By Blanka Šustrová
What makes people laugh? Is there still a space for racist and rape jokes in today’s comedy? Why do comedians even go into this realm of taboo comedy material and what is their point? These questions and many more were discussed towards the end of September 2017 in an intensive course taught by Thomas Clark, a specialist on stand-up comedy from Tübingen University. In the following article, which I submitted as my final essay of the course, I will show you how certain comedy mechanics work and how is it possible to “read” stand up by analysing a part of Sarah Silverman’s stand-up routine from 2005, which I believe is still relevant twelve years later.
In 2005, Sarah Silverman, an American stand-up comedienne, writer, actress and producer released a film called Jesus Is Magic, which was a mix of her stand-up routine in front of a live audience, satirical songs backstage and “behind the scenes” parts that give the whole film a narrative frame. A. O. Scott, who wrote a review of Jesus Is Magic for The New York Times suggests that Silverman’s comedy relies on the incongruity between her appearance as a “reasonably pretty, nice, middle class Jewish girl” and her material, in which she jokes about rape, racism, sex, infanticide, religion and the Holocaust. Scott considers it important to mention the incongruity between Silverman’s good looks and her stream of profanities and political incorrectness, pointing out that it is just her appearance is what creates the humorous incongruity and not that she has a funny material itself. This opinion still builds up on the bias towards women in comedy and especially in stand-up comedy, that women can be either pretty and boring or funny and ugly.
In 2007, two years after Silverman’s Jesus Is Magic recording and after several decades of women in comedy, journalist Christopher Hitchens published an essay in Vanity Fair magazine in which he argued why women are not funny, stating that “humour is more natural, pervasive and highly developed in men than in women…There are very funny women comedians, he conceded, but they tend to be ‘hefty, or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three’” (Mizejewski 11-13). All these types of women are somehow considered un-feminine, seemingly unappealing to men and therefore inherently funny. Silverman, who is Jewish, sharp witted and intellectual (traits not historically connected to a performance of femininity) and according to western beauty standards also pretty, crushes the “either pretty or funny” possibility. She knows this “female in comedy dichotomy” very well and occasionally plays upon it, satirizing the view that a woman’s ultimate goal in life should be staying pretty and slim. For example, after an anecdote from Jesus Is Magic (circa 00:56:57 – 00:57:47), in which she told her half-black boyfriend that he would make a really expensive slave, an exclaim that she wholeheartedly means as a compliment and after he was shocked by her statement, she explains to the audience that although she said that, she cannot control what he hears. And the punchline of this racist story being “I don’t want you to think I’m racist. I just want you to think I’m thin”. But it is mostly her material that can create humorous incongruity itself, her good looks as such do not matter, unless she decides to use it as a basis for satire. In his review for The New York Times, Scott suggests that: “everything she says is delivered through enough layers of self-consciousness — air quotes wrapped in air quotes — to make anyone who finds it offensive look like a sucker”. In the rest of this essay, which analyses roughly a minute and a half of Silverman’s routine from Jesus Is Magic, it will be explained why the aforementioned comment is just a superficial evaluation of Silverman’s comedy (which could be comparable to Lenny Bruce in terms of the shock method of humour) without any effort to dig into the social criticism Silverman tortures her audience with.
Laughter is an uncontrollable expression of pleasure. One explanation of why people laugh is because of a sense of superiority over the one we laugh at, an explanation that was supported by Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes and Bergson (Rappoport 15). Silverman establishes the superiority-inferiority relationship with her audience at the very beginning of her set by humiliating herself and immediately determining her role as a comedian. She talks about how people are formed by their dysfunctions that just melt in and create a person’s character. According to her, comedians are formed by humiliation. She reveals that she was a bed wetter until her teen years, that she is very hairy and that she was raped by a doctor, which causes a few shocked laughs from the audience. But this still works as a build up for the punchline – she was raped by a doctor, but she is a Jewish girl, so she rates the experience as bittersweet (00:07:27 – 00:08:25). That is where the stereotype about Jewish mothers wanting their daughters to marry well, preferably to doctors, comes into play. So being raped by a doctor is a success. The first level of humiliation comes from the fact she was raped. The second level emerges from the Jewish punchline – Jews still think it is good to be raped by a person with good social status, if the victim is a woman.
