Sarah Silverman Recognizes That Her First Stand-Up Special Was ‘Problematic in 18 Different Ways’
“If you’re not looking back at what you did 10 years ago and cringing, you’re probably doing something wrong,” says Sarah Silverman, which is just generally good advice — even for those of us who never did blackface on television.
The perennially boundary-pushing comedian has been in the alt-comedy zeitgeist for three decades, and in that time, Silverman has made enough racist, sexist, ableist, anti-Semitic, transphobic, xenophobic, poor-taste and too-soon jokes to earn a Fox Nation stand-up special. And, for the majority of her career, that’s been the point. Silverman was shock humor’s cheerful, acerbic champion who attacked taboos with playful ferocity — when most “edgy” comics tiptoed over the line, Silverman sprinted across it.
However, as Silverman freely admits, that invisible line of acceptability has massively shifted along with shared cultural values in the 18 years since she achieved comedy superstardom with her debut special, Jesus Is Magic. On a recent episode of the podcast Q with Tom Power, Silverman addressed some of her mid-2000s material, saying, “My first special is problematic in 18 different ways.” And that’s just the slur counter.
“There’s, like, N-word, hard R, you know, the R-word, the M-word for little person,” Silverman said of the language in Jesus Is Magic. “I’m not saying this out of fear, but just out of being mindful because once you learn something, you can’t unring that bell unless you decide you’re going to just know something cuts people and say it anyway.” Even in 2005, Jesus Is Magic drew controversy for its tone on topics such as genocide and sexual assault. Despite her family history, some Jewish groups criticized Silverman for jokes such as, “My grandma is a survivor of the Holocaust — I’m sorry, alleged Holocaust.”
Silverman also addressed a 2007 episode of The Sarah Silverman Program which follows her to this day, and has even led to lost work over the controversy it created. In the episode, tastefully titled “Face Wars,” the fictionalized version of Silverman attempted to examine whether it was more difficult to be a Jewish person or a Black person in America by spending a day in blackface. Somehow, this is nearly the exact plotline of the infamous 30 Rock blackface episode “Believe in the Stars,” which aired in 2008 — sitcoms in the late Bush years just loved comparative blackface for some reason.
“There’s a picture of me in blackface that exists with no context,” she explained of a still from the episode. “Would I do it today? Obviously not, you know. But it is frustrating to see something that was done with intentions, you know, with a lot of intentions … and then all that’s left is a screenshot that is horrifying.” Whatever her intent, the long and ugly history of blackface outweighs any surface-level social commentary a cable sitcom could ever possibly make, and last month, she was protested at a stand-up show by a Black man donning blackface.
Silverman’s former brand of humor has always been a double-edged sword — if you tackle painful racist tropes with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, you can’t complain that you got a negative reaction when shock was the point of the punchline. Silverman accepted a version of that truth, saying of the incident, “The consequences that come from it I accept wholeheartedly because that’s what art is. … You know, everyone wants to be this risky, edgy comic, but ‘risky’ means there’s risk and consequence. And you have to suck it up and take it.”
“I’m into growing, changing — all that shit,” Silverman said of her shift away from shock humor, though she added the condition that growing in empathy and understanding doesn’t require capitulation to the demands of an audience. “Comedy dies in the second-guessing of what the audience wants from you. You have to be willing to eat shit all over again. Bomb and start over and really just stick to who you are now and what’s funny to you and what’s amusing to you. And if you lose fans, fine. You might gain fans. But it just can’t be part of the creative plan.”