[8 February 2007]
We all make catty, hurtful remarks from time to time. Some are especially adept at devastating putdowns, and a select few have parlayed such skill into careers. Two such performers, Sarah Silverman and Lisa Lampanelli, are now appearing on Comedy Central—Silverman on her new sitcom The Sarah Silverman Program and Lampanelli on her one-woman special, Lisa Lampanelli: Dirty Girl. While Silverman is more famous, Lampanelli is by far funnier. And raunchier.
That’s not to say Silverman is not funny. Her somewhat notorious 2005 film, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, has developed something of a cult following and, along with her work on Crank Yankers and Saturday Night Live, has established her reputation for politically incorrect humor. Her new series tones down the race- and ethnic-based humor, instead focusing on the foibles of Sarah, a self-absorbed Jewish American Princess.
The sitcom Sarah is unemployed and supported by her sister Laura (played by Silverman’s real life sister Laura). Her only friends seem to be her dog Doug and the overweight, middle-aged gay couple next door (Brain Posehn and Steve Agee). In the premiere episode, Sarah develops a taste for night-time cold medicine, foolishly driving her car after swilling down half a bottle. This lands her in jail; when Laura arrives to bail her out, she meets Sarah’s arresting officer, Officer Jay (Jay Johnston). Laura and Jay start dating, a jealous Sarah grows more dependent on the cold medicine, and she lands in jail again.
The series includes Silverman’s goofy trademark songs (“If I find a stick, / I’ll stick it in your momma’s butt / And pull it out and stick the doody in her eye”) and brief animation sequences (an animated medicine-induced hallucination). Her insult joking is less frequently on display: at the end of the first episode, Sarah summarizes what she has learned, namely, if you’re an old black woman, you’re wise, but if you’re a young black woman, you’re a prostitute, and “Whether you’re gay or bisexual, it doesn’t matter because they’re both gross.”
The humor is sporadic, more one-line jokes than situations. However, the pilot offers a few effective jokes: lamenting that her sister’s pubic hair had developed faster than her own, Sarah observes, “I had peach fuzz and her bush looked like Cat Steven’s face.” One wishes for more zingers and more original storylines.
In Lampanelli’s special, the comedy is nonstop and outrageous. No one escapes her barbs, the Queen of Mean freely insulting every demographic group imaginable. Several audience members become targets, all men and representatives of different classifications: an African American, a Hispanic, an elderly white man, a gay couple, and a Jew, who, it turns out, isn’t really Jewish, but just playing along with the jokes. Lampanelli takes potshots at these guys, as well as celebrities, and includes a few self-deprecating stories to boot.
Lampanelli wields stereotypes to great effect: black men are lazy and unemployed, gays are man-hungry, Hispanics are ex-cons. While talking to the elderly man, she observes, “Don’t worry, it’s almost over. And I’m not talking about the show.” In a bit about how her breasts sag, she points to the black man and notes, that her breasts “look like your mother’s did in National Geographic.”
Lampanelli’s aim at celebrities is equally sharp. Noting that Courtney Love kissed her on the mouth following their mutual appearance on The Pamela Anderson Roast, Lampanelli complains, “I was high for five freakin’ days. She tasted like crack and cheap hooker.” Kathy Griffith, Bea Arthur, and Andy Dick also get the Lampanelli treatment. Lampanelli impersonates Dick a hilarious caricature, then says the only reason he doesn’t molest little boys is: “He doesn’t have the strength to hold them down.”
Two factors distinguish the two comedians’ approaches. First, Lampanelli uses references that might be called “literate” (now that she has broken up with her black boyfriend and is dating a Hispanic, she states, “I’ve jumped off the Armistead and on to a raft”). Second, Lampanelli is in on the joke, and often the target. She frequently ridicules her own appearance, accented in this show by a 1950s-style, hot pink cocktail dress with bright red petticoats and a rainbow sash. Referring to the kiss from Love, Lampanelli says, “I always thought if I had a lesbo relationship, I’d be the ugly one.” She freely mocks her taste for black men and her age. All this makes her abuse of others more palatable, as she treats herself like everyone else.
By contrast, Silverman’s ridicule has an air of superiority. While she frequently looks foolish during the premiere episode, her idiotic behavior results from her cold medicine, not her own shortcomings. In Silverman’s world, she’s always right and no one else measures up. Both Silverman and Lampanelli make viewers laugh while examining race and ethnic stereotypes. More often than not, however, viewers’ laughter depends on their ability to separate the jokes from the stereotypes, as the performers don’t always spell out the distinctions.