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A Pretty Girl Doing Dirty Jokes

The Rebutter takes on Sarah Silverman

Rachel Shukert
November 30, 2011
Sarah Silverman in September.(Matt Carr/Getty Images)
Sarah Silverman in September.(Matt Carr/Getty Images)

Senior writer Liel Leibovitz’s weekly “The Arbiter” column tends to attract its share of disagreement and general verklempt-ness among staffers and readers alike for the evident joy with which this self-appointed Moses sets about smashing so many Jewish cultural idols (and, other times, worshipping Jewish cultural artifacts that most would be happy to relegate to the dustbin). “The Rebutter,” an occasional column from contributing editor Rachel Shukert, gives voice to your outrage and, perhaps, puts Liel in his place.

Dear Sarah,

By now you have probably received, if not read, Liel Leibovitz’s letter detailing the various ways in which you have personally disappointed him, so I figured I’d follow up with a note of my own. Imagine it’s like one of those emails which is directly followed by a second email with the subject line, “DISREGARD LAST EMAIL.” Or maybe it’s “MITIGATE LAST EMAIL.” There’s some mitigating to be done.

This isn’t the first letter I’ve written you. The last one was a post-it affixed to my headshot in the painful days when I was taking the drama-school orthodoxy of “reach out to anyone you think might be able to help you” a wee bit too seriously, and you were quite right not to reply. Yet even now, it’s hard to explain what seeing you meant to me in those days, or how much I unconsciously modeled myself in your image: There you were, unashamedly Jewish; unabashedly pretty; utterly scornful of appealing to the mainstream “amirite, ladies?” audience by shying away from matters blatantly and disturbingly sexual (I can’t even count the number of times some interviewer worriedly asked me “what my parents thought” of something I had written, and the mere thought of you gave me the strength to reply, “Honestly, I don’t fucking care”); eager to expose the dark, unflattering side of being a woman, particularly a Jewish woman.

But wait! Women, Liel confidently tells us, never really thought you were funny. Obviously, being a woman, he’s entitled to his opinion, except he forgets that for a very long time it was men who had the biggest problem laughing at your jokes. During Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Rodeo Cowboy Testicle White People Comedy Tour (that’s what it was called), Vince Vaughn himself I recall told you that nobody wants to see a pretty girl do blow job jokes—nobody, of course, meaning men, because if a pretty girl can joke about a blow job, that means she doesn’t necessarily find it demeaning, which ruins the act for a certain kind of guy. That you have managed to convince an overwhelmingly male audience otherwise is nothing short of a miracle, but Liel refuses to give you much credit for this, instead dinging you for doing little more to further the cause of women in comedy than inspiring “young girl comedy nerds to say filthy things in a funny voice so that boys think they’re hot.” This he follows with a spectacularly miscalculated analogy to Daria, which could have been remedied by watching a single episode of Daria.

And then, Tina Fey. Of course. The comparison that inevitably occurs in every profile of any remotely funny woman. The Great Unmasking, in which the writer unwittingly reveals a sexist bent of the most insidious kind—the kind that doesn’t even realize it’s there, or, more insultingly, disguises itself as feminism. Tina Fey has done so well for herself! Why can’t you be more like Tina Fey? Maybe because Tina Fey is the exception to the exception that proves the rule: You’d be hard-pressed to find a single comedian, male or female, who is currently as successful and highly lauded and ubiquitous as Tina Fey. You might as well tell your daughter you’re pissed off she didn’t become the first female president.

Besides, other than the facts that you are 1) both ladies and 2) both the kind of ladies whom guys who would never admit to jerking off to Minka Kelly in Maxim are nonetheless proud to sexually objectify, you two have virtually no comedy DNA in common. Tina’s comedy revolves around her obedience, her dogged sense of duty, her perceived failures at typical femininity, including sex; you are blithe, anarchic, and impishly and unabashedly sexual. Tina Fey represents—and lampoons from the inside—everything your work rebels against. Tina is Apollo; you are Dionysus. You might as well compare Bob Newhart with Bill Hicks, except nobody ever does that, because they are men.

Finally, Liel’s major beef seems to be that you had a chance to change the world but somehow haven’t been influential enough. I would argue precisely the opposite: that if your work, your “shtick,” seems to pack a little less punch nowadays, it’s because you’ve been too influential. The comedy world is awash in Sarah Silverman copycats, although none that have managed to successfully ape the whole clever package: As Liel notes, the likes of Whitney Cummings and Chelsea Handler have latched on to the sex stuff but have forsaken your conceit of endearingly myopic B’nai B’rith incredulity that you could ever be deemed a slut, since that’s for shikses and poor people. And in the other corner, we have Ricky Gervais and his acolytes gleefully cracking Holocaust/racism/retarded-people jokes whose ultimate emptiness belies a lack of actual knowledge of suffering, psychic or otherwise. (For the record, the only people who ever seem to make Holocaust jokes funny are Jews and Germans, e.g., the victims or the perpetrators. English people, who seem to view Hitler as a kind of jovially evil Saddam Hussein-type figure with an equally silly mustache, do not qualify. I’m talking to you, Prince Harry.) If your jokes don’t land quite the way they used to, its because you’re currently screaming into a vast echo chamber of penises, Nazis, and mongoloids.

Like Liel, I would like to see you stake out brave new territory. Unlike him, however, this is not because you have anything to prove. It’s because I want you to show these Whitneys and Chelseas how it’s done. I want you to show all these closet sociopaths and anti-Semites how to tell a real Holocaust joke. Remember what Tina Fey said in Bossypants: You’re not just competing with the other girls. You’re competing with everyone.


P.S.: That thing about Jewish girls enjoying rape fantasies? Yeah, I’m not even going to touch that one.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.

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