“There’s this idea among too many people that there’s these sacred subjects that you can’t joke about,” says Fox News contributor Kat Timpf. “And I think that those are actually the most important subjects to be able to joke about because those are the ones that need healing the most.”
Timpf’s new book, the bestselling You Can’t Joke About That: Why Everything Is Funny, Nothing Is Sacred, and We’re All in This Together, is a full-throated defense of free speech and a compelling argument for humor as the best possible coping mechanism. After stints at National Review, Barstool Sports, and roast chicken purveyor Boston Market, Timpf is now a regular panelist on Gutfeld!, America’s most-watched late-night show.
In June, Reason‘s Nick Gillespie talked with Timpf live at the Reason Speakeasy in New York about her life as a standup comedian, her career, what it’s like to be a libertarian at Fox News, and how her mother’s untimely death convinced her that humor can be a powerful tool to bring a fragmented country together.
Reason: What is it about free speech that you think is basically inviolable?
Timpf: Because if that’s not your principle, then inherently you’re saying that there should be someone else who decides what you can and cannot say. There’s nothing that’s scarier than that.
It’s not like I’ve never been the target of hateful speech. I get some of the most disgusting stuff directed at me every day, whether it’s mean or deeply kinky sexual from men who, you look at their Instagram and it’s a picture of them with their grandkids. Does your wife know you’re on here, you sick fuck?
When people say “What about this speech?,” my question to those people always is: “Who would you like to see making that decision?” It drove me nuts throughout the entire Trump presidency, how many people would call for hate speech laws, but then also say that Trump is literally Hitler. So how can you have those two views at the same time? So you want the government to be controlling speech. The same government that you yourself just said, you think the head of the executive branch is literally Hitler. And you don’t see how those two [ideas] don’t make sense together.
In the book you run through a bunch of examples of people who got pilloried for bad speech. Kathy Griffin got in big trouble, including being bounced off of Twitter and being put on a no-fly list, for having done a stupid stunt where she displayed a mannequin head of Donald Trump—a severed head.
I wrote a column about it for National Review. It was a pretty common take on conservative Twitter that she should be prosecuted for this. No sane person really thought that the star of My Life on the D-List was actually planning to assassinate the president. You could say you thought it was gross. You could say you didn’t like it. But saying that it’s not protected speech? That’s a super-dangerous take, in my opinion. Especially because we are talking about Kathy Griffin. I mean, when she won an Emmy, she got up there and said something like, “Suck it, Jesus. This award is my god now.” We can’t really be shocked that she did something like this.
Conservatives—a lot of them—said, ‘OK, but this should be prosecuted.’ It’s like, well, no, because the First Amendment. The main purpose of it is to criticize people in power without government retaliation, as a check on the government.
What about the argument some people advance that speech shouldn’t be banned, but maybe certain types of speech should be disapproved of in such a way that it’s almost the same as banning it?
Don’t erase anything, right? In the summer of 2020, there was a piece saying how many different streaming services pulled episodes: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, 30 Rock, How I Met Your Mother.
The interesting thing about How I Met Your Mother was there was somebody who is more on the left [writer Alanna Bennett] who was saying we shouldn’t erase anything because then we can’t talk about it. I agree with that.
The example she gave was the yellowface episode of How I Met Your Mother, where they dressed up as kung fu masters. And there was this debate at the time: Is this yellowface? Is this just silliness? But she actually got the character wrong that was actually dressed like that, because it’s a lot harder to have those conversations when it doesn’t exist anymore.
The past happened whether you acknowledge it or not. And there’s no purpose for wanting to erase things except for wanting to delude. It’s the same thing as if you don’t like how your life is going, you want to go out and forget all about it. That doesn’t mean that your life’s any better. It means you’re just ignoring it. And it’s always better to have more information rather than less.
Roseanne Barr, who mounted the most successful reboot in recent TV history, tweeted out objectively racist stuff about a Barack Obama adviser. What’s your take on that?
Roseanne’s a very interesting example of how Twitter is pretty much never worth it. Not only do you not get paid, but you also can maybe get fired. But it’s the dopamine hit.
Sarah Silverman said something about this once: What’s the point of being a progressive if you can’t allow for progress? She was speaking in the context of a friend of hers who used to be a literal Nazi, who now realizes how disgusting that is. If you can’t progress and learn from mistakes and you’re just canceled forever, then what are any of us even doing here?
People on the right and the left are just ready to pounce whenever. Why is that?
I think it’s tribalism and fear. People are afraid of being canceled for sure. If someone’s getting canceled, you don’t have to actually face that person when they get fired. You don’t have to get up off the toilet. And then you’re like, I’m one of the good ones.
