Sarah Silverman is like sushi, a raw delicacy that people either love or hate–and too much will make you gag. Apparently, I am not deterred by such an occupational hazard because I consume both until I make myself sick.
Cringe-worthy comedy is nothing new: Lenny Bruce and Andy Kaufman’s respective strains of humor were less about eliciting laughter than provoking discomfort as a means to achieve the funny. But since the 1990 premiere of Seinfeld, comedy that unsettles has become the comedians’ lingua franca. Practitioners like Larry David–who created Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm–have taken this dark, cutting, often self-deprecating humor mainstream. In Curb, the joke’s usually on David, so you feel a little less guilty for laughing. English comics Ricky Gervais (The BBC’s The Office) and Sacha Baron Cohen (Da Ali G Show, Borat) and American female comedians Laura Kightlinger (The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman) and Kathy Griffin (My Life on the D List) level their sardonic humor at particular targets–show business and celebrity, Los Angeles, xenophobes, anti-Semites, racists, aspiring homeboys, the middle class, fashionistas.
But then there is Sarah Silverman (Jesus Is Magic, The Sarah Silverman Program): with her puppy-dog eyes, childish shrug, grab-the-crotch bravado and dopey, oops-did-I-just-fart grin (I list these qualities with affection–these are her selling points), the lacerating Levite revels in being as aimless with her spiteful humor as a kid with an Uzi water gun, hitting everyone in sight for no particular reason. The bigger the taboo–race, genocide, sex, abortion, bestiality–the more viciously she’ll dismantle it. In an interview with Nightline, she pleaded social consciousness. Her jokes aren’t racist; they’re about racism. “In my mind, the person I am onstage is me, but there’s a kind of ignorance coupled with arrogance. I see that reflected in our country.” Does she really believe her comedy is serving a larger purpose? Or is she trying to issue herself a get-out-of-jail-free pass?
There are many enlightened, progressive-minded people who either boldly or discreetly cop to laughing with her. I am forced to admit that I’ve not only watched Jesus Is Magic and her occasionally funny series The Sarah Silverman Program but variously giggled and then felt sickened by her coltish cunt-teuse persona. I both laughed and gagged at her deranged, catchy ditties about a farting contest gone wrong (“I just wanted to be like the others, but I pooped instead”), a comically bad stab at lesbian feminist folk and a “love song” that runs through nearly every cultural stereotype our culture has to offer (“I love you more than bears love honey/I love you more than Jews love money/I love you more than Asians are good at math/I love you even if you’re not hip/I love you even if black people don’t tip”). She just as frequently throws her own people under the bus with shtick about being raped by a doctor (which is “bittersweet for a Jewish girl”) and her Holocaust survivor grandmother (who went to one of the “better” concentration camps and got a tattoo that read “bedazzled”). Silverman recounts a story about her young niece telling her that Hitler was responsible for the deaths of 60 million Jews. “Aunt Sarah” corrects her, but her niece wants to know the difference. “Uh, the difference is that 60 million is unforgivable, young lady.”
The second season of The Sarah Silverman Program premieres October 3 on Comedy Central, and its first episode gets right to the heart of the Sarah Silverman quandary. The hilarious opening scene features an irate Sarah and her sweet elderly chihuahua, Douglas, stomping down the long aisle of an enormous church, where they interrupt the service to speak to the “manager” (the minister) about the loud bells that have awakened her early on a Sunday morning. There, she meets two dowdy women–Sarah assumes they’re lesbians–who lure her into a murderous crusade against “baby-killing” with their homemade lemon bars. Sarah thinks “assassinating babies” is wrong and becomes their fiercest new recruit, until she discovers they’re referring to abortion, not the shooting of infants. That’s the funny part. She pushes it beyond funny with a nostalgic montage of her three abortions and the good times she shared over the years with the jolly doctor and receptionist at the women’s health clinic. Of course she’s making fun of the ridiculous image Operation Rescue has of the prochoice movement, but she’s so flip about it that it actually feels dangerous, not provocative.
Is she or isn’t she funny? Is she genuinely mean, or is she making a commentary about American ignorance? Any confusion I had over these questions was cleared up by her monologue at MTV’s Video Music Awards, during which she unrelentingly reamed Britney Spears’s God-awful performance and referred to Spears’s two little boys as “the most adorable mistakes.” Was Silverman so desperate for a laugh that she had to kick a girl who is so far down that her innumerable disasters are covered in the press hourly? Her apology, which appeared in the Associated Press, is a testament to the fact that the “ignorance coupled with arrogance” that she claims belongs to her alter ego comes from deep within her soul. Though she claims to have been embarrassed by the joke, she believed it to have been “innocuous…it never occurred to me that would be deemed hurtful or over the line.” Silverman declares in Jesus Is Magic, “I’m a comedian–that’s what I do.” If comedy means pissing people off and loving that about oneself, appearing more self-entitled than self-aware and spearheading an even more discomforting subgenre of comedy–then Mazel Tov, dahlink!