Sarah Silverman

A Jewish comedian delivers bigotry with a smile.


Sarah Silverman is familiar with her detractors. Not only does she know who they are, she has a good idea of what they’re going to say about her and her work. They will accuse her of racism, bigotry, and careless stereotyping; they will call her a cheap comic, out for an easy laugh; and they will assail her for her insensitivity. Knowing all this, Silverman’s stand-up act nonetheless sticks with tried-and-true material honed by hundreds of years of American bigotry, whittled down into bite-sized bits of casually tossed-off epithets and disparaging comments.


Edgy or Racist?

“Is that an edgy joke, or a racist joke?,” Silverman muses during her 2005 concert film Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic after one particular barrage of anti-Asian humor. Her standup pokes and prods us to think of it as the former, but too often, it edges dangerously close to the latter. Her television show, The Sarah Silverman Program, which debuted on Comedy Central on February 1, 2007, meanwhile, softens Silverman. This isn’t a “sellout” move; rather, it renders her more palatable to an audience turned off by her insistence on shopworn stereotypes. The stereotypes have not vanished, but they have been stripped of their intent to insult.

With The Sarah Silverman Program, Silverman has returned once more to the limelight. Comedy Central’s seal of approval and the embrace of viewers who made the show’s debut episode the most-watched new program on the channel in years has crowned Silverman the female comic of the moment, and a worthy colleague to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Dave Chappelle, and the other luminaries of the Comedy Central universe.

Silverman, born in New Hampshire in 1970, got her start as a writer, penning sketches for Saturday Night Live and HBO’s Mr. Show before moving from writing to acting, taking small roles in films like Bulworth and The Bachelor while touring the country with her standup. Much like Stewart, Silverman bills herself as a self-consciously Jewish performer in her stand-up, making constant reference to her own religious background in her work. But those references are often tiresomely similar, harping on Jews’ penny-pinching ways, their unattractive looks, and their control of the American media. Does dressing up a stereotype with a smile make it less of a stereotype?

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Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.

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