In the spirit of putting my best foot forward, I want to begin the new year by tossing my own handful of candy in the praise parade that has followed the debut of Sarah Silverman’s new film, Jesus Is Magic: a series of stand-up vignettes and musical numbers bookended by Curb Your Enthusiasm slices of reality fakery. Though my back-patting additions hardly seem necessary, given the pitch of the coverage of her film thus far, including the New Yorker profile written by Dana Goodyear that includes the bad touch compliment that Silverman looks “coltish, with shiny black hair and a china-doll complexion.” (“Quiet Depravity”, Dana Goodyear, 24 October, 2005) Are there any other childhood references one could deploy to sexually admire Silverman? Perhaps her ass cheeks hang like the dangled cups in my imaginary tea parties? Despite the lame meditations on Silverman’s My Little Pony beauty, it’s easy to see what might give rise to the flood of superlatives.
Silverman’s comedy has far less depth than her worshippers give her credit for and far less malice than her surface-skimming haters proclaim. Despite the contrary appearances, I believe Silverman is a comedian of amazing structural acrobatics rather than a theoretician of content, a fact easily missed given the associational intensity of the words she uses to fill in those gravity-defying blanks. Her gifts come precisely from her ability to understand the ways in which our motivations get conveyed in tone and facial expression rather than a strict dictionary unspooling of our words. Silverman’s genius is that she creates isometric tension in meaning, where the actual words completely betray her inflection, something akin to making high-pitched “poochy poochy” sounds to get your dog to come close enough to swat it with a rolled magazine.
Talking in heart-wrenched tones about infant famine victims she says, “My skin is paper thin. People don’t realize it, because I’m sassy and I’m brassy, but I just - I see these CARE commercials with these little kids with the giant bellies and the flies, and these are one-and-two year old babies, nine months pregnant, and it breaks my heart in two.” She goes on to say that she won’t give money, because she doesn’t want them to spend it on drugs. It’s contemptuous suburban sympathy wrapped in hatred, a mirror image of the way propaganda works by using emotional diversion to insert a sinister message. Silverman’s Tupperware-sealed persona fires off these tonal surprise endings with a skill honed to the invisibility of instinct. At the level of the individual, Silverman mimics the way in which people frequently allow representations of their own intentions to overrule the obvious nature of their content. The classic example would be the racist’s caveat, “I don’t hate all black people, just the n. . . “
In that respect, Silverman’s routines can be linguistic Cirque du Soleils. But when unpacking her work, she can display a penchant for flippantly shallow infatuation with the sound of her own voice. In the New Yorker profile, she maps out her choices by reducing them to mere consonance: “I’m going to say Chink because it’s a funnier sounding word. You know? It’s got the ‘ch’ and the ‘k’.” It’s hard not to see why someone might take offense to someone who describes the use of racial epithets in the language one might use at a wine tasting. It’s hard to give the charity of weight to someone that, out of character, talks like a rationalizing umbrella drink.
Yet Silverman also breathtakingly excels at jokes that involve wholly misapplied slices of logic. The above example involves one such case, since Silverman has taken the logical skeleton of some people’s response to homelessness or teen pregnancy and imposed it upon babies dying from starvation. When she says about Nazis that “They’re cute when they’re little. Why can’t they just stay small?”, she seems to be exposing the limited use of the generalizations and clichés from which we build our lives. When she transfers the logic of children and puppies being adorable when they’re little to Nazi children, Silverman creates a fissure in the formulation, exposing the awkward interiors of our everyday speech. In that sense, she clearly does indict the logic of stereotypes by showing how ludicrous it is to make vast, race-engulfing statements from the limited confines of our realities.
But Silverman tries to have it both ways on that score; doing other riffs straight out of stereotype reversals by showing the logic of groups in a positive light. In a recent Jay Leno appearance, she talked about the ways in which young black men are a lot like old Jewish women. There was nothing “meta” about the routine, which simply took generalizations for granted, but then she used them to make inventive parallels. “All their friends are dying. They’re both crazy about their grandchildren.” In moments like these, her critics gain traction and credibility. She doesn’t appear to deploy racism in this instant only to shortcircuit its logic as much as she is capitalizing on the shock of having a young, white Jewish girl make a joke on Jay Leno about black-on-black violence and the belief that many minorities have children at such an early age that they already have grandchildren.
Silverman’s inconsistencies also extend to the convenient shield of her meticulously crafted persona of the oblivious racist, which she fades in and out of during every single interview. Sometimes she’ll opt out of responding to pointed criticism by merely slinking back into the buoyant, goring plasticity of her stand-up routine. But then she’ll crack character to adamantly insist that she’s misunderstood by critics, sputtering out explanatory soundbites that range from her saying ‘it’s a just a joke’, to explaining that she’s making fun of racism, itself so routinely wheeled out in her defense that it’s become a way out of dealing with Silverman’s material by inking the waters with the occluding claim of hidden complexity.
