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Obscenity Charges

Sarah Silverman seemed poised to usher in a new generation of secure, sexual, and powerful female comics. Instead, she went for empty shocks and cheap laughs.

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Sarah Silverman. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images; background pattern Ellen Beijers/Shutterstock.)
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Dear Sarah,

The letter thing works for me because, for some reason, I’ve always had strange feelings toward you, feelings I don’t usually reserve for entertainers, especially ones whose career highs include Greg the Bunny and School of Rock. That’s because ever since I first saw you play Wendy, the disgruntled new writer on The Larry Sanders Show, sometime in the mid-1990s, I thought you had a great chance of becoming one of those very rare and truly important comedians who not only deliver killer lines but also produce the sort of work that is insightful and devastating and that matures, and in special cases can even change the world. Lenny Bruce talked about race when the rest of America was terrified by it, and America laughed and passed the Civil Rights Act.

I was sure, Sarah, that you would grow up and become America’s first female comedian who was powerful as well as sexual and utterly hilarious. Lucy tried, and got spanked. Elayne Boosler tried, and wound up sad and alone in a bar in Chicago, or at least that’s how the comedy industry treated her. Roseanne tried, but being overweight and unattractive cushioned even her meanest and most meaningful blue-collar jokes. All Roseanne could do to really make us mad was grab her crotch while singing the national anthem, and we never really forgave her.

But you had another thing going. You were beautiful and intensely clever, which allowed you to construct this repulsive persona of a privileged, vile woman who distrusts anyone and anything except for her own self-worth. The critic Sam Anderson called this character a meta-bigot and placed you in the company of other mock-ignorant intolerants like Ali G and South Park’s Eric Cartman. He also noted that “unlike other meta-bigots, she doesn’t insulate herself with fictional characters: Her persona—an incestuous, genital-obsessed, racist narcissist—looks and sounds exactly like Silverman herself.”

Anderson is right. And that’s a big problem. As I watched you perform on stage, in movies, and on television these past two decades, I noticed you retreat further and further into shtick, your powers depleted, your promise gone. Jews didn’t find you funny anymore. Women never really found you funny. Post-civil-rights-era comedians are funny because they channel the forbidden Id of the group. So, whose Id are you, anyway?

Consider the following two jokes. Here’s one from earlier on in your career: “I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” So much violence in so few words against so many sacred markers of identity politics, even if many Jewish girls of my acquaintance actually don’t find rape fantasies funny; they enjoy them.

Women didn’t like you, and you knew it. Men wanted to screw you, and you knew it. You were nasty but confused, and your act lost whatever focus it once had. In a recent comedy concert, you had this to say (I’m paraphrasing here, but only mildly): “What’s the worst thing about the Holocaust? The cost!” At best, this can pass as some weak attempt at sarcasm, but, more accurately, it’s a pun, a verbal non sequitur whose sole purpose is to convert uneasy emotions into easy laughs.

And that, I’m afraid, is your true legacy. Rather than open the door to women comics who wanted to be just as depraved as the boys, you created a new category of stereotype, one that urges the attractive and witty female comedian to retreat as far as she can into mock-cutesy unlikability, to mitigate her libido by laying on the bitterness and the bile, to abandon complex jokes that do real violence against real ills and adopt instead a sort of facile, sophomoric humor that reeks of years spent backstage smoking blunts. This is how you end up with an album filled with song titles like “Will We Eat Each Other’s Doodies?” and “Trimming Your Bush.” This is also how you end up with even blander, more put-together comics like Whitney Cummings, who currently has two network sitcoms and who seems to have begun her career already as a latter-day Silverman, all bark and no bite.

I’m not saying, of course, that you alone are to blame. You work within the system, and it’s not easy undoing decades of discrimination. But Tina Fey’s career is much, much more luminous than yours. Rather than flip the finger at Saturday Night Live for not getting her jokes, she fought uphill until she was the boss and could make cute kissy-faces at her vanquished rivals who once called her “Herman the German.” When she was offered the opportunity to write a memoir, she titled it Bossypants and produced a smart and funny and poignant essay on being a female comic in a male-dominated industry. It’s a book you can imagine may inspire real health-care reform, or at least help a few young girl comedy nerds to overcome their fears and get up on stage and maybe someday become the female Richard Pryor.

