Awkward Conversations About Uncomfortable Laughter

Mary Douglas\' Implicit meanings

Mary Douglas’ “Implicit Meanings”

In her book, Implicit Meanings, the anthropologist Mary Douglas explores the roles jokes play in mapping points of tension or transition within a culture. Only a thin line separates jokes and insults. The joke gives expressive form to an emergent perspective within a culture — something which is widely felt but rarely said. When a joke expresses a view already widely accepted, it becomes banal and unfunny. When a joke says something the culture is not ready to hear, it gets read as an insult or an obscenity. The job of the clown is thus to continually map the borders between what can and can not be said. This is why a good comedy routine is accompanied as often by gasps as by laughter.

I was reminded of Douglas’s perspective on jokes when I recently participated in a screening and discussion of Sarah Silverman’s new film, Jesus is Magic. For those of you who have not heard of her yet, Silverman is a former Saturday Night Live writer who sparked national controversy in 2001 when she told a joke about “chinks” on Conan and when she defended the joke on Bill Mahr’s Politically Incorrect. The Silverman controversy has resurfaced in recent months both because of a rather memorable appearance in The Aristocrats and because of the release of a film documenting her standup comedy show. She has recently been profiled in The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly and is currently shooting a pilot for her own series on Comedy Central.

To understand the controversy, we have to return to the now infamous joke she told on Conan in 2001. She was explaining that her various efforts to escape jury duty and her friend’s suggestion that she could try to come across as prejudiced on the questionnaire by writing “I hate chinks.” Silverman pauses, suggesting that she would consider being embarrassed to make such a comment, even in jest, and so instead she wrote, “I LOOOVE Chinks — and who wouldn’t.”

Greg Aoki, the president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, argued that the network showed a double standard in allowing the word, “chink”, to air when it would almost certainly have bleeped “nigger.” The network and host later apologized for the decision to air the joke but Silverman refused to apologize, contending “it’s not a racist joke. It’s a joke about racism.” The controversy is one which looks differently depending on whether our focus is on the words used (Aoki rightly sees “chink” as a word deeply entwined in the history of racism in America) or the meaning behind them (Silverman is right that her comedy ultimately raises uncomfortable questions about how white people “play the race card.”)

Writing in Asian Week, columnist Emil Guillermo argues that rather than seeing Silverman’s joke as “fighting words,” they should use it as “talking words,” as the starting point for discussing the current state of American racism. This is not what Aoki experienced when he tried to challenge the appropriateness of Silverman’s joke during their mutual appearance on Politically Incorrect, where the host and guests questioned his sincerity, made fun of his name, called him names, and cut him off when he tried to link the jokes to recent incidents of racial violence. And it is not what Silverman experienced when her critics simply label her a “racist” without exploring what she was trying to say.

How can we distinguish between racist jokes and jokes about racism, especially with the deadpan irony that is Silverman’s hallmark? Most of us have no trouble thinking of cases where jokes have been directed against minorities as a racist exercise of power. Yet we should also keep in mind the many different ways that comedy has been used to challenge racism — think about the first generation of African-American comics who went into black, white, and multiracial clubs and confronted their audiences with words and concepts that were designed to create discomfort; think about the ways that underground comics like R. Crumb sought to “exorcise” the history of racial stereotypes in his medium by pushing them to their outer limits; think about shows like All in the Family which exposed the ways that previous generations of sitcoms had remained silent about the bigotry which was often at the heart of American domestic life. And then there are jokes which are funny simply because they are “politically incorrect,” that is, because they thumb their nose at anyone who would set any limits on speech whatsoever. Perhaps most strikingly, there are jokes which deny the reality of both race and racism simply by refusing to talk about it at all. When was the last time that you heard a joke on a late-night talk show (Okay — outside the Daily Show) that you remembered the next morning, let alone one which provoked debate four years later.

Critics have read Silverman’s comedy as simply “politically incorrect.” There are plenty of times when Silverman’s jokes are, to use Douglas’s definition of obscenity, “gratuitous intrusions.” Yet, at its best, her comedy reflects on the problems of living in a culture where old racial logics are breaking down and new relationships have not yet taken any kind of definitive shape and where there seems to be no established language for speaking to each other across racial lines. Her most consistent target is a white America which is so busy trying to watch its step that it falls on its own face. Several deal with the challenges of negotiating mixed race or multi-ethnic relationships. For example, she gets upset when her half black boyfriend objects to her “innocent compliment” that he would have made “an expensive slave” because he has “self-esteem issues,” smugly insisting, “He has to learn to love himself before I can stop hating his people.” This is after she has suggested it would be more “optimistic” to say that he was “half white” rather than “half black.” At another point, she describes a particular audience as “black,” then corrects herself to say that it was “African-American,” then decides it was “half and half.” Or again, she talks about how she and her Christian boyfriend will explain their religious beliefs to any future offspring: “Mother is one of the chosen people and Dad believes Jesus is magic.”

Sarah Silverman

Sarah Silverman

Silverman’s jokes do not in any simple or direct way represent her personal views; rather, she has adopted a comic persona (perhaps multiple personas) through which she reflects confusions and contradictions in the ways that white America thinks about race and racism, much the way some hip hop performers have argued that the views about race, criminality, and sexual violence they express through their songs are attempts to make visible some of the issues confronting their community. In both cases, critics have tended to read such personas literally. There are no words to describe whiteness which have the same sting as “chink” or “nigger” and so she has to perform whiteness, against a backdrop of other racial identities, so that it can recognize itself in all of its insensitivity and self-centeredness.

