why do I, someone who’s marginalized, need to make somebody whose life is even more marginalized, worse?”

But Gold said a joke isn't necessarily “making their life harder." Throughout the conversation, she argued that comedians are not only being held to a higher standard than the president, but also having to navigate places like college campuses — which she refuses to perform at — that have bookers who tell comics "what they can and cannot say" before they go onstage.

"They never take the time to [ask], ‘What is the intent of this joke? What is this person trying to say?’" Gold said. "Instead, it’s about [George] Carlin’s seven words, but now there’s not seven anymore, there’s 700 words you can’t say."

She's particularly outraged at with how many comedians have apologized for past offensive jokes or tweets "... and yet, that orange piece of crap has never apologized. He lies every single day."

Gold continued, "We’re telling jokes. We are not making laws, we’re not affecting people's lives and liberties and separating parents — we’re not doing that. We’re telling a joke. If you don’t like it, turn off the channel, leave, go do something else."

The term "P.C. culture" kept coming up, which prompted Esposito to point out what she believed to be the difference between Trump and modern comedians.

"When we’re talking about the president, that is purposely ignorant. He’s presented every day with information on how he could do better, and he’s choosing again and again to harm people," she said. "When we talk about my responsibility — the responsibility that I’m actually, like, into as a comic — is to pay attention and use evolving language and get better all the time. And I think sometimes we lump kindness [and] respect in 'P.C. culture.' ”

Esposito added that the term seems to be one that people in the industry — “especially straight, white cisgendered men” — use to be able to say whatever they want.

“And [if] I’m on a bill with you, I actually don’t want to follow you if you’re going to use the gay F-word that I don’t even use, because I don’t use words that don’t apply to me that are also the last thing somebody else hears before they’re beaten to death," she said.

Esposito made a similar point when discussing the controversial situation that Louis C.K. has placed not only himself, but other comedians in.

"He is making other people at every club he’s at — the other comics who have to be on the lineup with him, like some comic who’s 22 and just up-and-coming and this is her big shot — and straight up, that guy, you are a terrible person if you’re trying to back in clubs this early," Esposito said. "Just take a seat. Could you at least give us a couple years to just have another person stand up and get a chance to talk?"

But Gold sees things differently.

“I feel like you can’t tell a painter not to paint. You can’t tell a writer not to write. You cannot tell an artist not to do their work," she said. "And [Louis C.K.] is a comedian. That’s what he does, and the only place he can do it [is] in comedy clubs. If a comedy club is willing to have him, I believe in all of freedom of speech no matter what. Don’t go see him. You can complain, you can do whatever you want, but he’s still a comedian; he’s going to go perform wherever he can."

Sykes said the decision should ultimately be left up to audiences: "If he shows up and everybody sits there and claps, and listens, and laughs, well I guess it’s time for him to come back. If the audience says, ‘No it’s too soon. What the hell are you doing here?’ And they leave and they complain, then you need to go sit down; it’s too soon.

Despite disagreements throughout the panel, it appropriately ended on a humorous note.

“I don’t like where we are as a country right now,” Sykes said. “And you know, I have a great life: I’m healthy, my kids are healthy, I got a little money — I’m good. And it would be easy for me just to go and enjoy my life and get on stage and talk about bullshit like, ‘Oh, my kids! And oh boy, the teachers! They’re doing homework!’ That would be so easy for me to do, but I care too much and I know how much people are suffering. I want to make people laugh and talk about real stuff and maybe, hopefully, people will start talking to each other. So if you watch my Netflix special coming out May 1st…”