I'm a big fan of Sarah Silverman. Her jokes are mostly funny on their own, but her meta-joke — the shallow, self-centered, cruelly oblivious idiocy of her comic persona — is pure genius.
That persona allows her comedy to address forbidden topics with forbidden candor, to be both dry and enthusiastic at the same time, both sardonic and perky — two things that one wouldn't expect could go together. She is able to say the most odious and appalling things while smiling sweetly like a demented and cruel version of Gracie Allen. Unlike Gracie, though, Silverman works solo — with no George on hand to reassure the audience that it's OK, folks, it's all part of the joke. The result is an act that cuts closer to the bone than much of the safer, less ambitious pablum that passes for stand-up comedy and that allows her to pull off the remarkable trick of ferociously criticizing a room full of people while making them laugh at the same time.
Silverman makes this look easy. It's not. There are a thousand ways this kind of thing can go wrong, and some of the most painfully unfunny comedy I've seen has come from comics attempting, and failing, to imitate Silverman's high-wire act. Instead of exposing and eviscerating the prejudices and stupidity that Silverman targets, these comics wind up just expressing it. Sometimes they still get laughs, but for the wrong reasons.
Sarah Silverman's meta-joke is dangerous even when it all goes right. The danger with her act is that not everyone who's laughing seems to be in on the joke. When she viciously deconstructs racism, misogyny or homophobia, some of the people in her audiences aren't laughing at the deconstruction, they're laughing at the racism, misogyny and homophobia. Silverman combats that by "turning it up to 11" — taking the joke appallingly, delightfully too far to force the audience to acknowledge the presence of the meta-joke, to realize that her sharpest, most venomous arrows are actually flying at herself and at them.
But I'm not sure that always works. On balance, I think, Silverman's comedy does more to undermine prejudice than it does to reinforce it among those who only half understand her act, but that reinforcing does occur, for some. That "on balance" is a tricky thing and the recognition that Silverman's dark comedy does, in some measure, contribute to the darkness adds another layer of difficulty.
For an illustration of what can go wrong with this balancing act, consider the former show of Silverman's former boyfriend, Jimmy Kimmel. Kimmel used to co-host "The Man Show" on Comedy Central, a program that tried something like Silverman's meta-joke by mocking sexism while pretending to revel in it. Kimmel and co-host Adam Carolla occasionally succeeded in finding the right balance, but the overall effect proved that frat-boy feminism wasn't really a sustainable conceit. Too often they were just plain reveling in the sexism. The result wasn't "Aren't men ridiculous for objectifying women?" but rather simply "Hey, look — girls on trampolines!" The show wound up reinforcing prejudices more than it undermined them.
When Kimmel and Carolla left the show it was passed on to the miserably unfunny duo of Joe Rogan and Doug Stanhope, who didn't get the meta-joke and abandoned any attempt to tell it, just spending their time instead savoring as much misogyny and sexism as they could get away with. The show was quickly cancelled, but not quickly enough.
The problem for Sarah Silverman is that some of the same people who were laughing at Rogan and Stanhope's boorish misogyny are also laughing at her apparent espousal of those same ideas in the ironic voice of her cheerfully horrible persona. This is an inherent danger for anyone using irony to combat hateful ideas. The irony will be lost on some portion of your audience, and that same portion — the not-so-bright portion — will also be those likeliest to espouse the hateful ideas you're combatting. Missing the irony — not getting the joke — these folks will wind up laughing at the wrong things, for the wrong reasons and believing you're on their side.
This raises a next-level question regarding the responsibility of the artist for how her art is received or perceived by others. I'm not really qualified to address that question. For one thing, I'm not an artist. For another, I've got that evangelical Protestant instinct of obsessing over meaning — an unfortunate tendency to approach art didactically, trying to determine what the point in is a way that's often beside the point. As Archibald MacLeish wrote in "Ars Poetica":
A poem should not mean
I think he's right about that. But I also notice that those lines are, themselves, should-y and propositional and didactic. His poem means. So this is complicated.
So maybe rather than discussing this in terms of responsibility — the ethical considerations for Sarah Silverman of knowing, as an artist, that her comedy will be misconstrued by a portion of her audience as reinforcing the very prejudices she's seeking to ridicule — maybe it's easier to just consider it in terms of success.
If you're telling a joke — even a really good joke — and most of the people hearing it won't get it, does it still succeed as a joke? Can you still regard that joke as working? Or if you've written a really good joke — an elegant, pointed, devilishly clever, multi-barbed joke — but you realize that most people in the room won't get it, should you still tell it? Is a joke that kills with 10 percent of the audience and dies with the other 90 percent really a successful joke?