Do I think Sarah Silverman is racist? Not particularly. But I do think she simply tears-up the historical significance of the words she uses, only to quilt them back together in meticulously parsed clashes of shock. If she’s surprised that other people, like the ones currently suffering under the political oppression still attached to many of those terms, bristle under having those words reduced to structural play, then I think she’s naïve, to say the least.
Do I think that her routine gives us some sort of intensely intelligent critique of prejudice? Perhaps. At least, for a few graduate students or anyone else willing to do the contorting work required to elevate Silverman’s oeuvre into something of a consistent philosophical web. But I would challenge those projecting deconstructionists to see the joke in this phrase: ““I was raped by a doctor, which is a bittersweet experience for a Jewish girl”, as anything other than Howard Stern doing Rita Rudner. It’s almost as if she’s thinking, “I know I’m doing something deep. Could someone else explain it to the people who don’t ‘get’ it?”
One of the most startling and undermining revelations in Jesus is Magic comes during an off-key lull in the comedy when she talks about not telling a joke with the word ‘nigger’ in it at a comedy club because she was afraid of a table of black people sitting in front of her. That seems dangerously close to what her most strident critics accuse her of doing. Does she pick on gays and Asians more frequently for the hardly endearing reason that she believes that they are less likely to wait for her after the show with tire irons in hand? Silverman clearly tries to pass this off as just one more moment of “meta-bigotry” (e.g., jokes that use the form of racism to criticize real-live racism), she’s yet again being racist in a way that exposes us to the structure of racism. She’s showing us that the root of all racism comes from a desire to have someone else to piss on, someone lower than oneself, who won’t fight back.
But that is exactly what her act does, using the way her own Jewishness insulates her to say all kinds of inflammatory things about Jews, and using words such as “Chink” like tossed change, but tiptoeing around “nigger” because she seems to understand that a community with an established and powerful civil rights infrastructure might take her act on in a way that she would find most unpleasant. I think that’s called “meta” Public Relations. Sure, she’s edgy and willing to tackle everything from genocide to AIDS victims, but curiously, rather like Eminem, who idolizes blacks but trashes gays and women, she is unwilling to boldly cross “too” many lines in her path to teaching the evils of racism by practicing the hell out of its various forms. If, by inhabiting an obliviously racist persona, Silverman seeks to short-circuit the logic undermining racist assumptions, why would she pick-and-choose groups to satirize with such a strategic level of sensitivity?
Reading through the work of her defenders makes it seem like any reaction to a Silverman routine other than laughter exposes oneself as a Puritanical leftist or a mildly retarded outsider. Sam Anderson’s article, “Irony Maiden”, goes further than most other pieces in trying to sketch out Silverman’s work as part of some grand satirical project with ever shifting objectives and boundaries. (Slate, 10 November 2005) “Her best jokes are thought experiments in the internal logic of political correctness: ‘I want to get an abortion, but my boyfriend and I are having trouble conceiving.’” That certainly sounds fancy, like Silverman spent weeks mixing test tubes brimming with magnetic poetry kits. But, at best, it’s sloppy condescension, expanding the term “political correctness” to mean that anything that might deeply offend someone else’s values contains intrinsic brilliance. If political correctness is primarily a product of Left-wing identity politics, how would making a callously pro-abortion joke even qualify? What Anderson seems to imply is that all transgressive speech contains hidden opportunities for thought labyrinths. This might be the case, but it’s just as likely that Anderson’s reading is just the interpretive version of the scene in Jesus is Magic, where Silverman hilariously makes out with her own reflection.
Anderson takes his argument for Silverman’s intellectual canonization a bitchy step further, by accusing anyone who might react negatively to Silverman’s style of either having no sense of humor, being too stupid to ‘get it’, or being too caught up in the real world of racism, sexism and homophobia. These are all things that, the apparently the ‘superior’ Anderson, is so, like, “over”: “The meta-bigots work at social problems indirectly; instead of discussing race, rape, abortion, incest, or mass starvation, they parody our discussions of them. They manipulate stereotypes about stereotypes. It’s a dangerous game: If you’re humorless, distracted, or even just inordinately history-conscious, meta-bigotry can look suspiciously like actual bigotry.” Or, one might argue, that such meta-bigotry produces little compelling or interesting commentary in its discussion of our discussions. Seriously, even if one takes these arguments at face value, what does Silverman’s meta-bigotry have to say about authentic bigotry? Generalizations don’t work all that well? Racism is stupid? How searing and insightful. Alternately, one might say that many of “our” discussions of race, when they happen at all, aren’t all that ridiculous. Many people who disagree with liberal positions on these issues tend to mockingly simplify these left-of-center viewpoints, only to go on to regurgitate these misrepresentations as satire. The doubling deception of these ideological distortions has the effect of making the discussions of issues appear far more stupid then they actually are.
