Sarah Silverman and Sacha Baron Cohen are two of my favorite comedians. Unfortunately, while I enjoy their comedy, I also feel conflicted, because they both can be quite cruel.
Earlier this month, MTV Video Music Awards host Sarah Silverman showed no mercy toward Britney Spears after the pop star’s embarrassing performance on the broadcast. Silverman said of Britney: “She’s 25 years old and she’s already accomplished everything she’s going to accomplish in her life.” And then, as if piling on after an already-humiliating episode weren’t bad enough, Silverman took aim at Britney’s innocent children: “Have you seen Britney’s kids? Oh, my God, they are the most adorable mistakes you will ever see!”
Sacha Baron Cohen can be even worse, as he often targets normal, everyday people. Sure, he sometimes finds deserving targets, such as racists, antisemites and anti-gay bigots. But almost as frequently, his targets are people whose only crime was to show kindness and hospitality to a seemingly clueless Kazakh reporter. I’m thinking of the scene in the “Borat” movie in which Baron Cohen mocks the appearance of a woman who has agreed to participate in a discussion of feminism. Or the time when Borat was welcomed into an unsuspecting home and mocked the hostess’s appearance. These people, of course, wound up as objects of ridicule in a major motion picture.
I confess, I find Silverman and Baron Cohen to be hilarious, even — and sometimes especially — when they’re being mean. They make me laugh. But is laughter the highest value? Does it trump decency, kindness and consideration? Does getting a laugh justify being hurtful toward innocent people? Should I feel guilty for enjoying these two comedians?
Catie Lazarus replies:
It’s ironic that you are concerned with comedians, i.e. entertainers, not being decent, considerate or ethical considering the state of our political and even religious leaders. I’ll deconstruct your question as one might a joke, but if you’re looking for analysis I bet you can find a shrink in New York City. Unfortunately, you can’t see the late Sigmund Freud, but you can read his theory about how jokes are telling. YOUR PREMISE: Two comedians make you laugh, but you feel guilty because of their tone, subject and/or object. YOUR SET-UP: You found comedian Sarah Silverman’s jokes about Britney Spears at MTV’s VMA’s cruel. (For those Forward readers who have been living in a hut in Laos, Britney Spears is a 25-year-old, multimillion-dollar pop star whose off-stage antics are highly publicized. A starlet’s multiple: stints in rehab, drunk driving accidents and divorces are cliché, but Spears stands out for also being accused by: a magazine of stealing thousands of dollars of merchandise, PETA for buying and discarding dogs like they’re umbrellas, and various parties of not properly caring for her two kids.) PUNCHLINE: If you don’t want it, don’t buy it, but much luck getting your money back from corporate giants like Viacom and Time Warner. TAG: Perhaps you can take comfort that these comedians made you not only laugh, but provoked you to think about larger issues, which isn’t exactly the norm when it comes to fluffy televised award shows and Hollywood blockbusters. Moreover, the issue is not the evening’s comedic host, Sarah Silverman, whose job is telling jokes. You may not have enjoyed her humor, but she fulfilled her duties, unlike Spears who failed to properly lip sync her own song, which is not exactly rocket science. Since audiences witnessed Spears’s conduct live, the comedic host responded to seeing an elephant in the room. (I am not implying that Spears looked like an elephant in her sequined bra and panties — as it was a marked improvement to see her wearing skivvies.) Lastly, I’m not sure how innocent an entertainer is who makes more money than the entire population of Laos. (That’s called a “call back.” Where I came back to an earlier point about how it’s not so shocking that a comedian jokes about Britney Spears, who has been the butt of gags in national and international tabloids and Web ’zines, with the exception of maybe Laos.)
Catie Lazarus is a New York-based writer and comedian. She hosts the popular variety show, “Fresh Meat with Catie Lazarus,” and has written for Time Out New York, Gawker, the New York Post and the Forward.