Your memoir, on the other hand, was called The Bedwetter. It included a fictional eulogy by God, who mourns your passing by saying: “She loved dogs, New York, television, children, friendship, sex, laughing, heartbreaking songs, marijuana, farts, and cuddling.” It’s the kind of book you can imagine may inspire young girl comedy nerds to say filthy things in a silly voice so that boys will think they’re hot. Daria did it first, and she was edgier and funnier than you are. And she was a cartoon.

These are harsh words, Sarah, but I’m only writing because I hope that there’s a project somewhere in the future, a script or a book or a stand-up show, that would bring back that same brilliant, fearless comic I fell in love with two decades ago, and that you’ll emerge from your scatological skunk-weed haze to once again tell the kind of jokes that people remember long after the fact and that leave us happy and horny and agitated. That, after all, is what comics do, and few can do it better than you when you are on your game, which last happened sometime before George Bush invaded Iraq and Steve Martin became a writer for The New Yorker. Sarah, I still think you’re hot, but I’m begging you: Please try harder.



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Jerry Bee says:

What a great essay. I’ve come to the same conclusion.

John Brosseau says:

Today’s topic: Tablet nobodies attack
more accomplished women.

What’s with all the negativity on this site just lately?

For me, this arrow hit home. Thanks.

Not Michael says:

“It’s the kind of book you can imagine may inspire young girl comedy nerds to say filthy things in a silly voice so that boys will think they’re hot.”

This pretty much sums up why I never though Sarah Silverman was that impressive. Her whole thing was “Look at me! Sweet little Jewish girl with a filthy potty mouth. I look so innocent and unthreatening, but then I say incredibly off-colour things. Ha ha ha! I’m so bad.”

I always thought she could do better. But like the author of the article wrote, “she went for empty shocks and cheap laughs.”

ALOHA:….. i think sarah is wonderful; she was great in the docucomedy “The Aristocrats”…. she is unique and if you don’t like her; don’t look!… lenny bruce was hounded to his death; sarah is unique and is a gift to all of us…. plus, i agree; the author has a vehicle to criticize and she does.

Constitutional Questioner says:

The idea that Lenny Bruce is directly responsible for the Civil Rights Act is as ludicrous as it is offensive.

patrick says:

Common where have you had your head, ahhh Rosey had a few problems but is still just as funny, but The Boosler is still a riot and knows how to work a crowd,, Shame on you.. I know talent when I see it

Michelle says:

“The idea that Lenny Bruce is directly responsible for the Civil Rights Act is as ludicrous as it is offensive.” I totally agree!!!!

Really smacks of FoxNews-style twisting facts to make what the writer feels is terminally hip and clever point.

And by the way: Lucille Ball, Roseanne and Elayne Boosler (as well as Sarah Silverman) are/were ALL very successful, beloved and powerful female comics. Because not YOUR taste does not negate the legacies of success all leave/left. Terrible (and untrue) statements do not help your argument.

Kathy Burtness says:

Mr. Liel Leibovitz, At what point in your experience, did you decide that Elayne Boosler “and wound up sad and alone in a bar in Chicago, or at least that’s how the comedy industry treated her”? Where the hell did you come up with that complete piece of tripe?!?

Not only is Elayne of the most talented entertainers of our time, she is loved and adored by millions!

Honestly, if you are so very desperate to come up with examples in some vain attempt to validate your “point”, at least write something that is actually true!

You disgust me.

Helen White says:

Liel enough out of you. Sarah Silverman is funny.

Victoria says:

Elayne Boosler continues to kill. This article is just mean-spirited and written by someone who should try to get up onstage and tell a joke. Tina Fey is fine but to hold her up as the standard of all comedy is kind of ridiculous.

Excellent and kind appraisal of Sarah!