At this point, Silverman establishes her position in relationship to the audience as inferior. She is a Jewish woman and a victim of rape which her ethnic group considers a good thing. What follows is a shocking critique of the mostly white audience in front of her, using a character of a racist, white, privileged Jewish girl and the method of shock comedy. In Krefting’s introductory chapter of her book All Joking Aside: American Humour and Its Discontents, she claims that “shock comedy seldom includes thoughtful cultural critique and instead gains favour and audience loyalty by appealing to a sense of antipolitical correctness” (18). However, Silverman manages exactly that critique of culture throughout her political incorrectness and casually racist jokes. The power relation between the audience and the comedienne changes rapidly. “To make an audience laugh meant you had control of them in some way” (Tomlin in Mizejewski 27) and control over anyone can be only gained when in a superior position. During her gig, Silverman is standing up, which is a posture that “assumes status and power as well as qualities of aggression and authority” (Mizejewski 27) but Silverman can and does take control of the audience mainly verbally with her shocking punchlines which Joan Rivers, a comedy legend, claims to be very difficult for a woman (Mizejewski 27). Silverman “mobilizes hew Jewishness in a stunning and high-risk satire of bigotry and white privilege” (Mizejewski 22).
Using a transcript of roughly one minute thirty seconds from Jesus is Magic (00:13:13 – 00:14:36) and analysing it by lines, it will be explained how Silverman’s humour mechanics work.
“I’m not a kinda hoydie-toydie girl. I don’t want jewels. I’m not like…I don’t really! I’m not into jewellery or anything. I’m such a hypocrite. There’s a jewel that I think is…I sound like a jap. There is one jewel that I think is stunning. That I…It’s just a classic. By jap I mean Japanese. But it’s a…It’s just gorgeous, you know. And it’s really…it’s rare. You know, it’s only found like on the tip of the tailbone of Ethiopian babies. They debone the babies. I know that sounds so bad when you say it out loud. But no, if you saw it…so worth it. You know it’s like…how do I even describe it…Like if a diamond had that new born baby smell. Worth it. I have a moral issue with it, obviously, ‘cause they are treating the unions that debone the babies really bad.”
In the set-up, Silverman is trying to break the Jewish stereotype of having an obsession with money as she feels the need to deny the wish to own expensive jewellery four times. But then, by her line “I’m such a hypocrite” strengthens the stereotype even more – it doesn’t matter how many times a Jewish girl will tell herself not to like jewellery, she will still want it because she is Jewish.
The line “I’m such a jap/JAP” should work in a similar way. Jap or JAP is an abbreviation of Jewish American Princess, an offensive term that Merriam-Webster defines as “a stereotypical well-to-do or spoiled American Jewish girl or woman”. But Silverman turns it into a racist joke, when she explains that “by jap [she] means Japanese” and therefore weakens the notion of herself being a spoiled white girl, while on the other hand strengthens the racism embedded in her character. At the beginning of the set, when she establishes her Jewishness, she is not afraid to go into the realm of racist jokes with the assumption that she can be racist because she is also a member of an ethnic group that has been prosecuted and systematically murdered for centuries, and therefore, although Caucasian, she is not a part of the privileged first world (post)colonialist discourse.
Silverman’s character claims that she does not like jewellery, except this one precious stone which is “only found like on the tip of the tailbone of Ethiopian babies” – this exclamation together with Silverman putting on an embarrassed apologetic facial expression generates a few shocked laughs, especially from men in the audience. Yet, the punchline is about to come: “They debone the babies. I know that sounds so bad when you say it out loud. But no, if you saw it. . .so worth it” (original emphasis).
Instead of surgically removing the precious stone (which is horrific enough), they debone the whole baby. The verb debone here has a very interesting function – it compares Ethiopian babies to a piece of meat and therefore it dehumanizes them. They do not kill the babies, they do not murder them, they debone them like a chicken. Also, the enigmatic “they” at the beginning of the sentence could mean either another Ethiopians who are killing their own children or white capitalists executing yet another genocide purely for monetary purposes. At the end of this chain is a consumer, who knows about all this and yet buys the jewel, absolutely indifferent to its origin. Then, Silverman apologetically says that it sounds so bad, when it is said out loud, which means that if the problem of exploiting third world countries by Americans is not talked about enough, no one thinks it is bad. “But no, If you saw it. . .so worth it”. This may be also interpreted in two ways – either it is worth to see the precious stone even though new born babies are killed or it is worth to see the actual deboning of the Ethiopian babies, a statement, which has an incredible shock value. Silverman pushes the punchline into the absurd when she is trying to justify her want for this irreplaceable jewel by exclaiming that it is “like if a diamond had that new born baby smell. Worth it” (original emphasis). It is not the look of the jewel which makes it desirable but the smell of the murdered new born that accompanies the precious stone, the notion that a customer can pay for a murder of a helpless human being.
