Comparative Media Analysis: Sarah Silverman
Sarah Silverman rose to prominence in the comedy world during the 2000’s after struggling and paying her dues in the entertainment industry during the late 1990’s. Her career began with a rocky start marked by an unsuccessful one year stint as a writer and occasional performer on Saturday Night Live. After being fired from the show, she continued to climb the show business ladder by appearing on short lived sketch comedy and scripted television shows, giving popular stand up performances around the country and on several Comedy Central roasts, and developing a film career that consisted mostly of minor roles. Since then, she has found main stream success. Ms. Silverman has starred in her own television show as well as making popular appearances on other shows (most notably Jimmy Kimmel Live!), has had high profile film roles, a couple of stand up specials, and has won two Emmy Awards. In addition to her success in film and television, she has achieved and maintained one of the most popular and lucrative stand up careers today. Now Ms. Silverman is considered one of the most eminent, successful, and influential comics of her generation.
She is also widely considered to be one of the most controversial comics of her generation. Silverman’s sense of humor is typically described as provocative. In a video interview with TIME (shown below beginning at the 3:25 mark) upon being asked about the appeal of provocative comedy, Ms. Silverman said, “What makes comedy provocative is if it makes you think.” This statement beautiful sums up the style of her comedy. Silverman mines for her humor by satirically and ironically reflecting upon herself the worst aspects of our society. She jokes about racism, sexism, politics, religion, and any “hot button” issue she can dig into.
She does this in the way that many comedians before and after her have done. She does this by not presenting herself onstage or onscreen and merely joking about these issues, but by adopting an alter ego. Ms. Silverman’s comedic persona, also named Sarah Silverman, is narcissistic, insensitive, racist, sexist, a bigot, and generally ignorant. “Sarah Silverman,” in addition to possessing all of these nauseating and horrific qualities, also possesses a self righteousness and genuine lack of self awareness. This character does not understand that what she is saying is offensive or cruel or ignorant. She is merely trying to voice her honest, and what she believes to be positive and interesting, perspective of the world.
By adopting this character, the real Sarah Silverman can hold a mirror to society and highlight all of the terrible things she sees in the world today. This is not to say that Ms. Silverman’s social commentary or activism, which she does pursue in more direct ways outside of her performances, supersede the goal of being funny. This brand of social humor is just the most potent form of comedy she can offer because it inspires a visceral reaction from her audience. They laugh at the joke because they are shocked that she went to such an “off limits” place. Their laughter comes from the need for relief because Silverman’s joke has touched a deep and typically controversial truth that they like to avoid in their day to day lives.
For example, a racist joke as told by Silverman is not as simple as Part 1) setup, Part 2) derogatory statement about a race of people. A racist joke from Silverman is more complicated because the character she plays is truly clueless about her racism. “Sarah Silverman” believes that what she says is harmless. The idea that referring to Asians as a certain racial slur, as she infamously did in 2001 on Late Night with Conan O’Brien (shown in the video below), is wrong or offensive has never crossed her mind. And Silverman’s character’s ignorance and “positive spin” makes the joke not about a particular race of people but about racism as a social disease. Granted, this style of joking about race can frequently read as pure racism, but the desired result is to poke fun at racism itself. Her character’s cluelessness highlights the thought process of most Americans who believe that they live in a racism free, politically correct country. By reflecting this idealism onto her comic persona, Silverman can show people how messed up, however inherently funny, they truly are. This kind of comic technique, to reiterate what Silverman said to TIME, makes people think.
Ms. Silverman’s career has included almost all avenues of entertainment. She performs in film, television, on the stage, in literature, through social media, and on audio recordings and radio. A major aspect of her success as a comedian and personality is her ability to seamlessly adapt her alter ego for all of these mediums. This assessment exempts her several serious acting performances and many interviews out of her typical character, of course.
Of course her persona is at its most biting and obvious in her stand up appearances. In the following clip from her stand up film Jesus is Magic, Sarah Silverman, through the character of “Sarah Silverman,” embodies many of our society’s negative traits.
She points out our emphasis on labels with the gem, “I don’t want to be labeled as straight or labeled as gay. I just want people to look at me and see me…as white.” In her story about her ex-boyfriend, she not only shows her racist colors but, more importantly, her ignorance to those racist colors. She blames him interpreting her obviously bigoted “compliment” for what it truly is on him having “low self-esteem.” In addition to this highlighting modern racism and ignorance, it also perfectly exemplifies the entitled and pompous attitudes that exist in our contemporary generations. She also points out our image-obsession and vanity with, “I don’t care if you think I’m racist, I just want you to think I’m thin.”
In her television show, the Sarah Silverman Program, this persona is modified by being more absurd, but also more child like in her innocence and ignorance. This makes it easier for us to forgive her harsh jokes, which are undoubtedly made harsher in this medium because we are seeing them play out and not just hearing about them.
For example, the above clip from the pilot shows her wrapping up the events of that episode with her dog, Doug. The style of this ending was a part of the show’s format and was recreated for every episode. We hear her say very crass and potentially offensive things about drugs, sexuality, and race. These loaded jokes are juxtaposed by the light and twinkly musical score underneath. This music, combined with the idea that the main character is reiterating everything she learned this episode, creates the atmosphere of a children’s program. This contributes to her character’s innocence and allows the audience, or attempts to allow them anyway, to forgive her harsh and politically incorrect jokes.
This sequence is also in synch with the “Sarah Silverman” persona because she says judgmental and bigoted things out of ignorance. It should be noted that all of the things she “learned” come from a much skewed world view and, in most cases, do not correlate with the reality of the events that have transpired. This further asserts that “Sarah Silverman” is nearly incapable of learning. And since “Sarah Silverman” is a satirical character meant to reflect society, Silverman is making the statement that our individual and selfish perspectives inhibit us from learning or growing. From Silverman’s portrayal, we appear to just pick and choose which experiences to learn from and only retain the lessons that already apply to our belief systems.
Much of Silverman’s comedy is also filtered through music. Music is a reoccurring element in every facet of her career. She performs songs live in her stand up shows and frequently sang on her television show. The songs, of which she is both composer and lyricist, are often used to expand upon themes she discusses in her material. The song below explores racism, again via her alter ego’s simplistic and ignorant view of other groups of people (“I love you more than Asians are good at math.”), and the irony and hypocrisy of our society.
Ultimately, Sarah Silverman’s brand of comedy is driven by social commentary. And no matter what medium she is working in, as long as she is creating and performing her own material, it is safe to say that the commentary will be present. The character of “Sarah Silverman,” though controversial, is what defines Silverman’s career and contribution to modern comedy. While she is not the first to employ this technique of using a heightened alter-ego, you can see the tradition being carried on by comedians like Amy Schumer, Daniel Tosh, and Anthony Jeselnik. Silverman has been a major player and obvious inspiration in maintaining this style of comedic performance. This is because of, not only her mastery of the style, but her effortless translation and sustention of it no matter what medium she is performing in.