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?