12 November 2005

Silverman the racist

Reading several reviews of Sarah Silverman's new film Jesus is Magic, I saw that The Chicago Tribune brought up the interesting opinion that rather than skewering racism, as Silverman explains her humor, she is actually laughing along with racism. I've sort of thought about this before with The Simpsons. Their characters are so cliched--a cop that looks like a pig, a corrupt Kennedy-sounding politician, an Indian convenience store owner--that it's a wonder they ever get beyond vaudevillian stereotype jokes. There are no fried-chicken-eating blacks or stingy Jews, so the racism/stereotypes are very G-rated and relatively uncontroversial, yet they are still presented as characters that are Funny Because They're Different from Us (or "Us"). How many times can we laugh at Akira's broken English before we feel a little uncomfortable? I'm kind of fascinated to see the Middle Eastern Simpsons just to see what stereotypes they abuse.

Now (and believe me, I'm not unfamiliar with the personal territory of trying to define what should be considered an unfair stereotype), I'm not so sure I understand what should be considered bad taste. Would you want to sit next to an Asian friend when you're laughing at Akira? It seems harmless, but the harmfulness of a joke should be measured by how bad it makes people feel. Mocking is not joking. The other stereotypes in The Simpsons are so broad as to be harmless (I don't know any Kennedys and have never seen an Italian Pizza Man that looks like Mario), so I guess it's mostly just goofy fun.

The Silverman jokes are interesting and different. She definitely uses racism and stereotypes as a backdrop for her jokes:

I'm so not racist. I'm dating a guy who is half-black who is totally going to break my heart. Oh god, that sounds so pessimistic. He's half-white.

Yeah, it's racist, but the structure of the joke is very common: add a twist at the end by going in a different direction than what the listener expects. We think the pessimism is referencing her defeatist attitude about her relationships and she makes it about something else. Surprises are funny. Then, when we laugh at the surprise, we realize that we're also laughing at something very racist and we are surprised a second time. Silverman often uses this type of meta-structure. What used to be done with swear words, she does with taboo subjects such as racism, genocide, and epidemics. It's harmless but not for everyone.

[ posted by sstrader on 12 November 2005 at 1:35:55 PM in Culture & Society ]