It’s fitting that the comedian Sarah Silverman’s impending cultural moment— high-profile film, ongoing miniscandal, TV series in the making—is going to coincide with serious public moralizing about the sexual orientation of penguins. Silverman’s work is a natural byproduct of the high-stakes game of contemporary American identity politics—the emotionally volatile generalizing about our moral right to generalize. But she’s not just a critic of PC culture: She’s a connoisseur. She handles the complex algorithms of taboo—who’s allowed to joke about what, to whom, using what terminology—with instant precision: “Everybody blames the Jews for killing Christ, and then the Jews try to pass it off on the Romans. I’m one of the few people that believe it was the blacks.” (The joke exposes not the ancient perfidy of any particular race but the absurdity of blaming entire races for anything.) Her best jokes are thought experiments in the internal logic of political correctness: “I want to get an abortion, but my boyfriend and I are having trouble conceiving.” A Playboy interviewer, probing for something salacious, once asked Silverman if she had a nickname for her vagina. She answered “Faggot”—a throwaway joke that manages to kink sexual identity into such an ingenious pretzel it could fuel a doctoral dissertation.
Silverman began her career as an immediately discarded Saturday Night Live writer, fired after a year or so for her controversial jokes (“Quite frankly, I think it’s a good law,” she wrote about a mandatory 24-hour waiting period for abortions. “I was going to get an abortion the other day. I totally wanted an abortion—and it turns out I was just thirsty.”) Since then, she’s been elusively everywhere, starring in either forgettable shows (Greg the Bunny) orforgettable roles: Cameron Diaz’s friend in There’s Something About Mary,Kramer’s girlfriend on Seinfeld, the painfully unfunny girlfriend of a painfully unfunny minor character in Jack Black’s School of Rock.
Through her stand-up, however, Silverman has become an important member of a guerrilla vanguard in the culture wars that we might call the “meta-bigots”—other members include the South Park kids, Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Ali G”, and the now-AWOL Dave Chappelle. The meta-bigots work at social problems indirectly; instead of discussing race, rape, abortion, incest, or mass starvation, they parody our discussions of them. They manipulate stereotypes about stereotypes. It’s a dangerous game: If you’re humorless, distracted, or even just inordinately history-conscious, meta-bigotry can look suspiciously like actual bigotry.
Silverman is particularly vulnerable to such confusion because, 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. She delivers even the most taboo punch lines with almost pathological sincerity. It looks like her face isn’t in on her own jokes: Her nostrils flare, her mouth cocks meaningfully to one side, her teeth (of which there seem to be a few extra) hide and reveal themselves in strategically earnest formations. It’s like a Juilliard exercise; you’d need stop-motion film to track all of her expressions. Deadpan is nothing new, of course, but Silverman’s deadpan is extra dead: She stretches the distance between delivery and message almost as far as it will go. While she neutralizes mass death with self-help wordplay (“When God gives you AIDS, make lemon-AIDS!”) or relinks the historically unfunny tandem of sexual assault and anti-Semitism (“I was raped by a doctor, which is a bittersweet experience for a Jewish girl”), her body language suggests she’s just a concerned citizen talking about property taxes at a city council meeting.
“I don’t care if you think I’m racist,” Silverman says in her act. “I just want you to think I’m thin.” The request has largely been granted. She’s pretty in a way that baits journalists into bodice-rippingly Harlequin descriptions: Variety has called her “rail-thin yet full-bosomed,” and the New York Times (the description of record) “babelicious”; TheNew Yorker recently described her as “coltish, with shiny black hair and a china-doll complexion” (and added, in a weirdly zoological flourish, that she “moves like a vervet monkey”). She’s been on Maxim’s “Hot 100” list (after Jennifer Love Hewitt, before Norah Jones) and is currently the cover girl for the Jewish magazine Heeb, for which she has also written porn reviews. In light of all this, a cynic might read Silverman’s mysterious long-term relationship with the stumpy late-night host Jimmy Kimmel as her ultimate ironic performance, a complex parable of sexual disorientation (as she said at a recent roast: “Jimmy Kimmel everyone, he’s fat and has no charisma!”). Though Silverman uses her beauty as a prop for her sexual humor, her act stands up without it: I first ran into her as a disembodied voice issuing from Hadassah Guberman, a hilarious but not particularly attractive puppet on the (attractive but not particularly hilarious) show Crank Yankers.
Silverman has a gift for inspiring absurdly instructive public controversy. Her most notorious fiasco occurred in 2001, when she told a joke on Late Night With Conan O’Brien that unapologetically hinged on the word “chink.” This summer, she got into trouble in a venue that was supposed to be trouble-proof: The Aristocrats, a documentary that challenged 100 comedians to offend its audience as ingeniously as possible. While most of the comics went straight for the “piss-shit-suck-fuck” paradigm, which very quickly became about as offensive as a newborn koala, Silverman turned the old-school joke against an iconic old-schooler. She implied, via an emotionally supercharged soliloquy full of loaded pauses, that she had been sexually abused by the 79-year-old show-business institution Joe Franklin. At the end, she looked straight into the camera and said, dead seriously, “Joe Franklin raped me”—an anti-punch line that completely paralyzed the theater I was at. Instead of laughing, we were all stuck trying to decide whether this was some new species of joke or just plain old slander. When Franklin threatened to sue soon after the movie was released (“I didn’t like the nature of that wisecrack”), it made the joke strangely better. Silverman was the only comic in the film who met the challenge of the joke: She pushed it too far.
Silverman is a prototypical ironist—someone who says things she doesn’t mean and (through more-or-less subtle contextual winks) expects us to intuit an unstated, smarter message underneath. But what is that message? Does she, like Socrates, play dumb in order to make us smart? Or just to experience the cheap thrill of public racism? Every ironic statement should, in theory, be translatable out of the joke world and into the world of civic-minded sincerity (the classic example: Swift’s “eat Irish babies” equals “stop oppressing my country”). But Silverman’s ultimate point is hard to find, partly because it’s hidden behind such a blank expression. This may be one reason why such a consistently funny voice has had such a peripheral career.
All of Silverman’s controversies are essentially large-scale pieces of PC performance art—but instead of settling anything about race and humor in America, they just expose the incoherence of the debate. If her humor does have a larger purpose, it is that it maps the outer limits of our tolerance; it exposes ambiguities in the discussion that we don’t like to acknowledge; it taps into our giant unspoken mass of assumptions, tensions, fears, and hatreds—not to resolve them, but to remind us that they’re there. (She told the Believer recently that she likes the idea of “saying things that force people to have opinions.”) By reducing all of this toxic material into a logical game, she creates a kind of public catharsis. The point of Silverman’s humor—the final translation of all that irony—might simply be that, no matter how much we pretend, we’re notready for her humor. These are life-and-death problems, and our laughter has terror in it.
But it may be that all of our white-knuckled hand-wringing gives Silverman too much credit. She has said that a comedian’s “only job is funny thoughts”; most likely, she’s just following her joke-instincts and leaving the implications to social critics. America has a famously vexed relationship with its irony: Though our pop culture exports about 90 percent of the world’s supply, the puritanical, isolationist, log-cabin region of the nation’s oversoul prays nightly for its death. But in a world as complicatedly social as ours, it’s not expendable—irony is social chess, the playful manipulation of lazy expectations. It’s at least as important as love or sadness. Only total extermination of the species would kill it.