Vince Staskel says:

I totally agree with you Liel. I was a big fan of Sarah’s. However, as a Producer and Promoter working with performers-with-disabilities it became very evident that her jokes cruelly attacked “retarded persons” on too many occasions. Unfortunately Sara has become a well deserved target for the Anti-R-word Campaign within the entertainment industry. Too indeed!

Thank you all for your comments. I do, however, want to make one thing very clear: I believe Elayne Boosler to be a major talent, and in no way intended to belittle her. The opposite is true: To see her fade away into show biz oblivion while her considerably less funny male peers — Jay Leno being the most obvious example — went on to network stardom is a travesty. I linked to her Letterman performance to give those readers who have never seen her, or haven’t seen her in a while, a chance to see just how great she is.

WomenForSarah says:

I thoroughly disagree with this piece. Viva Sarah Silverman!!

Adam L says:

Is this a male/female issue?
Because Liel is claiming that women never really liked her, but in the comments there’s a clear gender devide.

Perhaps Liel just doesn’t get women?
But he seems to get men, because I have the same feelings like most of the men in the comments’ section.

There is undeniable talent that Sarah possesses. The problem is how she uses it. It’s mostly cheap and easy that she aims for.

yehudah says:

this article, like his previous misfire on the beastie boys, is poorly researched and argued.
liel – you are aware that there is a whole history of female comics who were both hilarious and sexual, yes? i mean, joan rivers ring any bells?
your style betrays your deep desire to make sweeping statements about culture which simply do not bear under the weight of actual evidence.
your style is patronizing (despite your own failure to be funny), and your conclusions are opinion without real argumentation.

David S says:

Four or five years ago, when I was living in Park Slope, I attended a comedy night downstairs at Union Hall. Silverman was there, and the MC announced her as the opening act. She got onstage, and after complaining about the sagging microphone stand and how unprofessional it was, took out a piece of paper and started reading jokes. Her first was her familiar “Dentist raped me…Jewish girl,” thing. There was more like that, none of which was funny or new, which she basically conveyed by saying, “My niece is twelve so now she has a hairy vagina. Oh, I don’t really have any new material written.” She then did a thing where she imagined herself being a man getting a blowjob. The object of it was her imaginary penis, which she mimed with her hands.

I have been to lots of comedy performances in the city. Silverman’s was one of the worst I’ve ever seen, like being at an open mic and watching a disturbed person get onstage to spew disconnected, damaged shit. It was embarrassing and infuriating, that a comedian of her stature did not have five minutes of solid material, nor would even go for a laugh by telling us a funny story based on an observation she had that day.

The surreal thing about all of this was that the audience lapped it up. You would have thought, by the way they responded, that we were in the thralls of comic genius. We weren’t, at least for that set. Not even close.

Esau Johansson says:

OK! So once we all catch our breath after Sarah Silverman does something earth-shattering, the first thing we should say is “Thank you, Liel.”
This article would be a lot more credible if it were funny.

Corey Fischer says:

Oh, I get it, LL writing about what is or isn’t funny is a very sophisticated meta-joke. I will now chuckle.

miha ahronovitz says:

Liel is a senior writer for Tablet and he has the right to say anything he pleases. He then watches the reactions of his readers amused and even with a cruel pleasure observing the indignation he generates..

This is a great progress as the antisemitic society can not accuse Jews in America, as if we were a monolithic template. Now we desecrate ourselves from inside.

This should confuse our foes and supporters alike. We decimate Roth, Silverman, we show homosexual videos of Jewish partners and we call this part of major shifts in American Jewish identity

risa mandell says:

re Please try harder.

Sarah’s been trying so desperately for so long -

I love that Chicago automatically = oblivion. Explain that to the legion of comedy and theater legends who choose to live there.

Silverman has descended into pointless vulgarity, like Cummings and Tosh, where ever- escalating vulgarisms are assumed to somehow be a sign of clever sophistication, rather than the boorishness it is.


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Obscenity Charges

Sarah Silverman seemed poised to usher in a new generation of secure, sexual, and powerful female comics. Instead, she went for empty shocks and cheap laughs.

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