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Dead Tree Alert: Sarah Silverman Lagniappe

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[Yes, I wrote that headline in the hope that 18-year-old guys would think a lagniappe was a dirty body part and click on it. I'm not a proud man.]

In this week’s print TIME, I have a big old feature on pottymouthed cherub Sarah Silverman. Her new sitcom, The Sarah Silverman Program, debuting on Comedy Central Thursday, will divide critics. So far, Matt Roush at TV Guide hates it; Entertainment Weekly and I love it. Take a gander at this clip (Warning: rather NSFW) and then we’ll talk:

OK, so: it’s got your poo humor. It’s got your pushing-PC-boundaries humor. If you don’t like that, you’re not going to like this show (which is essentially an expansion of the staged bits from Jesus Is Magic). You may not have liked South Park or Borat either (and I have the voicemails and letters to prove that some of you don’t). The pilot–from which this clip comes–is actually the least funny of the three episodes I saw; in the other two, “Sarah” and the other characters are much better developed and the stories hang together better. Still, it’s an acquired tastelessness.

Anyway. One thing I didn’t discuss too much in the article was the trouble that Silverman’s racial and ethnic humor has gotten her into: the trumped-up controversy over her “I Love Chinks” joke on Conan O’Brien, etc. In part, it would have been a detour from the angle of the article (Is there a difference between men’s and women’s humor and how does she reflect it?); in part–it’s just been done to death, and plenty of fine profiles have already been there.

But there was one interesting comment I left out. I asked her whether she was concerned whether, in the post-Michael Richards atmosphere, she was more likely to get jumped on again. Mainly she answered as you’d expect: no, people understand that the context of her jokes; if a joke is funnier than it is offensive, then it will work; her material speaks for itself. But she added something kind of striking:

If I said a joke against black people and I was really racist against black people, it would translate like that and it would be rejected. I’m not saying, like, “I can say ‘nigger’ because I’m liberal.” There is a certain aspect of that that I’m starting to get grossed out by. “Oh, we’re not racist. We can say it.”

It was the first time I remembered her saying something like that, but it’s a point worth making, considering that even Michael Richards at one point tried to defend his outburst as playing a “character.” (To be fair, some of Silverman’s critics accuse her–wrongly, in my opinion–of doing exactly that, being racist in the guise of commentary about racism.)

Silverman’s comic material–and Sacha Baron Cohen’s, and Lenny Bruce’s, and so on–is the kind that’s easy for racist hacks to abuse. I thought about her comments when I read this story about an obnoxious editorial in The Daily Princetonian (“I the super smart Asian. Princeton the super dumb college, not accept me”) that its editors weakly tried to justify as “embrac[ing] racist language in order to strangle it.”

Now, to me it’s as silly to fault Silverman or Cohen or anyone for their poor imitators as to blame Raymond Carver for every lousy minimalist short story written in the ’80s. But maybe Silverman’s show needs a disclaimer like Jackass: Kids, don’t try this at home.

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