Sarah Silverman spoke with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” about her childhood and her career, as captured in her memoir, “The Bedwetter.”
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The Sarah Silverman Program
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Here are a few thoughts on Sarah Silverman’s Jesus Is Magic, pulled from Aaron Tillman’s essay “‘Through the Rube Goldberg Crazy Straw’: Ethnic Mobility and Narcissistic Fantasy in Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic” (Studies in American Humor 2009).
In her performance film Jesus Is Magic, Sarah Silverman cultivates the indefinable territory––the territory that resists taxonomy (“that thing that you just can’t define” is the line she sings before the stage portion of her film)––portraying herself in a multitude of ways, depending on the circumstances: as Jewish, as white, as cute, as straight, as thin. She uses stereotypes of her Jewish American identity to indulge a conversation about extreme materialism; she uses the ethnic connotation of Jewish American to feign sensitivity to accusations made by an Asian American watchdog group; she uses religious mythology to claim a “chosen” privilege; she uses a connection to historical atrocity to perform self-righteous indignation; she uses her fair complexion to deny any ethnic association. Despite the elasticity of Silverman’s persona, there is a consistency and a familiarity that her audience can recognize. Such recognition enables her observations and conclusions to shed light on our national and cultural landscape. The more she extends her performance, the more recognizably ludicrous––and potentially poignant––her satire becomes.
In her portrayal of an assimilated, narcissistic, Jewish American woman, Silverman ridicules a movement in American culture, one that impacts the development of the budding American persona. She is satirizing the “MySpace” generation, where the projection of and consumption with the self has reached new levels. It is a generation of consent by convenience, where issues of ethnicity and culture are played up or down based solely on how they affect the self.
I am intrigued by the idea of the Shlemiel (as described by Hannah Arendt in some of her Jewish essays from the late 1940s; we read some of these in RN339, our class on the “modern Jew.”) This seems to describe the bigotted counter-type Sarah stages. I am not sure what it suggests that she calls this character “Sarah Silverman,” almost as if to stage herself as a target: how far can I push this act until the actor and the act become inseparable? A kind of desire for martyrdom and victimhood? A particularly Jewish masochism? — What would Sander Gilman say?
This just in from Menachem Matthew Feuer, University of Waterloo, who writes to me on Academia.edu, and whom I asked about what he thought of Silverman’s comedy:
It’s funny that you ask. This summer I wrote a piece on Sarah Silverman and the Schlemiel for a journal called “Listening.” I’ve just written an essay on Woody Allen and the Schlemiel for a Blackwell Collection and I’m writing another one on Woody Allen and Andy Kaufman’s Schlemiel’s for a Brandeis collection on Woody Allen.
As for Sarah, my essay spins around a statement she made in her quasi-autobiography (the Bedwetter) that reeks of the Sartrean and the biological reading of the Jewish body. I contrasted that to a Levinasian type of reading of the schlemiel. Contrasting: Jewish particularity vs. Jewish singularity.
Sarah Silverman is a fantastically funny contemporary version of the theoretical model of solo performance I propose in Modernism’s Mythic Pose: Gender, Genre, Solo Performance. I argue that women used solos from the nineteenth century to the contemporary period to interrogate received notions of gendered identity and suggest new possibilities. In solos, they were free from directors and collaborators who would stifle their individual visions. These performances were “mythic” because they often adopted poses from classical or Judeo-Christian types, but they occupied these positions in unconventional ways by, for example, connecting the goddess Venus to Mary, mother of Jesus. Silverman uses many of these techniques in her own solo performances. She invokes nearly mythic cultural types so as to exaggerate them and show us their ludicrous aspects. Her film Jesus is Magic draws together many different examples from her standup comedy, but the title illustrates the technique of using religious myth to challenge social and cultural conventions.
Carrie Preston, BU Professor of English and author of Modernism’s Mythic Pose: Gender, Genre, Solo Performance (OUP 2011)
We had been hoping to arrange for an overflow event. RSVP’s are coming in fast, and SMG Auditorium is not exactly a huge venue. We actually did that on purpose to keep this more intimate, this being a family conversation and all. But we had hoped, just in case, to have a second venue with live-streaming. This we learned cannot be done without incurring huge costs. So, sorry friends at Hillel: you need to make sure to reserve your seats and be with us for the evening, which is more fun anyway.
We will have a waiting list, however, and will give away unclaimed seats fifteen minutes before the show starts, so be there early to claim your seats, and don’t forget to rsvp first and bring your BUID to the event!
Saul Bellow, until his recent death a member of the BU faculty, is prominently featured in the current edition of the NYRB, where he raises the possibility of “un-Jewing” oneself. He immediately dismisses this as not a particularly decent thing to do. The questions he raises are very much the questions we will be considering with the help of Sarah and Susan Silverman: what does it mean to think of oneself as a Jew without necessarily subscribing to notions already scripted by tradition?
Sarah Silverman’s autobiography, The Bedwetter, is part entertainment, part insight into how the comedian turned an affliction into an asset. The red thread running through this memoir is the family: grandparents, parents, and especially the sisterhood of the Silvermans.