Disclaimer: This column covers some explicit material. Readers may find some of the content offensive, but it's also essential for exploring the nature of Sarah Silverman's comedy.
Sarah Silverman’s comedy has been somewhat of a guilty pleasure of mine ever since her sitcom The Sarah Silverman Program was released in 2007 on Comedy Central. It’s the only sitcom that I ever really watched on a regular basis. On the surface, her jokes may seem too juvenile and unacademic to be worthy of critical discourse. The incongruous manner in which she jokes about sensitive topics such as racism, religion and sexism with banal stereotypes have been both praised and criticized in entertainment media since she rose to popularity in the early 2000s. She’s been considered one of the most hated comics in America. However, this abject response that her shallow jokes provoke in people is clearly intentional and an important part of her role as a comedian.
Much like Stephen Colbert, most of what she says (even outside of her performances) is filtered through her insensitive, but innocent comedic persona, which functions as a kind of meta-joke in itself. This persona is woven through everything Silverman does as a comedian, which includes stand-up comedy, roles in television shows and films, and even her own sitcom on Comedy Central, The Sarah Silverman Program. Silverman highlights the ignorance of racial and sexist prejudices by satirizing these mindsets, and indirectly provokes the listener into thinking more deeply about the absurdity of those prejudices. In other ways, her persona also serves as a hyper-sexualized caricature of self-objectification in celebrity culture.
In Comedy (The New Critical Idiom), Andrew Stott discuses Charles Baudelaire’s essays on caricature, noting that “Caricature operates according to the principle that we are all potentially monstrous, as the prominently exaggerated or altered features communicate the identity of the subject depicted, and so caricature makes us identifiable by deforming us” (71). Caricature is a term that applies to painting and aesthetics, but the principles of visual caricature can also be applied to certain routines of modern comics like Stephen Colbert or Sarah Silverman, and how they ridicule hypocritical aspects of our culture. In the case of Silverman, these exaggerations and distortions clearly aren’t physical but her comically exaggerated representations of bigotry and racism can rather be considered a reflection of social “deformities”.
However, the risk of using irony as social criticism with satirists like Silverman is that it will always be lost on some audiences. With her sardonic and self-centered demeanor, it is understandably easy for many people to be offended by much of the material in her sitcom or make the more grievous mistake of laughing at her joke because they identify with the character’s bigotry. This ambiguity between what is genuine and what is an act relates not only to her stand-up material, but also to the way she presents herself in interviews, on social media and even her fictional Comedy Central sitcom.
The Sarah Silverman Program is an extension of her 2005 concert film, Jesus is Magic and expands on the inappropriate, narcissist persona that she established with her stand-up comedy in the late 90s and early 2000s. The bigoted caveat in the following clip from the sitcom is an example of how Silverman’s banal humor can also raise questions about language choice and political correctness.
On the other hand, it also arguably raises the question of whether her comedy actually reinforces some of the real bigotry that she aims to satirize, and demonstrates the slippery slope Silverman is regularly engaged in on the show. I laughed at the scene when I watched it as it aired on Comedy Central in 2007. However, upon closer scrutiny and in the context of her larger body of work, Silverman’s ironic pre-occupations in jokes like this just feel rather hollow to me. The joke lacks the necessary intellectual clarity required for me to consider it meaningful satire. Nevertheless, this ironic ambiguity just serves to intensify the shock value of the jokes and is clearly an important element of Silverman’s humor. Her twitter account is another example of this penchant for public controversy, with her most contentious tweets making gossip headlines on a yearly basis since she started her account.
"9/11 widows give the best hand jobs." -Mark Twain #notcooltwain
— Sarah Silverman (@SarahKSilverman) October 6, 2010
Bill Cosby gave me one of those "don't be dirty" lectures but I was unconscious & he was talking about my a-hole
— Sarah Silverman (@SarahKSilverman) November 20, 2014
In contrast to comedians like George Carlin and Bill Hicks, Silverman uses a purely ironic and indirect delivery for most of her political observations, often leaving interpretation of her message up to the viewer. She’s one of the few comedians who manages to be both perpetually sarcastic and cheerfully up-beat at the same time. Tone and facial expression are important parts of the comedy in her stand-up shows and sitcom performances. Her most controversial jokes are often punctuated with a clueless smile and innocent demeanor. This creates an incongruity between her lucid, light-hearted delivery and the lurid content of her jokes.
Bathos is another technique used frequently in both her stand-up and sitcom material, and is most commonly used in conjunction with tragedies such as 9/11 and the Jewish holocaust. Comedy theorist Andrew Stott defines Bathos as “a descent from an elevated discourse to a ludicrous one, a sense of deflation” (195). One popular example of this with Sarah Silverman is a joke that she makes about her recently deceased grandmother in Jesus is Magic. In one of several segments about the topic, she poignantly dedicates the entire film to her Grandmother, Nana. She then explains that her grandmother was a holocaust survivor and proceeds to joke about how her serial number tattoo was a "vanity number". A few segments later, she compounds the awkwardness by joking about how her grandmother recently died at the age of 96 after a suspected rape.
In the feature films she’s appeared in, her roles are typically just variations of her stand-up and sitcom comic personas. Most recently, she played a devoutly religious prostitute in Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West, in which she mostly just jokes with her oblivious fiancé Edward about her sexual exploits (however, she won’t have sex with him because they’re Christians and they aren’t married).
More recently, Silverman has used her comedy as a platform to speak out in favor of various feminist and political causes, mostly through several digital shorts that she’s produced in conjunction with JASH. Silverman partnered with JASH in 2013, a Youtube comedy channel committed to producing original content without intrusion from network executives.
While I still admire Sarah Silverman and she remains a favorite comedian of mine, a deeper comparative media analysis of her comedy has left me with a sense of skepticism about the real intellectual depth of her work that I didn’t have when I started the assignment. I’m not personally offended by anything she says, but a closer examination of the satirical bigotry in her jokes makes me question whether they genuinely serve to undermine real cultural prejudices or just serve to reinforce them in some way. A quote from David Foster Wallace in an essay that he wrote on the role of irony in American literature sums up how I feel about similar issues that were raised for me with my research into Sarah Silverman’s brand of irony (and by extension, other satirists like Matt Stone and Trey Parker):
“I find gifted ironists sort of wickedly funny to listen to at parties, but I always walk away feeling like I’ve had several radical surgical procedures. And as for actually driving cross-country with a gifted ironist, or sitting through a 300-page novel full of nothing by trendy sardonic exhaustion, one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow. . .oppressed” (183).
Stott, Andrew. Comedy: The New Critical Idiom, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
Wallace, David. (1993, June 22). “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”. The Review of Contemporary Fiction.