Taste and Taboo, the Id and the Ick
Some thoughts on the celebrity of Sarah Silverman.

Sarah Silverman


Kevin D. Williamson

‘I saw my father’s penis once. But it was okay, because I was so young . . . and so drunk.” Thus one of the important cultural voices in modern American liberalism explores what our credulous Freudian friends would call her Electra complex. If, somewhere in this or another galaxy, an advanced alien race is monitoring the broadcasts of Sarah Silverman, we can be sure that they will not be much tempted to visit.

Silverman is a model American of the age, whose craft consists of taking a very old tradition, Jewish ethnic humor, and making it embarrassing. Barack Obama is a fan — it is not mere cultural accident that their careers are contemporaneous — while semi-serious intellectual salons host her, to their occasional regret. This is an age of infantile politics, the motto of which is: “I want!” It is only natural that this would be matched by an equally infantile popular culture — it is the infantile culture that brings about the infantile politics, not the other way around — and that one of the more significant evangelists for Barack Obama and Obamaism would be a woman who starred in a faux French New Wave film called Féte des Pets (Fart Party) and published Eat, Pray, Fart: Life Lessons from the Sarah Silverman Program.

Freud’s triune description of the human personality may be useless as a model of the mind, but it works as a method of classifying comedians. There are practitioners of the comedy of the superego, rare birds such as Bob Newhart, whose main subject, stated or not, is social convention. More common are the comedians of the ego, such as Richard Pryor, whose main subject is the comedian himself and his personality. Miss Silverman, with her fascination with all things squeamishly infantile — her father’s genitals, and her mother’s, too — is the reigning queen of the comedy of the id. Her career is considered in some quarters groundbreaking, on the theory that she has advanced the cause of feminism by demonstrating that women can be as gross and tacky as men, as though there were people to whom this fact needed to be demonstrated.

Like Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady, Sarah Silverman is not conventional — she is convention itself. The convention that Miss Silverman embodies is the great American fiction that there exist in our debased culture certain taboos surrounded by social borders that only the bravest and — inevitable word — edgiest of our artists are equipped to trespass. The unmentioned irony is that such real taboos as remain to us go largely unspoken of (that is the nature of taboos), while the ritual violation of ersatz taboos is carried out according to carefully cultivated social convention.

Violate the taboos in the manner prescribed and you will be the subject of fawning New York Times profiles; Miss Silverman’s was headlined “Female comedians are confidently breaking taste taboos.” Violate a social taboo in a way that disturbs the liberal consensus and the results will be somewhat different, e.g. the ritual denunciation of Katy Perry for performing in a geisha costume, an act of “cultural appropriation” that practically amounts to a hate crime among our enlightened classes. Americans are vaguely aware that there are weird sexual currents in modern Japanese culture, and American women traveling on Tokyo’s subways would no doubt be so shocked by the brazen browsing of pornography, including child pornography, that they would drop their copies of Fifty Shades of Grey in horror. In the United States, the thing we call “multiculturalism” does not involve understanding foreign cultures but rather the careful erasure of the sharp contrasts between them, as though the main difference between Anglo-American culture and Yemeni culture were saltah.

Miss Silverman is a kind of cultural appropriator, too, a native of New Hampshire and a graduate of the Derryfield School (this year’s tuition: $28,535) who constructed for herself a super-Jewish dramatis persona and practices a kind of postmodern Borscht Belt comedy heavy on Jewish ethnic humor. Sarah Kate Silverman seems to be more Kate than Silverman, her ethnic eccentricities as much a borrowed robe as Katy Perry’s kimono. But ethnic humor is what she does best. Her most famous joke — “I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl” — felt shocking and new when she first delivered it, but it is in fact part of a very old and even conservative tradition, the lowbrow 21st-century version of: “A car hit an elderly Jewish man. The paramedic says, ‘Are you comfortable?’ The man says, ‘I make a living.’”