Sarah Silverman, Don’t Steal Comedy’s Power To Heal

Sarah Silverman, Don’t Steal Comedy’s Power To Heal

Fifty years ago, comedians like Sarah Silverman understood the difference between a joke and a hate crime, and so did college students.
Jimmy Failla
By

Sarah Silverman told Vanity Fair that today’s comics should adapt to the politically correct climate at colleges, and that failing to do so is a sign of being old.

Silverman pointed out that she used to say the word “gay” as a euphemism for something being lame. She stopped doing so because the more she thought about it, the more she realized that she sounded like the guy 50 years ago who refused to stop saying the word “colored.”

It sounds like a self-aware evolution on her part, but as a brilliant comic who’s made a living by pushing and mocking boundaries, she definitely knows the difference between the two contexts.

The civilian who was still saying “colored” in everyday conversation 50 years ago definitely should have hit the brakes. Unless he was at Paula Dean’s house, of course. But comedians in that era couldn’t have even fathomed making a word or a target off-limits, because 50 years ago we understood the difference between a joke and a hate crime.

We understood that if you told an ethnic joke, a gay joke, or—heaven forbid—a transgender joke, the word “joke” was the S&M safe word that took away the threat.

That’s why Sarah was pandering when she told comedians to change with the times. This was her Michael Jordan, “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” moment, where His Airness refused to slam Jessie Helms because he wanted to move some product on both sides of the aisle.

Remember the 9/11 Jokes?

What kills me is not that Silverman employed this tactic, but that she had to, because we live in an age where having a view that’s contrary to the Twitter mob is grounds for firings, boycotts, or, even worse, an Internet meme where you share a split-screen with the villain in an ’80s movie. Let’s face it, nobody can withstand the pain of being called “Johnny” from “Karate Kid,” especially if he or she went to college, where jokes are the new hate crimes.

Almost every big-name comic in New York was doing 9/11 jokes a week after the towers came down in 2001.

Now before I sweep the leg on Sarah, I’ll admit this is a sensitive area for me, and not just because I’m a fantastic comic, who has a dynamite one-hour special coming out, but because I’ve witnessed the uniting and healing powers of unfiltered comedy firsthand, in the days and weeks following September 11.

As crazy as this is going to sound in the year 2015 M.A. (Micro Aggressions), almost every big-name comic in New York was doing 9/11 jokes a week after the towers came down in 2001. These jokes were destroying with audiences, who consumed them less than a mile from the biggest disaster in American history. I say that with all due respect to the makers of the film “Aloha.”

I know this because I was there, as a fan, watching Patrice O’Neal open his sets by saying, “You like my new leather jacket? It normally goes for $600, but I got it for $20 because the Arabs are having an ‘I Didn’t Do It’ sale.” It didn’t mean he hated Arabs, it didn’t mean he thought they were all terrorists, it meant that he was speaking to the climate we were living in on a level that a ton of people could comprehend and find humor in. It worked, because we had perspective from the tragedy, and there was no social-media currency to be gained by calling him evil.

Also: Race Jokes and Disabled Kid Jokes

Patrice would follow the leather jacket with a bit about how he felt bad for George W. Bush, because he could tell that Bush was constantly fighting the urge to call Osama Bin Laden a sand-negro during his press conferences. (Here’s a belated trigger warning: he didn’t say sand-negro, he said a word that rhymed with sand-trigger.)

We all felt so helpless in the wake of 9/11 that our only means of fighting back was to laugh at it.

A guy named Hood was opening by saying, “I’m Iranian, and I’d like to open my set by doing something in the name of Allah.” At that point, he’d open his jacket to reveal a dynamite vest strapped to his chest. The dude would get what seemed like a 20-minute laugh because we all felt so helpless in the wake of 9/11 that our only means of fighting back was to laugh at it and escape it for a few minutes at a time.

People joked about how the tragedy affected gay people, developmentally disabled people—every “protected” class was in play, and the people who didn’t like it went with the old standby of simply not laughing.

Could you imagine if Hood pulled his dynamite stunt today? Forget the ten trillion hate-tweets about laughing in the conversational proximity of 9/11, but there’d also be a dozen bloggers accusing him of “terrorist shaming.”

Humor Helps People Heal

Jokes are supposed to be like items on a buffet line. You put the ones you want on your plate and you walk right past the ones you don’t. Nobody stages a die-in outside the bread pudding (although I’d pay anything to watch one).

When Silverman tells comics to let the PC Mafia have this one, she’s weakening the healing powers of comedy.

When Silverman tells comics to let the PC mafia have this one, whether she and her publicist realize it, she’s weakening the healing powers of comedy, because telling jokes about tragic events is how a lot of us grieve over those tragedies. It’s how a lot of us take the power away from our problems, if only for a few minutes, by laughing at them and the realities of dealing with them.

My grandma became a double amputee in her late 60s. She lost both her legs. I’ll never forget when we were being driven home by a Share A Ride bus during a snowstorm and, as the guy slowed down to figure out which house was hers, she said to him, “It’s the one with no footprints in the snow.” They both laughed, hard.

Now I’m not saying that every double amputee should be doing schtick on the bus, because, let’s face it, some of you don’t have the chops. But what I am saying is that some people undeniably find humor in places that others don’t. When you take that away from them, they have nowhere to go.

Put Your Big-Kid Panties On

The people who hate “offensive comedy” have the option of not attending it, and I would never deny them that right. But how anyone could feel entitled to deny people the power to joke about whatever they want speaks to a level of self-importance that I hope to never comprehend.

When your bills start showing up, there’s not going to be a professor who makes them go away because they upset you.

Silverman was wrong on this one. Whether she was wrong because she wants to sell movie tickets or she was wrong because it’s a long season and nobody goes undefeated, she lent an immense amount of street cred to the narrative that hurts comedy the most: letting people who know nothing about being funny tell comics how to do their jobs.

Listen up, college kids. It’s your pal, Jimmy Failla. I’m the guy you’ll be serving Starbucks to after you get your art degree. Sarah Silverman can’t tell you this because she has a movie to promote, but I can, because nobody is going to get any attention for attacking a 38-year-old comic who still shops at Old Navy.

The real world doesn’t care how you feel. When your bills start showing up, there’s not going to be a professor who makes them go away because they upset you. The real world isn’t going to give you a trigger warning when something unpleasant is about to happen. Forgive the mind-blowing misogyny, but you’re going to have to “man up,” deal with it, and stop feeling sorry for yourself.

The world doesn’t have the time to adjust its axis to accommodate your feelings. And it’s better you learn that now, one Caitlyn Jenner joke at a time.

Jimmy Failla is a New York City cab driver turned professional stand-up comedian. He appears regularly on "The Kennedy Show" on the Fox Business Channel as well as "Redeye" on Fox News. He is the head writer for A-List Comedy, a national comedy service that supplies topical humor to over 200 radio stations a day.

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