Sarah Silverman vs. Groupon

Sarah Silverman vs. Groupon February 17, 2011

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
But be.

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.

Which is not to say it isn't a funny joke. But what I think what we have here is a classic case of Good Joke, Wrong Room. Or, even worse, a case of a great greenroom joke unwisely retold outside of that context. That usually spells disaster.

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.

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  • Wisaakah

    I can see why Watchmen would be a fun thing to do a project on – mmmm layers! Now that I’m completely embroiled in Science™, I miss pulling that kind of stuff apart…

  • I don’t know if I’d ever want to do a project on any Alan Moore work, but I’m a huge fan. There are a few sequences in V for Vendetta that take my breath away. And it’s because of the graphic novel format – it wouldn’t work nearly so well in text. (Maybe in film.)
    (rot13 for spoilers)
    Nsgre Tbeqba vf xvyyrq, jura Rirl frrf uvf obql jura fur pbzrf bhg bs gur fubjre? Naq gurer’f n frevrf bs cnaryf nygreangvat orgjrra pybfre naq pybfre fubgf bs ure snpr, naq pbcvrf bs cerivbhf cnaryf fubjvat zbzragf jura bgure crbcyr va ure yvsr (ure zbgure, ure sngure, I) nonaqbarq be jrer gnxra njnl sebz ure? Naq gur pbcl bs gur cnary bs ure naq Tbeqba va orq, va erq jnfu, gur svany fubg orsber fur trgf gur tha bhg bs gur qenjre? Tybevbhf.
    V unir n fvzvyne srryvat nobhg gur frdhrapr jurer Rirl vzntvarf haznfxvat gur qrnq I.
    Another thing I love about Moore’s work is of course the intertextuality – one reason I don’t like Watchmen as much as some of his other books is because I never read superhero comics and I feel as though I must have missed a lot of references. But V for Vendetta is incredibly rich, not just with literary references but with music, too – and of course there is the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen which is possibly the most nerdy thing ever.

  • Even if you read a lot of superhero comics, you still would have missed a lot.
    I felt like an absolute idiot – and rightly so – the day I learned that the characters in Watchmen were adaptations of old characters from Charlton Comics.
    I absolutely love Watchmen – probably more than is healthy – and generally reread it at least once a year (in fact, I’m probably about due). I usually say that it’s not only my favorite book, it’s probably my favorite anything.
    Every time I reread it, I find something new. And I’ve been reading it at least once a year since 1987.
    I didn’t hate the movie the way I expected to, and while it did go off the rails in a lot of places, I was suitably impressed by how faithful it was to the source material.
    However, I found it to be…shallow, which was probably unavoidable, really. Still, I think another director might have been able to bring a bit more depth, but on the other hand, another director may not have been as faithful.
    Really, though, I would have liked to have seen the movie follow one of two routes:
    1. Even more slavishly devoted to the source material.
    2. Not quite so faithful to the material, but faithful to the approach to storytelling. That is to say, while the comic was written in such a way as to take advantage of the specific, unique strengths of its own medium, I would have liked to have seen a director tailor the movie to take advantage of the specific, unique strengths of the medium of film. There was some of that, but it didn’t seem to be the guiding principle in the way it had been for Moore and Gibbons in creating the comic.
    Really, though, what bothered me the most about the movie was the lack of subtlety.
    For example:
    Of course, my perception could be colored by my familiarity with the comic, so YMMV.

  • Oh, and the “and rightly so” about feeling like an idiot applies only to me, not to anyone else.
    I mean, it naturally wouldn’t jump out at you if you, for ecample, didn’t even know there ever was such a thing as Charlton Comics.
    I didn’t have that excuse. :-(

  • @Jon Maki: It’s neat how we both picked out sequences without text.

  • jackd

    Television’s co-opting of irony gets an extended treatement from Slacktivist literary hero David Foster Wallace in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”, a long essay included in _A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again_. Considering Wallace wrote the essay about 18 years ago, it’s clear we are still dealing with a very long-term problem.

  • Therese A

    @mc You can feel bad and do nothing, be complacent and do nothing, or try and do something. Obviously all of us right now could be doing more to help others; that’s not a reason to just feel awful about ourselves and then not do anything. You have to start somewhere; you might not be able to start a charity or spend every weekend at a food drive, but there’s probably something you can do. Hell, for all I know you’re probably doing something now! I’m not advocating complacency, just acknowledging that there’s a big gulf between “not doing everything possible” and “not doing anything at all” and most of us are going to fall in between and we just have to live with that.
    That is what I tell myself, and I think I am doing some good in the world (given my almost non-existant income and psychic exhaustion from what I refer to as The Family Issue), but I'm the kind of person who has to pick everything apart. Thus the philosophical research paper I'm going to be attempting on Singer. Part of my argument will be pretty much what you said, that when people are told they have to give everything away, they're much more likely to say "never mind then" and give up on charity entirely.