The climax of this part comes when Silverman says she “has a moral issue with it, obviously, ‘cause they are treating the unions that debone the babies really bad”. Not only there is a huge incongruity between what is she expected to say and what she really says but it is a hugely ignorant statement. Silverman’s white, privileged character, in an attempt to sound humane and cover up the fact she likes the smell of killed new born, is focusing on the wrong part of the problem, on the unions who work to improve the conditions of the workers who debone the babies, not on the new born, dying because of the vanity of the wealthy and paying customers.
Looking at the audience reaction during this part of the stand-up, one does not hear that much roaring laughter or clapping. Although some of the punchlines are not timed perfectly, it is the shock value of the material and no time for relief/release that cause the absence of laughter that could last for several seconds. The release and relief theory of humour does not work here as prior to laughter, when the comedian must create an arousal of tension (Rappoport 19). Silverman does that, but she piles up the tension, presents more and more horrifying statements and the climax is not strong enough to wash away all that has been said before and relieve the audience. What fits better is the ambivalence theory which “suggests that laughter occurs when we experience conflicting feelings or emotions. Such ambivalence can follow from an incongruity between emotional states … [or] from the simultaneous experience of incompatible emotions” (Rappoport 17). The audience, watching this part of Silverman’s routine experiences something between the joy from the absurd and the horror of hearing about deboning babies, which creates shame, not only as a result of the fact they are laughing about murdering children, but also from the point when they realize they are part of the capitalist consumers that buy products that were made by exploited populations of the third world. Silverman’s audience is predominantly white and of mixed gender. They are the type of people Silverman parodies with her character. They all live in a first world capitalist country, they all profit from the cheap labour of third world workers, who work in incredibly horrible conditions and often die from hunger and diseases and who might even sell their children (who bear precious stones at the tip of their tailbone, as Silverman suggests) in order to survive. They are the people who would buy the rare jewel Silverman’s character wants so much, if they could and did not know how they were made – and wealthy people do actually buy blood diamonds from South Africa for example, even though they know the history behind them.
Silverman deliberately builds her routine like a distorted mirror. Her character, that of a spoiled, racist and politically incorrect Jewish American Princess is, of course, hugely exaggerated, which creates the comic effect of shock and incongruity. But the fundamental base of her character – a white, casually racist, rich person enjoying the white privilege and the possibilities of global capitalism or it could be even said neo-colonialism that literally sucks the life out of the third world countries, in the mid 00’s America is a reflection so biting and shocking for the audience that it rarely laughs longer than 3 seconds. Silverman’s humour is not edgy and radical because she often uses racist slur and jokes about deboning new born babies to get pretty jewels just to create shock and be considered to be “brave enough” to say “what she really thinks” and to invite the audience to laugh with her at the capitalist exploitation of the third world countries and genocide. Her comedy is about making her audience masochistically look at themselves comically and shockingly exaggerated through her character on the stage.
JAP. Merriam-Webster. meriam-webster.com. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Jap.
Jesus Is Magic. Directed by Liam Lynch, performance by Sarah Silverman. Black Gold Films, 2005. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3kiq79gL0I.
Krefting, Rebecca. All Jokes Aside: American Humor and Its Discontents. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. ELF. https://elf.phil.muni.cz/elf3/pluginfile.php/518019/mod_resource/content/0/0103_Krefting%20introduction.pdf.
Mizejewski, Linda. Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics. University of Texas Press, 2014. ELF. https://elf.phil.muni.cz/elf3/pluginfile.php/518031/mod_resource/content/0/0402_Mizejewski%20-%20Pretty%20v%20Funny_introduction.pdf.
Rappoport, Leon. Punchlines: The Case for Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Humor. Praeger, 2005. ELF. https://elf.phil.muni.cz/elf3/pluginfile.php/518016/mod_resource/content/0/0101_rappoport1.pdf.
Scott, A. O. “A Comic in Search of the Discomfort Zone”, The New York Times, 11. Nov 2005. nytimes.com. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/11/movies/a-comic-in-search-of-the-discomfort-zone.html.