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Obama’s Sarah Silverman Problem

The comic’s political videos are actually the worst representation of the president’s subtlety and values

Liel Leibovitz
October 18, 2012
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine, original photo Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images and YouTube)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine, original photo Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images and YouTube)

Last week, an Orthodox rabbi named Yaakov Rosenblatt took to the pages of the Jewish Press and published an open letter to Sarah Silverman, criticizing the comedienne for her recent slew of politically themed, left-leaning videos. As could be expected from any beef pitting a purveyor of kosher meats against the author of such comedic songs as “Will We Eat Each Other’s Doodies” and “Baby Penis in Your Mind,” things soon got raw. Bloggers made sport of Rosenblatt’s choicest bits, like the one about a permanent relationship being “the most basic desire of the feminine soul,” and Silverman’s father himself joined in on the fun, writing a particularly sharp response and proving that liberal application of four-letter words was a hereditary condition.

In large part, Rosenblatt had it coming. Anyone who argues, as the rabbi had, that “the most basic of tenets” Judaism has given the world holds that “the monogamous relationship is the most meaningful one and that a happy marriage is the key to wholesomeness” betrays a very frail understanding of the religion’s core and an even shakier grasp of humanity and its elected affinities. In nearly every sentence of his letter, Rosenblatt displayed the nescience and scorn that so often guide the minds and the pens of benighted zealots.

Alas, though, this does not necessarily mean that he’s entirely wrong. Dissecting Silverman’s style, Rosenblatt observed that the comic has “made a career making public that which is private, making crude that which is intimate, making sensual that which is spiritual. You have experienced what traditional Judaism taught long ago: When you make sex a public thing, it loses its potency; when the whisper is replaced with a shout there is no magic to speak about.” He goes on to argue that herein lies the explanation to Silverman’s relationship woes, making his observation noxious as a morsel of rabbinic advice but rather astute as an analysis of Silverman’s style.

With the lesser lights of any given craft, Silverman shares a dogged adherence to a rigid formula. Hers is a painting-by-numbers approach to comedy in which the precise outline of each joke is clearly visible from the outset and the coloring is little more than busywork. Consider the following: “I dated a guy who was half-black, but he totally dumped me because I’m such a loser,” goes one Silverman joke, lightly paraphrased here. “Wow! I just heard myself say that. I am such a pessimist. He’s actually half-white.” If you know Silverman’s persona—the cute, clueless, racist young woman—you can see the punch line coming from the very first.

This makes not only for poor comedy, but for poor morality as well. The two are intertwined: Those who get what comedy is about know that it’s not just about being funny but about being fiery as well, a license to talk about our most crushing shortcomings that the truly great use only sporadically and only toward greater and worthy goals. Lenny Bruce, to give the most obvious example, used that license well. When he commented, in one famous instance, that obscenity was defined as something prurient designed to arouse and that if you were the sort of fellow that found the word “motherfucker” sexually stimulating you were in a lot of trouble, he was being not only funny but righteous. To return to Rosenblatt’s formulation, Bruce was making intimate that which was crude, spiritual that which was sensual, and private that which was public. He restored the magic to language by again endowing it with its powers of incantation and by scrubbing off the sterility and vulgarity of public parlance.

Silverman is doing the opposite. She, as the rabbi rightly noted, is moved mainly by her appetite for destruction. Her comedic universe is dense with ignorance and excrement and bile, and the thin conceit on which it all rests—that it’s just a big joke, a self-conscious take, a mirror in the face of real ignorance and excrement and bile—hardly makes it any more inhabitable. It’s a universe designed only for one, and all of its energy is invested in revering its mistress.

This attitude not only falls short of capturing the generous and complex spirit of Judaism, but it also fails to represent an important part of Barack Obama’s ethos. The president’s appeal—and this is as true today as it was four years ago—owes much to his genuine, sometimes maddening, refusal to reduce his ideas to talking points or his opponents to caricatures. Obama speaks in complete sentences, and he knows that great leaders, like great comics, have more of an impact in the long run if they resist the easy punch line and opt instead to say not only what is pleasing but what is true.

The president, then, could have asked for no worse endorsement than Silverman’s. Her exhortation to megadonor Sheldon Adelson to exchange party loyalty in return for sexual favors has much more in common with the shrill trills of the GOP’s most loony defenders. Much like that other famous Sarah haunting American politics, Silverman, too, has turned the electoral process into a spotlight with which to illuminate her own oversized and cartoonish personality for fun and profit. A president who seems categorically incapable of answering even a simple question in a televised debate without pondering specificities and complexities deserves someone with a better ear, a kinder heart, and a more astute mind in his corner.

Someone like Tig Notaro. Earlier this year, Notaro, herself a stand-up comic and, as it happens, Silverman’s friend, took the stage in a club in L.A. “Good evening, hello,” she started her set. “I have cancer. How are you?” What followed is difficult to describe. It involved Notaro being candid about her diagnosis, about losing her mother, and about how little sense her silly comedy routines seemed to make now that they were shadowed by the dark matter of life. It was also profoundly funny, not in the way that a dumb joke is funny in the moment and is then immediately forgotten but funny like that feeling that you get when someone you love has died and you grieve but then, days or weeks or months later, you remember a hilarious moment you shared with that person and you laugh and you realize that the point of life is not to curse at its tragedies but to crack up at all of its splendid jokes. Louis CK, another comic who understands the form’s devastating power, was so impressed with Notaro’s act that he took the unusual step of offering it for sale on his own website. You should buy it. And so should Obama.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.