Anderson embodies just the kind of intellectual impasse I came to in the days following my Jesus Is Magic viewing. My initial white-hot adoration gave way to knotting qualms and nagging questions. I wanted to unambiguously ‘get’ her, but kept coming back to thorny moments where I felt like I was simply being probed and exploited by someone looking for remnants of reaction. Once you’ve done that much theoretical heavy lifting to explain someone’s point of view in a way that they’re incapable of doing for themselves, couldn’t you just as easily do it for someone like Andrew Dice Clay? When Clay fumes, “They just passed a law in San Francisco that smoking is not allowed in the street. It offends people. But it’s okay if you want to butt-slam your buddy. You can smoke the baloney pony but not a Winston,” it’s reasonable to ask whether this could not be re-read as “meta” something or other. To that end, one of Anderson’s minor caveats does the curiously unintentional work of unraveling his entire defensive enterprise when he notes:
“Silverman is a prototypical ironist-someone who says things she doesn’t mean and (through more-or-less subtle contextual winks) expects us to intuit an unstated, smarter message underneath. But what is that message? Does she, like Socrates, play dumb in order to make us smart? Or just to experience the cheap thrill of public racism? Every ironic statement should, in theory, be translatable out of the joke world and into the world of civic-minded sincerity (the classic example: Swift’s “eat Irish babies” equals “stop oppressing my country”). But Silverman’s ultimate point is hard to find, partly because it’s hidden behind such a blank expression. This may be one reason why such a consistently funny voice has had such a peripheral career.”
Here, Anderson seems to be saying that even I’m not cool enough to cipher Silverman’s mercurial ways. Personally, I just don’t think there’s that much ‘smart’ in her routines, but just enough to make smart people like Anderson run out of air convincing us that they’ve found it. I think Silverman probably falls much more squarely in with Jimmy Kimmel’s The Man Show or Matt Parker and Trey Stone’s South Park where giving the middle finger to the tired old guard of tolerance is its own nihilistic end game. I’d be far more inclined to gird Silverman’s routine with the kind of back support given by Anderson, could I find proof for it in her actual words, rather than the marginalia of writers writing about her.
I’m hardly a prude when it comes to offense. As a writer, I’ve been accused of racism or even Nazism by stupid readers or, at other times, by readers who used overblown language to describe definite flaws in my arguments. I don’t feel entitled to a silent forum to publicly experiment in and I don’t expect to use inflammatory language and not believe I’m going to start a few fires. I think anyone watching Jesus is Magic, who comes away thinking she’s a Klanswoman veiled in urbanity, is probably reacting more than listening, but it’s ridiculous to traffic in elements charged with visceral emotion and think that everyone will want to sit down quietly and grant you the benefit of the doubt.
Silverman’s champions should acknowledge that the surface-level of her performance dovetails nicely with the right-wing brand of performative bigotry whose message is more along the lines of: “We all know that black people are lazy and feminists are ugly lezzies, so I’m going to be the only person brave enough to say it.” Irony can easily get deployed as a responsibility dodging device. Ann Coulter buttresses comments such as “When contemplating college liberals, you really regret once again that John Walker is not getting the death penalty. We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors,” with claims that liberals have no sense of humor about the threat of being mass murdered, even though part of her larger intellectual project has been to pathologize liberalism and make its claims synonymous with “Anti-Americanism”. In this instance, irony is used to keep the argument about the ability of the attacked to “take a joke”, even while the pernicious core of the argument seeps into popular discourse in a slightly less extreme form. Both the impolitic and the “politically incorrect” are themselves market norms; so common that everyone from Dennis Miller to Coulter can envision themselves heavyweight shadow boxers with the ghost of political correctness. Sarah Silverman is not Ann Coulter by any unsavory stretch of the imagination, but both of them spill outrageous sentiments into discourse only to cower back into suspicious explanatory coves of irony, sarcasm, or theoretical hide-and-seek.
It’s neither foolish nor illegitimate to ask whether or not taboo breaking for its own sake isn’t just the ascendancy of intellectualized cruelty. It’s on this point that defenders of so-called meta-bigotry seem politically tone deaf. The world has never suffered from a surfeit of compassion, an excessive absorption of collective responsibility for the atrocities of the past. Especially in America, where lamenting political correctness has often been little more than bitterly angry white men who feel jackbooted because they can’t say ‘nigger’ anymore without having the attack returned in kind. “I don’t care if you think I’m racist, I just want you to think I’m thin” says Silverman in her film, with a pageant Cheshire grin. I would agree. She doesn’t care. And there’s something in this whole enterprise anorexically begging for sustenance.