Sarah Silverman is known for a cute look juxtaposed with shocking jokes.
Silverman has earned both halves of that reputation. She has been and continues to be adorable, and she writes many jokes that are dirty (“I understand that the doctor had to spank me when I was born, but I really don’t see any reason why he had to call me a whore.”); dangerous (“The best time to have a baby is when you’re a black teenager.”); and dirty-dangerous (“I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.”). Conventional wisdom would say it’s her adorability that allows her to get away with jokes about rape, mixing up Barack Obama and Kanye West, and AIDS, as in this gem from The Sarah Silverman Program: “If we can put a man on the moon, we can put a man with AIDS on the moon. And then someday, we can put everyone with AIDS on the moon.”
But focusing on cuteness and shock value do a disservice to Silverman, who is one hell of a joke crafter. Like Anthony Jeselnik, whose offensiveness and looks also distract from his writing skills, Silverman is an enormously talented writer who can startle audiences with her punchlines, whether those punchlines are tame or dirty. She’s a master of writing the clean joke in dirty joke’s clothes.
For example, take this joke, which was in her film Jesus is Magic: “When I was in high school, I went out with my father’s best friend. And that’s embarrassing, you know, my father having a 14-year-old best friend.” Silverman uses a creepy setup—making the listener imagine a teenage Silverman victimized by a predatory older man—which she heightens with the word embarrassing. Then, as the listener is cringing in anticipation of the horrible payoff, she finishes with absurdism rather than statutory rape. To quote Archer’s Cyril Figgis: “Classic misdirection.”
Here’s another example, which is my pick for Silverman’s Best Joke Ever: “My sister was with two men in one night. She could hardly walk after that. Can you imagine? Two dinners!”
Let’s take that joke piece by piece.
“My sister was with two men in one night.” That’s a nice—and true to Silverman’s reputation, dirty—start. Immediately, we’re thinking about sex, with multiple partners no less. Plus, the fact that Silverman is spinning this lurid tale about her sister adds another naughty element.
“She could hardly walk after that.” Silverman doubles down, so to speak, on the sex. What else but enthusiastic sex with two dudes could make a lady’s walk of shame so belabored?
“Can you imagine?” This sentence is pure intensification, delaying the punchline and maximizing our astonishment at the sexual exploits of her sister.
“Two dinners!” Ah. Silverman drops a punchline that is unexpected and logical. A dirty joke turns out to be clean. That is crafty joke writing.
Of course, this joke-writing skill is what makes Silverman’s dirty jokes work too, and it distinguishes her from comedians who lack this talent.
For example, a year or so ago, I had a painful experience: I was at a standup open mic. While bracing myself for a long wait to perform, I saw a comedian who is somewhat successful in Chicago. He did a bit that consisted of nothing but saying, basically, “Hitler wasn’t that bad” over and over and over. There was nothing else to it. There was no premise, no jokes, no hope. It was possibly the unfunniest thing I have ever heard, and it was so depressing that I ditched the open mic to watch basketball in a less awful room of the bar.
I imagine this comic was “inspired” by something like Louis CK’s memorable bit comparing Hitler to Ray Charles, which is a detailed and absurd run full of great jokes that support an insane premise. Maybe this crappy comic came away from that bit thinking, “Hitler is funny. I just have to say Hitler a bunch of times and I’ll be funny.” That’s a shame. The real lesson is: Humor comes from the craft of writing, not name-dropping a shocking name. Standup is—or at least should be—a writer’s medium. So do some damn writing. Like Sarah Silverman.
Shocking’s not funny. Cute’s not funny. Your mom is funny. So are well-crafted jokes.