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But what other thing? The problem with this kind of irony is that the butt of the joke doesn’t always exist. It’s like scare quotes: There’s no one being quoted, it’s just a way of saying that the statement doesn’t belong to the speaker. In the end it’s not irony at all, because the person wearing the hat or making the racist jokes is exactly the kind of person who would be doing that sort of thing.
But with Silverman there’s something deeper going on, as well. I realized this when I watched “The Sarah Silverman Program,” the sitcom that ran between 2007 and 2010 on Comedy Central. The show benefited from a talented group of writers and actors, including Brian Posehn and Steve Agee, who play an endlessly entertaining passive-aggressive gay couple living across the hall. But it also showed Silverman playing a character that was even more explicitly a character, even if her name was Sarah Silverman.
Sarah, in this instance, is conceited, self-centered, oblivious and entitled. She is unemployed and is supported by her sister (played by Silverman’s sister, Laura Silverman), who is a nurse. But she is ungrateful and even abusive, especially toward Laura’s police officer boyfriend, Jay (Jay Johnston). Most of all, Sarah has a pathological need to occupy the spotlight, and is always attempting to outdo or outshine anyone who has a legitimate occasion to celebrate.
Silverman’s standup character is less infantile than the one in the sitcom, but she is just as oblivious. Not only does she not seem unaware that she’s being offensive, but she assumes that she’s actually well intentioned, and that all normal, right-thinking people would see things from her point of view. And whereas Silverman’s sitcom character belongs to a generic middle class, jokes like deboning African babies for the diamonds in their spines, or throwing a fit because the bottled water she was given tastes “thick,” place her stand-up persona in a higher socioeconomic bracket. If Silverman’s comedy is satire, it’s of the class- and race-based privilege that would give rise to a character as horrible as her own. As she puts it in “Jesus Is Magic,” “What kind of world do we live in where a totally cute white girl can’t say ‘Chink’ on network television?”