  • Mmy

    @Rebecca: I don’t know if I’d ever want to do a project on any Alan Moore work, but I’m a huge fan.
    I actually didn’t assign any one author or piece of work — although, since I would have to read the work to grade their analysis I did exercise a right to veto their choice. Each student was allowed to pick a work that predominantly used sequential visuals (there were a bunch of other parameters as well) to tell its story/make its point. Several did Moore but across the class there was a wide variation in things chosen.
    The results were very enjoyable to grade, expanded my universe of ‘things read’ and would impress anyone who assumed that the “consumers” of such pieces of work understood them in straight-forward, simplistic and unvarying ways.

  • Oh, I didn’t think you did – I was just riffing off the topic as an excuse to talk about my love of Alan Moore graphic novels. :D

  • Mmy

    @Rebecca: I was just riffing off the topic as an excuse to talk about my love of Alan Moore graphic novels. :D
    You would have enjoyed reading some of the projects I think. The students who liked Moore did a really impressive job of communicating why.

  • Mary Kaye: I wouldn’t group “does not get the joke” with “not too bright”, though. My mother taught Freshman English for many, many years and said that every class was nearly guaranteed to contain someone tone-deaf to irony. They were not necessarily otherwise bad students, but when she had to teach “A Modest Proposal” or “Animal Farm” it was a difficult experience for everyone concerned. These folks weren’t, she felt, any stupider than the rest of us except for this one deficiency.
    There’s also (cultural) context to consider, I think. I’m normally pretty decent at picking up on irony, but there’s some jokes that’ll just go completely over my head because I’m unaware of what they’re referencing. In my case, that’s a cultural thing, because watching a lot of US telly isn’t the same as growing up in the US, and even after living in the UK for the better part of seven years, I still have moments of “Huh? What? WTF are you lot on about?” with my friends sometimes.
    And even in the same cultural environment, people have different life experiences and background and reference pools.

  • Xavier

    I can’t believe no one mentioned Top Ten here yet. My favourite Alan Moore book (though I’m yet to find a comic book written by Moore that I didn’t like). It contains my favourite exchange in the English language:

    A giant horse-man and a dude were fused in what appears to be a freak teletransportation accident and are slowly dying. He asks the police officer dressed in a flying eagle suit:
    “Lieutenant, do you think Saroona is with Jesus?”
    “I-I’m afraid I don’t know. I hope so.”
    “It’s just on Ursool [Saroona’s home planet], they worship this sort of tenth-dimensional donut called Dwraamkt. Darnedest-looking thing…I-I guess I’m just confused.”
    “Existence is a great simplicity. There is Black and there is White.”
    “Mr. Kapela, with respect, I don’t think mr. Nebula is in the mood for alien abstractions.”
    “No. No, let him talk. I want to listen to this…So big guy, what is it, this great-black-white stuff?”
    “Just look above you. Do you see, that is the immense board of lights. [the night sky] And there is the great Black… And, strewn across it, small and surrounded and brave… There is the great White.”
    “Oh. Oh yeah. hah. Y’know, that’s perfect. That’s really perfect. And the great White… I mean, there’s so much Black. A-are we losing?”
    “No. Once there was only Black. We are winning. All is right. We can go.”

    I’m willing to admit that maybe it works better in context.

  • Aren’t we basically talking about “hipster racism” here? (Sub any other -ism for “racism where appropriate.)
    In which: privileged person expresses prejudiced viewpoints ironically to demonstrate how so not prejudiced they are. The target audience is other privileged people, who are supposed to laugh to demonstrate how they “get it” and are so not prejudiced themselves. Marginalized people aren’t part of the equation, except as their history of marginalization can be used to make the privileged feel good about themselves.
    Richard Pryor, a marginalized person using his comedic genius to skewer the privileged, is a completely different ballgame.

  • Bruce from Missouri

    I think it’s worth pointing out that when the Man Show was on the air, FX had a competing show on the air called “The X Show”, that was basically the Man Show if it was mean and irony-free. So, The Man Show also served as kind of a spoof of that show. The Man Show only promised 2 things… To end Oprah’s “reign of terror” and Girls on Trampolines…well, they ended up 1 for 2.
    The Man show was hard to figure because it both celebrated and lampooned guy culture at the same time. The balancing act wasn’t always successful.

  • Andrew Glasgow

    Re: Girls on Trampolines —
    It kinda sucks that this has become some sort of sexist symbol, because trampolines are simply fun, and girls, boys, and everyone should be encouraged to use them for fun and exercise.

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  • Anonymous

    I know the feeling… though I have seen it done well, it’s incredibly difficult.