photo credit: Largo at the Coronet
I saw Sarah Silverman perform last weekend at the UC Davis Mondavi Center. I admire her because she is a woman writer, a comic, a musician, a force of nature, and yet I realized something Sunday night: I don't really get her. It's not that I don't think she's funny, or that she's not talented. The woman sings songs about death and rape and incest and jokes about adopting terminally ill children with mental disabilities. She's a complete individual.
She spent the first half of the evening directing her attention to the front row, responding to obnoxious questions and bringing some fool's cell phone on stage to read his text messages aloud. She has the capacity to be funny, and when she tells jokes, they leave a twisted, ironic aftertaste, albeit a thoughtful, intentional one.
What I realized, though, was not so much that I find her offensive, but rather that her aesthetic doesn't work for me. I was first introduced to stand-up comedy in college, when my first boyfriend introduced me to Bill Hicks and Mitch Hedberg. My freshman roommate and I used to fall asleep every night to Eddie Izzard's Dress to Kill. My brother would give me mix tapes of Jim Gaffigan or Katt Williams. I never really respected or understood how much chutzpah it takes to get in front of a crowd and tell short, succinct little stories that provoke a visceral reaction. But I only recently realized that good comics are good writers, and to be good at either is a lot of invisible hard work.
Comedy can be emotional, political or satirical--what comic wasn't between the years of 2000-2008, when greats like Janeane Garafalo and Marc Maron tuned their funny to Air America in response to Bush cultural crisis. And more recently, I was introduced to a lot of comics through Jesse Thorn's interviews on The Sound of Young America. Maron himself hosts a fabulous podcast called What the Fuck, in which he simultaneously critiques and cross-examines prominent comics and public figures. It was his interview with Silverman that made me most excited to hear her speak; there was some shred of me that hoped she'd get onstage and not do stand-up, but that she'd tell stories about what it's like to be a woman writer and comic, about how she developed her funny and why she thinks it happened. But, as fans of hers rightfully guess, she had no intention of doing any such thing. She walked into a beautiful, 3000-seat auditorium and did her bit. That's what comedians are typically paid to do.
What's great about comedy in 2011 is that there are as many "bits" as there are audiences. Which is just another way of saying that although I wasn't crazy about Silverman's deadpan breakdown of rape and incest, other people are, and at the root of her jokes she is chiseling down American taboos, one by one. And you kind of have to admire that.