If you have a side, there are certain sacred cows on your side that you need to show that you see as sacred or else you might be jeopardizing your place on that side. Social media also makes that worse because you get to see all these people telling you, “Fuck you.” And normally you wouldn’t get to see that. Studies show that, at least on Twitter and Facebook, moral, emotional words and grandstanding get more engagement than other posts. Think about how different that is from real life. If you had a friend who would only talk like that, you wouldn’t want to hang out with them anymore. But on social media, it’s actually rewarded.
Talk about the big trauma that energizes your book: the death of your mother in her late 50s.
Cardiac amyloidosis. Super-rare disease. Your body creates a protein your liver can’t break down. It builds up in your organs. It was really unexpected. She died at 57, just about three weeks after she was formally diagnosed. And obviously it was awful and traumatic. In addition to it being devastating, it was also isolating because I could tell how scared people were to talk to me after that happened because they were so scared of saying the wrong thing.
People would say, “Oh, at least you got to say goodbye.” Bro, what do you say to people whose [family member] died in car accidents? “Oh, at least she was torn limb from limb in front of you and set on fire”? You’re not helping.
I felt that joking about it was helpful. My mom was joking about herself dying as she was dying.
The first Mother’s Day after my mom died, I was sad. I felt bad. I didn’t want to say anything. The second one, I’m still sad, because you see on the Instagram all the people are out to brunch—you can only do that with living people. And I posted a picture of my laundry basket, a bottle of Tide, and I was like, “Mom’s dead. Going to do some laundry.” Because I laughed and felt a little better. People were on me for that: “This is offensive! This is disrespectful.”
To who? You didn’t know her. I came out of her body. You don’t know me at all or her. So I think that you’re just giving decorum for its own sake a higher purpose than it deserves. And that’s what I mean by you’re actually hurting the people who you’re trying to help.
The standards of speech are supposed to be put into place to protect people like me who are going through it, but they actually end up hurting people like me.
You quote a 1965 New York Times review: “Joan Rivers, a new comedienne of ripening promise who opened at midweek for a two-week run at the Bitter End, is an unusually bright girl who is overcoming the handicap of a woman comic, looks pretty and blonde and bright and yet manages to make people laugh.” How far have we come and where do we need to go?
We’ve come very far, which is why I’ve always found it to be low-key sexist when people fixate on the woman-in-comedy thing. Because even Rivers going through that, that wasn’t because she was a woman in comedy. That’s because she was a woman in the ’60s. It was a reflection of what women everywhere were going through. I mean, women couldn’t even have a credit card at that time—you could be denied that because, I mean, your husband opened your bank account.
The guys who will say “this is not a patriarchy,” even though statistically there are way more men in positions of power than women, are also, “I’m a numbers guy.” No, you’re not. I think that it’s important to acknowledge these things, but the pendulum is a bit in the wrong direction in today’s feminism. It focuses a little too much on what’s being done to women and looking at it as an excuse for why we’re not where we want to be and not enough of a focus on fucking doing it anyway. I’ve always looked up to Rivers, because she very much was like that. She was like, “Don’t talk to me about being a pioneer, I’m still breaking barriers.”
That doesn’t mean that the sexism is not real. The ultimate goal is to be respected as a human being just like any human being is, and take pride in the things that I’m able to do anyway and focus on what I’m going to do.
You did stints at National Review and Barstool Sports. Most of the places you’ve worked are right of center. What explains that? You’re very libertarian in word and deed and presentation.
That’s probably because I went to Hillsdale and then I had internships at conservative publications, and then they led to more conservative publications. I’ve not changed my beliefs at all. I’ve not hidden my beliefs at all. I am not conservative; I’m libertarian completely. I’m not “libertarian-leaning.” I’m libertarian. And I’ve not swayed on that at all. I’ve also not ever had any interest in having any platform where I would be even discouraged from saying what I really believe or think about something.
You also did traffic reports in the helicopter?
Yes, I was fired.
Why were you fired?
For giving the wrong directions, so I totally get it.
That’s one of the things holding women back.
Yes. Look, they did give the job to a man, but that was totally their call. I mean, I have a great radio voice, but not sending people into traffic is a pretty key part of that job.
Is it hard to be an unapologetic libertarian at Fox?
See, it’s a weird thing. On the show that airs tonight, they were talking about the trans prisoner, she’s getting a free vagina from the government.
I think it was Milton Friedman who said there are no free vaginas.
And everyone’s all, “this is an outrage,” “free vagina,” or “taxpayer money.” And I’m like: It’s an outrage that she’s even in prison, because it was for a drug offense. So if you’re going to get mad about wasting money, then why are we locking up this person just because she doesn’t party the way the government says is OK?
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a podcast version, subscribe to The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie.