Is America Ready for Sarah Silverman?

The Raunchy, Rising Comedy Star Has Audiences Asking, ‘Should I Be Laughing at This?’

By David Thorpe

Published January 03, 2003, issue of January 03, 2003.
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‘Most walkouts have been Jews, older Jews, and that’s understandable,” comedian Sarah Silverman said about her audiences. “I have a ton of Holocaust stuff, and some of it is really hard core.”

“Hard core” is a good term for Silverman’s comedy. This controversial 32-year-old performer specializes in edgy jokes about race and sex as well as AIDS, rape and, of course, Jews and the Holocaust. Although Silverman has flirted with mainstream popularity for nearly a decade, but 2002 seems to have been the year that America was finally ready for her tough material. Early last summer, she introduced the Jewish American princess character Hadassah on Comedy Central’s “Crank Yankers.” A couple of months later, her off-Broadway show, “Jesus Is Magic,” sold out its two-week run in New York City and then moved to Los Angeles. In October, Rolling Stone gave Silverman two pages in its “Hot List” issue, naming her its “Hot Stand-Up.” And now the comedian is in the process of negotiating a series deal with HBO.

Despite the growing audience for Silverman’s comedy, it’s hard to imagine that TV — even premium cable — is ready for Silverman, at least as she appears in her live shows. Only a few punch lines into a recent gig opening for the indie-rock band Yo La Tengo at their Chanukah performances in New Jersey, Silverman remarked casually, “I was raped by a doctor — which is a bittersweet experience for a Jewish girl.” Thanks to Silverman’s sly timing and cocky attitude — not to mention her coltish beauty — the Yo La Tengo crowd erupted in guffaws of titillated disbelief. Silverman went on to tell equally jaw-dropping jokes about how Mexicans love to pass wind and how her half-black boyfriend was upset when she told him he would have made “an expensive slave.” If Trent Lott ever heard Silverman perform, surely he would spin in his political grave.

Is Silverman a racist? Is she a self-hating Jew? These are the questions that she forces her audiences to ask themselves — along with the more troubling one: Should I be laughing at this? It’s a bold gambit, one that Silverman, who sometimes puts on a faux-ditzy mien, is well aware of. She consciously tells jokes about herself, her Judaism and the Holocaust at the beginning of her sets before moving into even more dangerous territory, namely race. “That’s a smart thing to do.… The context of these jokes is really important. People need to feel like they’re not being attacked, like they’re in a safe space where no punches are being pulled,” she told the Forward during a phone interview last month.

Of course, not everyone feels that way. In July 2001, she told a joke on the talk show “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” that went like this: When Silverman received a jury-duty notice, she complained to a friend that she didn’t want to serve; the friend suggested she send back the form with something racist written on it, like “I hate chinks,” because surely she would be ruled out as a juror. Silverman’s reply? “I didn’t want them to think I was racist, but I did want to get out of jury duty, so I wrote, ‘I love chinks.’” Guy Aoki, president of an Asian-American media watchdog organization, demanded that Silverman apologize, and a week later she was embroiled in a nationwide controversy over the joke. Although NBC officially apologized, many leapt to the comedian’s defense (including O’Brien), suggesting she was a victim of political correctness. Silverman said she felt bad about the incident and even sent Aoki a “well-thought-out, with-all-my-heart letter” that didn’t apologize for the joke, so much as for hurting his feelings. The comedian is accustomed to confrontation, though it doesn’t happen as often as you might think, even when she performs in racially diverse crowds. “Even when I’m dreading it, I want to talk about it — it only helps me. Not because I want to cater to what everybody wants, but if I’m writing about stuff with social relevance, I should know” what people are thinking, she said.

Although she performed last month at Jewcy, a Jewish comedy night in Manhattan, Silverman, the youngest of four girls, hasn’t always been so focused on race or Judaism. Growing up in the small, predominantly Catholic town of Bedford, N.H., Silverman was raised fairly secularly. “We went to temple once or twice a year, and we were allowed to bring a book to put inside [the Bible] — that’s what my Dad did,” she said, adding that she would tell her friends at high school, “I’m Jewish, but I’m totally not.”

As a 19-year-old who had dropped out of New York University to hang around comedy clubs in Times Square, the budding comedian mostly told sex jokes, having recently lost her virginity.

Silverman eventually appeared on the frequently panned 1993-1994 season of “Saturday Night Live” and then moved to Los Angeles, where she’s had a long string of small roles in movies (“There’s Something About Mary,” “Bulworth”) and on TV (“Seinfeld,” “The Larry Sanders Show”).

Silverman gives some of the credit for her raised Jewish consciousness to her sister Susan — a rabbi married to Jewish Family & Life CEO Yossi Abramowitz — and to some to her experiences with Hollywood executives, who, she said, have more than once told her that Winona Ryder would not get roles if she were still Winona Horowitz. “That fact sickens me,” she said.

Happy with her career as it is, Silverman has no interest in changing her name — or her act: She said she has rarely been “bullied” into taking a joke out of her repertoire because it is too offensive. But she won’t tell a joke — one, for example, that she has worked on that refers to real-life allegations that pharmaceutical giant Bayer performed experiments on concentration camp interns — until she believes she has found “the skeleton key that makes it worthwhile…. It has to be funny enough to counteract the pain,” she said.

Unlike some of her peers, Silverman’s stated modus operandi isn’t to offend everyone equally; it’s to make fun of her own — and everyone else’s — racist or self-hating impulses, and thereby deprive them of their power. “Relations between black and white would be greatly improved if we were more accepting of our fears and our feelings and more vocal about it.… When my comic friends who are black [and I] joke about race and say racist s–t to each other, it makes it silly, and easy to laugh at,” she said. Silverman’s genius, or her fatal flaw, depending on your point of view, is how far and how defiantly she pushes that idea. These days, when she relates the Guy Aoki-“chink” incident in her live shows, she explains penitently that she learned that racism is bad — then busts out a funky dance move, breaks into a wide grin and says, “And I mean bad, like in that black way.”

David Thorpe writes about popular culture for the Forward.

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