Taste and Taboo, the Id and the Ick

by Kevin D. Williamson
Some thoughts on the celebrity of Sarah Silverman.

‘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.’”

The addition of rape adds an element of discomfort to the joke, which is part of what makes the humor work (the relief theory of humor holds that laughter is a cathartic release of built-up anxiety), but it is worth appreciating that this is not a joke about rape so much as it is a joke about Jewish ethnic stereotypes. Some years ago there was a Doonesbury story line in which one of the characters, who is dying of AIDS and has convinced his mother that he was infected by a mosquito bite, confesses on his death bed that the mosquito was “a six-foot-two radiologist,” to which his mother replies: “A doctor? You’re dating a doctor?” The effect of the humor is to change the subject. This is rather different from, say, George Carlin’s take on rape, which was that the act itself could be funny: “I can prove to you that rape is funny. Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd.” But Miss Silverman can at times be more direct, as when she laments “summer camp: the second-worst camp for Jews.”

But there are taboos and there are taboos. NBC and Conan O’Brien both apologized for airing a bit in which Miss Silverman considers the possibility of using racist sentiment to disqualify herself for an unwanted stint of jury duty by proclaiming, “I hate chinks.” Not wanting to be thought of as a racist, she instead proclaims, “I love chinks — who doesn’t?” If that was a step too far for the gentle souls at NBC, consider that that was the toned-down version; the original contained a slur directed at blacks rather than Asians.

Likewise apologetic was the curator of the highly regarded TED Talks series, who inexplicably invited Miss Silverman to perform in a series that has hosted such considerable figures as Stephen Hawking and Blaise Agüera y Arcas. Miss Silverman performed 18 minutes of excretory jokes and a song about how old people in nursing homes have grey pubic hair. The audience was less than impressed. Miss Silverman, to her credit, does not share in these apologies. She may be crass, but she does have the courage of her convictions. In the case of the Conan O’Brien show, she had a defensible point, i.e., that she pretends to be a bigot in order to satirize bigotry. In the case of the TED Talks, she was simply out of place, more the organizers’ fault than Miss Silverman’s. To complain that a Sarah Silverman performance is crass and lowbrow is like complaining that test cricket goes on and on.

It is a cultural fact of life that such culturally pre-approved taboo-breakers as Miss Silverman must have impeccably liberal credentials, and she has been as slavish a devotee of the Democratic cause generally and the cause of Barack Obama in particular as one is likely to find outside the pages of the New York Times. She organized something called The Great Schlep, aimed at recruiting young Jews to persuade their Florida-dwelling elders to help deliver that key electoral state to him in his presidential contest. She makes get-out-the-vote videos that are in practice get-out-the-vote-for-Obama videos, and has a habit of saying dumb and uninformed things about subjects such as population growth. (Malthus deserves better representatives.) Given that liberals have taken to deriving their political views from comedians as a general practice (Ahoy, Jon Stewart! Greetings, Bill Maher!), Sarah Silverman, whose politics are as crass as her sense of humor, is a perfect cultural fit for the Age of Obama.

And yet, even in the works of Sarah Silverman, the horrifying realities of the times assert themselves. In a song about the lives of degraded pornographic performers, she sings the refrain: “Do you ever take drugs so that you can have sex without crying?” and there is something in her eyes that suggests, all joking aside, that the question is a serious one, that there exists in this world something that, God help us, offends Sarah Silverman. But if it has occurred to Miss Silverman that her career has been made possible by the same corrosive forces that enable the pornographer’s, she has given no indication of that insight.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.