The reason I bring all this up is because I've been asked about the flap surrounding the Super Bowl commercials for Groupon. Those commercials were the handiwork of Christopher Guest — the man who gave us the "it goes to 11" joke referenced above. Guest is a funny man and I think his ads contain a funny joke. But unfortunately, they're not just jokes — they're also commercials. And they failed as commercials — generating a backlash against Groupon — because the joke just didn't work in that format.
The comics are gathered backstage and somebody hits on a basic joke that everyone starts riffing on in a game of Can You Top This? The most outrageously funny variation is later repeated on the stage before a larger, much different audience that brings different expectations from many different contexts. The multi-layered irony of the joke loses some of its layers. The wounded idealism that cracked up the comic's peers backstage comes across as mere cynicism. Instead of being heard as a logical reversal, the joke's elegant quadruple-negative inversion is received as repetition for emphasis. In short, the joke bombs. Good Joke, Wrong Room.
The first Groupon ad, if you haven't seen it, starts out with Timothy Hutton earnestly describing the plight of the people of Tibet before abruptly switching gears to "but they still whip up an amazing fish curry!" He goes on to gush, with comical obliviousness, about how Groupon lets customers save on delicious Tibetan cuisine at local restaurants. "Save the money," the ad says at the end, a parody of do-gooder slogans like "Save the Whales."
Critics of the ad complain that this is appalling, and it is. It's supposed to be. But some critics also complain that the ad makes light of the suffering in Tibet, and it really doesn't do that. The ad makes light of American narcissism. It makes light of shallow, feel-good, all-about-me moralizing. And it makes light of our ability to know the facts of others' suffering while still preoccupying ourselves with our own appetite and greed. The people of Tibet are not the butt of this joke. We are.
The basic idea here would have made a good parody ad on Saturday Night Live, but as an actual commercial for an actual service I think it was doomed. Wrong room. One doesn't anticipate having to navigate layers of irony in a 30-second Super Bowl spot. The medium is more amenable to beer-can-to-the-balls jokes or cute kids in Darth Vader costumes. This joke just wasn't going to work in this context.
Maybe it could have worked better if Guest had cast his old colleague Fred Ward Willard. This bit is, after all, a variation on the shtick Willard has been performing, impeccably, for decades. But I think they were going for something edgier than the sweet, well-intentioned buffoon Willard usually plays. His character is often cruel, but never intentionally so. That self-centered obliviousness is only part of what I think they were trying for in this ad.
To get the bite that Guest was trying for I can only think of one person who might have pulled this off: Richard Gere. By having an actor known for his advocacy on behalf of Tibet play this scene, more viewers would have been cued in to the actual joke and its actual target. That would've given the joke more punch, but I doubt it could have rescued the ad as an ad.
As an advertisement it fails because what's the marketing angle here? The point of the joke seems at odds with the point of the ad. The ad wants us to use Groupon for savings at local businesses. The joke tells us we're shallow, apathetic bastards who need to put down the fork, turn off the TV and do something more important with our lives than stuffing our faces and entertaining ourselves and acquiring as much stuff as we can. (I'm inclined to agree with that sentiment, although I'm not sure that's the most winsome way of expressing it.)
The appeal of the ad as an ad seems to be something more insidious — a kind of self-congratulation that often accompanies other forms of comedy. It's the idea that by laughing at a barbed joke, we somehow exempt ourselves from its sting. Richard Pryor or Chris Rock makes a joke about white privilege and the white members of the audience laugh, nervously, hoping that by getting the joke they somehow make it only about those other white people and not about them. Pryor and Rock, at their best, never let their audiences escape that easily, but other comics sometimes feed off of this — allowing their audience to feel that they have been granted immunity from the jokes being told. That makes audiences happy, but it's not good comedy or good art. The comic's job, like any artist's, is to tell the truth. "Tell the truth, but tell it slant," the great comedian Emily Dickinson said of her profession. Telling audiences what they want to hear is not the same thing.
And that, finally, is why I think these ads failed. They had the courage to say, "Hey, you, the wealthiest people in the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world, you have the power to make this world better but you're too self-absorbed and lazy to do it." But then they pull their punches by allowing us to exempt ourselves from that truth, not by actually doing anything constructive, but by accepting an invitation to feel better about ourselves by smirking at all those other self-absorbed, lazy people.
I tend to think that the only way to exempt oneself from an accusation of self-absorbed laziness is to not be self-absorbed and lazy. Mocking others for their complicity doesn't erase one's own. And acknowledging one's own complicity and mocking oneself for it doesn't erase it either.
The reason I like Sarah Silverman's comedy, at its best, is because it has a hook in it. And unlike the joke in these Groupon ads, it's not over-eager to please me by easily letting me off that hook.