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Sarah Silverman and the secret to successful comedy

Silverman’s “Someone You Love” comedy special offers comedians a raw blueprint for surviving the present comic moment.

In her newest comedy special, “Someone You Love,” on Max, Sarah Silverman mentions that she learned a surprising new fact about Adolph Hitler on Wikipedia. The mass murderer, apparently, molested his niece for years. “Yeah,” sighs Silverman, “now he’s really canceled.”  

If you appreciate acidic, multidimensional jokes such as this one, you’ll adore “Someone You Love.” Why, Silverman asks, do anti-abortion demonstrators place mammoth images of bloodied fetuses on their posters? A blastocyst, after all, is much smaller than a pea. “If fetuses were actually poster-sized,” she reasons, “those same people would probably hunt them.” The comedian also reveals that she likes to harangue Catholic school students. She tells them there’s no such thing as eternal damnation. “Did I ruin hell for them?” she frets. 

On Conan O’Brien’s show in 2001, Silverman dropped an ethnic slur about Chinese Americans while recounting her novel strategy for evading jury duty.

Believe it or not, “Someone You Love” is relatively sedate by Silverman’s standards. Yes, she lights up her traditional targets: 1) the religious right, 2) those who wish to annihilate Jews, and, 3) Jews. But she refrains from punching down on marginalized groups oft maligned by comedians, such as Asians, Mexicans, Black people, Puerto Ricans, lesbians and gays, which once was a trademark of her act (sometimes she hit multiple slurs at once, as in her excruciatingly inflammatory “German Cars” video).  

On Conan O’Brien’s show in 2001, Silverman dropped an ethnic slur for Chinese Americans while recounting her novel strategy for evading jury duty. The ensuing pushback from Asian American advocacy groups was swift and justified. Silverman’s attempt to defend herself on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect did not amount to her finest hour. 

In 2007, she appeared in blackface on The Sarah Silverman Program. The episode has been scrubbed from the internet; all that remains are online snippets. Years later, she would reveal she was fired from a film when the sketch resurfaced. Other skits, such as one in which Silverman teases the N-word, bolstered the charge that she trafficked in racially insensitive humor. From the right, she received death threats for expressing un-ecumenical satisfaction, in “Jesus is Magic” (2005), that “the Jews had killed” the Messiah.  

This abridged docket of outrages raises a complicated question: If cancellation is a definable thing, why hasn’t this comedian been consigned to that fate? Why, in a career full of jokes which incensed those on the left and the right, is she still standing — thriving actually? Why hasn’t she been relegated to a “direct-to-consumer” model, hawking her products off a website (like her friend Louis C.K.)? 

If Silverman is indeed cancel-proof, I imagine it’s because she differs from the mostly male comedians who set their careers aflame through gags or indecent actions. To begin with, she apologizes frequently and sincerely. As indicated by this discussion with Kevin Hart on his podcast, she has reflected deeply on the dynamics of contrition. 

She tried to make amends with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, whom she mercilessly skewered in 2007. She also renounced her earlier racial material. In 2018  she told GQ: “I don’t stand by the blackface sketch … I’m horrified by it, and I can’t erase it. I can only be changed by it and move on … That was such liberal-bubble stuff, where I actually thought it was dealing with racism by using racism. I don’t get joy in that anymore. It makes me feel yucky.” Compare that to Jerry Seinfeld (who refuses to apologize for jokes on principle), and many others whose apologies sound insincere. 

Nowadays there is less Sarah talking about herself and more Sarah consoling fans who leave voice mails about their own trauma and pain.

Silverman perseveres because she’s evolving. Like many premier comics — "top 4," as she puts it — her brand is a mix of edge, line-crossing and vulgarity. In recent years, however, her persona has increasingly radiated something new: forgiveness and empathy. 

What was her series “I Love You America!” if not a quest to find common humanity with MAGA voters? Or consider the evolution of the Sarah Silverman Podcast across its 130 episodes. Nowadays there is less Sarah talking about herself and more Sarah consoling fans who leave voice mails about their own trauma and pain.

This therapeutic turn in her art meshes with her willingness to be emotionally vulnerable on public platforms, as when fans of her podcast learned that her father and stepmother passed away within a few weeks (“Someone You Love” was dedicated to their memory). 

Even though I wrote a book about it, I’m still not sure “cancellation” exists, at least in the sense that right-wing pundits who froth about “wokeness” imagine it does. Silverman, for her part, is abundantly aware that controversial artists get in trouble. “Someone You Love” offers them a raw blueprint for surviving the present comic moment. 

First, your observational humor must slay. On this score, I commend her reflections on the fragility of testicles (whose reputation for manly toughness, she opines, is undeserved). I applaud her confession that “my biggest fear is getting dementia and masturbating in public.” “Oh my God,” she imagines herself exclaiming, “am I doing this at my grandson’s bar-mitzvah!” None of this is likely to run afoul of anyone except nursing home residents and Tucker Carlson’s testicle-industrial complex.

Rule No. 2: Punch up all you want! Hitler, Nazis, the Christian right are on the receiving end of Silverman’s arsenal of vitriol. It’s quite an arsenal. 

Third, don’t punch down! (see above and below).

Fourth, punch yourself and your own group in the face. There’s Jewish japery galore in “Someone You Love.” Silverman spends a lot of time [please read the next few words using Chappelle’s voice from his infamous SNL monologue on “The Jews”], like, a lot of time, talking about diarrhea and Members of the Tribe.

Final rule: Self-evisceration is all well and good, but balance it with love and introspection. Silverman marvels at how defensively “Jew-y” her work has become. That’s because antisemitism has returned to the global stage for its billionth curtain call. She’s self-aware enough, however, to acknowledge complicity; she’s made a fortune “selling out my culture for laughs.” 

Free speech purists and libertarians might respond to this five-step program by fulminating: Voluntary self-censorship! Slippery slope! Isn’t art about liberty, man? 

Maybe, man. But perhaps comedians ought temporarily ease off the un-nuanced — and even Silverman’s more nuanced — punch down shtick. Just for now. Just until America divests itself of irrational hatreds and inequality in like a half century. Or half a millennia. Or whenever the Messiah comes. 

Besides, there are so many things to mock other than marginalized peoples. Things like bad breath, which Silverman croons about alongside a string ensemble and a child chorus at the end of her show. In its own sly way, “Someone You Love” operationalizes Silverman’s rebuke to her friend Chappelle: “Sometimes there are consequences for your complete and total freedom of speech. And you got to suck it up and take it ... Maybe even take it in.”