Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Colbert and Silverman

Sarah Silverman's new program, aptly named The Sarah Silverman Program, has once again thrust her into the national spotlight, and with her come the inevitable controversies surrounding her act. Once known for her half cute, half bitchy supporting roles (Seinfeld, School of Rock), Silverman's noteriety began to grow in mainstream culture after her appearence in The Aristocrats, in which she deadpans, "[talent agent] Joe Franklin raped me."

For many, Silverman's joke was the highlight of the movie. The Aristocrats joke is intended to be as offensive and shocking as possible until the punchline, which stays the same no matter who tells it. Silverman, however, didn't exactly tell the joke. She told a joke in the same spirit, one that was as offensive as possible, but without the familiar punchline to soften the blow. Jesus is Magic brought her abrasive and ironic sense of humor to the silver screen, and solidified her position in society as the woman willing to speak the unspeakable.

Silverman's jokes are meant to push our buttons: "I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a jewish girl." Some argue that by confronting us so blantantly with racist, sexist, anti-semetic, etc. stereotypes, Silverman subverts them by showing us their absurdity. My take? That's possible. More likely, I believe, is that Silverman has an ear for the offensive, and she's a talented enough jokesmith to make her punchlines work. As far as I can tell, her offensiveness is a sort of end in itself. An end that may cause the audience member to rethink his or her assumptions about people, but an end nonetheless.

In contrast, Stephen Colbert's irony comes from a specific philosophical viewpoint: "I don't trust books; they're full of facts. I'm more of an opinion man." Where Silverman's Doctor-Rape joke relies on Jewish stereotypes, I'm not sure what, if anything, it actually illuminates. It shocks, but does it ask anything from us other than the knee-jerk response, "oh my god that's offensive." Colbert's joke, on the other hand, dripping with as much irony as Silverman's, subverts the so-called pundit class by showing how ridiculous talking heads who run their mouth with no supporting evidence are.

I think Silverman is funny, but ultimately I'm not sure she's more sophisticated than the following formula: "say something offensive, reframe it to sound even more offensive."

"I don't care if you think I'm racist, I just want you to think that I'm thin." That is a pretty good joke though.