[2 December 2005]
By telling their jokes through personas, stand-up comedians soften the impact of their most controversial material, relieving a laughing audience of guilt by shifting moral responsibility. George Carlin’s cantankerous old man persona allows him to talk about airport security and anti-religious atheism to a mainstream, non-secular crowd. For Andrew Dice Clay, it was the “Diceman,” the ultimate racist and misogynist, who insulted his audience and sold out Madison Square Garden in the process.
Sarah Silverman’s character is a spoiled, suburban princess, which allows her to deliver offensive one-liners with an unnerving mixture of naïvete and self-assured ignorance. Like Clay’s, Silverman’s comedic persona has gotten her into trouble. Most notably, she raised the red flags of the Asian community when she used the word “chink” on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. The joke, for which NBC later apologized, referred to Silverman’s attempt to get out of jury duty. A friend suggested she write, “I hate chinks” on her form. As Silverman recalled, “But I didn’t want people to think I was racist, so I just filled out the form and wrote, ‘I love chinks.’ And who doesn’t?”
Though she used the word in the context of a joke, Guy Aoki, head of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, branded Silverman a racist, demanding an apology and claiming her remarks to be insensitive. Silverman discusses this event and other points of controversy in her first feature film, Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic. As in her stand-up act, Silverman doesn’t use transitional material, jumping from the September 11 attacks to Nazis to anal sex. The film consists mostly of a show recorded in front of a live audience in North Hollywood, broken up by musical numbers and flights of sketch fancy.
Watching the film, one realizes how carefully Silverman has cultivated her cutesy, yet depraved character. In one skit, supposedly taking place backstage, Silverman screams to her manager that she doesn’t have the right type of bottled water. In the book-ending sketches before and after the show, Silverman doles out fake, sweet smiles while rolling her eyes at admirers, blurring what is “an act” on stage and what is “real.”
On stage, Silverman doesn’t make this distinction easy, using her prettiness and girlish voice to deliver startling blue jokes premised on racial stereotypes and sexual deviancy. Nearly all of her humor is based on this contrast between visual beauty and aural filth. For one musical number, she dresses in a sexy red lounge dress, highlighting her curves and elegance while singing about drug addict porn stars. Her stand-up jokes are delivered with a wide-eyed innocence regardless of their inappropriateness. When she claims with conviction that American Airlines ought to brag about being the first ones to hit the World Trade Center, the live audience laughs nervously. (Gilbert Gottfried was roundly booed for a similar joke at the Friar’s Club Roast of Hugh Hefner.)
Silverman appears to know that, as a shock comedian, her best defense against heckling critics is to keep her on-stage character consistent, even in the face of vilification and controversy. Throughout the film, not once does she laugh at her own satire, so that the film sustains a sleazy intensity. For instance, rather than saying she’s sorry for saying “chink” on the air, she mentions the incident in the context of yet another Asian joke. Claiming that she changes other ethnic slurs to “chink” in her jokes as a means of playing it safe, Silverman again mocks the double standard.
Clearly, Silverman has a keen understanding of the buttons she is pushing. Her flat delivery dares the viewer to take her jokes to heart. So long as she keeps accentuating her innocent coquettishness, she can deliver the nastiest of lines. She’s found a way to twist comedy’s “masculine domain” to her advantage, using the expectations of femininity to riotous effect.