The Joke's On Us

Nothing is sacred for comedian Sarah Silverman, especially not herself. In her performances, her persona is a big, dirty joke, defilement made manifest -- she's a squeaky-clean girl who says the vilest things. Her first feature, Jesus Is Magic, pads out footage of her one-woman concert with skits of the most sordid imaginings: Sarah as Jewish porn-starlet (“Fuck my tuchus!”), Sarah as rock-star bully at a nursing home (“You're gonna die soon!”). But none of these characters compare to her concert “self,” a nice, Jewish girl who tries to conceal her racist narcissism with PC platitudes … but terrible thoughts keep tumbling out.

Silverman is the deconstructionist as comic -- if Derrida had held court, she would have been his jester. Her comedy is disturbingly decentered, full of strange shifts and currents. She dawdles with the punch line, stretches out syllables until they are almost meaningless, slips a bit of ick into a parenthetical aside. She plays with the tension between her projected persona -- a coddled and completely self-absorbed Jewish-American Princess -- and what her audience assumes is her real self. But she never quite reveals that real self or the meaning behind the monstrous things she says on stage. Is she a racist or not? She sidesteps the question entirely: “I don't care if you think I'm a racist,” she says in Jesus. “I just want you to think I'm thin.”

Silverman doesn't subvert racial, sexual, or class-based stereotypes, she exploits them. In Jesus, she makes jokes about, among other things, the Holocaust (“My Nana had a vanity number … it said BEDAZZLED”), AIDS, pregnancy rates among black teens, and the way Mexican people smell. Her offerings on race belong to that breed of comedy found in the work of Dave Chappelle and the cleverer bits of In Living Color -- racist-seeming jokes about racism, or its PC-cloaked corollary, anti-racist hypocrisy.

“I once dated a guy who was half-black,” she says, as proof she's a nice, progressive person. “Oh my God … I'm such a pessimist … he's half-white.”

Silverman is at once less and more daring than she seems to be. The comedian kicked up a storm when she used the word “chink” in a routine on Late Night with Conan O'Brien in 2001. She described wanting to get out of jury duty by writing something offensive on the candidate form. A friend suggested, “I hate chinks.” Not wanting to be so racist, she claimed, she wrote, “I love chinks.”

Guy Aoki, the head of an Asian-American watchdog group, launched a protest that resulted in a network apology and a debate between Aoki and Silverman on the Bill Maher's show Real Time. Silverman discusses the incident in Jesus, letting the deadpan slip for an instant (“It was in the context of a joke. Obviously.”) before she serves up the following:

“As a Jew -- as a member of the Jewish community -- I was really concerned that we were losing control of the media. Right? What kind of a world do we live in where a totally cute white girl can't say ‘chink' on network television? It's like the fifties. It's scary.”

As someone who is part Chinese, I could be considered a chink -- I've certainly had that word directed toward me with unmistakable malice. And because I've heard the word in its fully nasty glory, I didn't find Silverman's joke particularly offensive. I understood that she was lampooning bigotry and the fake sensitivity used to try to cover it. All the same, I felt a twinge of discomfort. Although she's often billed as a shock comic, Silverman's humor panders to her audience a bit, because it relies on a certain assumption: “I'm not racist because I joke (or laugh) about racism, or its PC-cloaked counterpart. Because I say everything you secretly think.”

Silverman seems to be a practitioner of linguistic libertarianism, in which the slinging of racial epithets is a form of equal-opportunity entertainment. Racial dialogue as food fight: we all call each other names and we all make fun of ourselves and each other, achieving a sort of genuine equality that way, unencumbered by hypocritical politeness. As amusing as this approach can be, it seems to miss the fact that the words evolved out of specific contexts, that they mirror discrepancies in real-life power that carry on to this day. As for the words themselves, they're certainly not equal -- when all you have is “honkey” and “cracker” in your arsenal, sometimes you don't want to play this particular game.

Silverman chose the word “chink” even though she was told before the 2001 show's taping that she could only use “spic” or “Jew.” (Apparently these are less offensive racial epithets.) She chose “chink” because “it's a funnier-sounding word,” she told the New Yorker. “You know? It's got the ‘ch-' and the ‘k-.” It's an amazing ability, dissecting the word into its funny phonemes, into an absurdist, Faulknerian “just sound.” But I can't quite do it. What are the hidden, subversive meanings, what is there left to demolish when someone calls you a chink whore? Besides, you know, his or her ass?

The absence of hypocrisy and the opportunity to get it all out, are not enough. Nor are self-reflexivity and meta-irony substitutes for vision. Perhaps I'm asking too much of Sarah Silverman, her fans might say -- she's a comic. But she is a superbly smart one, brilliant at what she does, and she can clearly do more.

Silverman's deadpan delivery is a fascinating thing. At the end of Jesus, she makes out with a mirror -- her persona is endlessly self-referential, and it traps us in her narcissism. It's terrifying, really. Watching the film, I found myself scrawling: Who is she? And where is she really? On one level, you can just enjoy the cheap thrills of hearing the unmentionable as discussed by a pretty, incorruptible-looking woman. Or you can find yourself deeply perturbed -- if you can't locate where the "real” Silverman is, how do you know if you are superior to her, more racially sensitive? You don't know, and her character's lack of self-insight can cause some hard questing into one's own thoughts: Why am I laughing at a stereotype making fun of stereotypes? Do I have any right to feel as smug as I do?

Silverman is unconcerned with the nature of language, and even more so with what some say it ought to be. She is, however, intimately involved with what language becomes in her comedy -- how she can use it to unveil, rather than obscure, ugliness. In a rare authentic moment at the beginning of Jesus, she asks, “How do we become what we become?” It's a fascinating question, one that holds potential answers to the absurdity of racism and oppression that are Silverman's obsessions. I wish she paid more heed to that question, instead of then going on a bigot, doodie, fuck spree. In trying to press all the naughty buttons, Silverman just winds up chained to them, and what is truly rebellious in that?

Silverman doesn't need to break with her flat delivery, her disturbing persona, or even the racial epithets, necessarily. But she should sit a bit longer with the question she's asked, introduce just a bit more structure into her meanderings. “You don't make fun of people you are afraid of,” she says, in regard to the “chink” incident. That is a harsh and direct assessment of the racial ranking in the States, and the sort of insight her act could use more of.

In effect, I'm asking this one-woman demolition crew to, you know, construct a little. Not a lot, not enough to lose the frightening persona. But just a bit more of the piercing insight she's capable of would actually improve the deadpan. The audience already anticipates the shocking things her prejudiced persona will say -- so wouldn't it be interesting to throw them off balance once in a while by presenting something painful and true and un-air-quoted? To ask another question neither she nor the audience might be sure how to answer?

Silverman doesn't need to go into Pulpitland, where the once screechingly hilarious and now tiresomely pedantic Margaret Cho now lives. She doesn't need to strap on her social-justice message and fuck the audience up the ass with it, as self-proclaimed fag hag and raunch queen Cho does these days. But Silverman could take out the lazy jokes, like the one that draws on an old anti-Asian playground taunt that I didn't get. “My friend Steve…actually went pee-pee in my Coke,” she riffs in Jesus. “He's all, ‘Me Chinese, me play joke.' Uh, if you have to explain it, Steve, it's not funny.” The same might be said for that joke, Sarah, and for the film's flat songs and lowfalutin' framing device -- everything that snaps the audience out of the uncertain anxiety of the comedy. With a bit less clutter and a bit more substance, Silverman's troubling performances would demonstrate more completely what she already suggests: when it comes to racism and other social ills, the joke is really on all of us.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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