Consider, for example, a Silverman routine about her lust for a jewel which is formed by de-boning and grinding own the spines of starving Ethiopian babies. There is a level to the joke which is simply funny because of the cruel and insensitive way she is speaking about human suffering; there is another level, however, which works not unlike the way that Jonathon Swift’s similarly-themed, “A Modest Proposal,” works, exposing the infinite flexibility with which we can rationalize and justify the exploitation of the third world. Silverman delivers the joke with what New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear calls “quiet depravity”: “The expression that lingers on her face is usually one of tentative confusion or chipper self-satisfaction, as if she had finished her homework and cleaned up her room, and were waiting for a gold star.” She doesn’t smirk; she honestly thinks she has no real prejudice or animosity even as she bases her everyday decisions on gross stereotypes. Hers is the face of what cultural critics have called “enlightened racism,” the smug satisfaction with which white Americans excuse ourselves for our own lapses in taste and judgment as long as they do not become too overt or openly confrontational. As she describes this jewel, she hits a moment of conscience, realizing that they probably exploit the “unions” which mine the babies’ spines, but then concedes, “you have to pick your battles.”

Early in the jewel routine, she describes her acquisitiveness as “so JAP,” then pausing to explain that she doesn’t mean “Jewish American Princess” (a stereotype which she has self-consciously embodied throughout the routine) but rather “Japanese.” Instantly, she moves from a stereotype which is more socially acceptable (if only because she would be making fun of her own group) and into one which is totally unacceptable (and the joke only works if we recognize the offensiveness of the word). Indeed, she plays often on the ambiguities of her own status as white and Jewish — sometimes speaking as a member of an oppressed minority, other times blending into a white majority, and often making this desire of Jews to escape their minority status a central theme in her work. It crops up for example when she makes bitter comments about contemporary Jews who drive German-made cars or when she tells a joke about Jews who want to escape racist charges of having killed Christ by blaming the Romans (and then pushing this historical scapegoating one step further by suggesting that personally she blames the blacks.)

Silverman’s comedy depends upon the instability created as we move from thinking of race in black and white terms towards a multi-racial and multi-cultural society. A previous generation of comics would not have made jokes about Asian-Americans or Hispanics because they simply were not part of the way they envisioned America. Much contemporary race theory has sought ways to move us beyond simple black/white binaries in the ways we think about racial diversity. As recent demographic trends suggest, America is rapidly moving towards a time when Caucasians will be in the minority but they are not being replaced by a new majority culture: rather, America will be more ethnically diverse — some would say “fragmented,” “balkanized,” or “disunified” — than ever before and there has been few successful attempts to build coalitions across those diverse populations.

A musical number in Jesus is Magic self-consciously maps the fault lines in this new cultural diversity: dressed like a refugee from an Up With People concert, strumming a guitar, looking her most wide-eyed and innocent, she wanders from space to space, gleefully singing about how much Jews love money, how little blacks like to tip, how well Asians do at math, and ends with a particularly choice lyric about blacks calling each other “niggers.” Then, the little white woman looks over and sees two angry looking black men who glare at her for a long period of silence; then they start to laugh and she tries laughing with them; then they stop laughing and glare at her even more intensely and for an agonizingly long period of time. It is hard to imagine a comedian who is more reflexive about the nature of their own comic practices or more insistent that the audience stop laughing and think about the politics of their own laughter.

Much of the Silverman controversy centers around what anthropologists often call joking relations: in any given culture, there are rules, sometimes implicit, often explicit, about which people can joke with each other, about what content is appropriate for joking in specific contents. During times of social anxiety, these rules are closely policed and transgressions of these boundaries are severely punished. Yet, in times of greater security, cultures may suspend or extend the rules to broaden the community which is allowed inside a particular set of joking relationships. But who determines which jokes are safe and permissible? She openly courts such questions by appearing on The Jimmy Kimmel Show, doing verbatim versions of Dave Chappel skits. Can a white woman make the same jokes as a black man or does changing the race of the performer change everything?

Comedy in the 1990s seemed often about securing boundaries as comedians emerged who could articulate the self perceptions and frustrations of different identity politics groups: Asians made Asian jokes, Blacks made black jokes (and sometimes about white people), Jews made Jewish jokes, and white comedians mostly avoided the topic of race altogether. This places an enormous burden on minority performers not simply to speak on behalf of their race but to bear the weight of any discussion about racism. And of course, when black comedians made jokes about black people, they often did so in front of white or mixed audiences. Just as white comedians were uncertain whether they could joke about race and under what circumstances, white audiences were uncertain whether they could laugh about race and under what circumstances. Silverman has thrust herself out there, saying it is time for white comics to joke about race, and has faced the inevitable push-back for trying to change the rules of discourse.

Contemporary cultural theorists have been urging a move away from identity politics towards one based on coalition building: race will not go away simply because we refuse to talk about it and we cannot meaningfully change how we think about race as a society by remaining within our own enclaves. Consider, for example, Frank H. Wu’s Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White. Wu is an Asian-American professor who has chosen to teach at Howard University Law School, a historically black institution, because he wanted to create a context where Asian-Americans and African-Americans can learn to communicate across their racial and ethnic differences. Wu argues that for such coalitions to work, one has to put everything on the table, confront past stereotypes, examine historic misunderstandings, give expression to fears and anxieties. We can’t work through the things that separate us until we feel comfortable discussing them together. This isn’t simply something that has to take place between different minority groups: there has to be a way where whites can express their own uncertainties about the future without being prejudged.

Jokes may fuel such social transformations because they force us to confront the contradictions in our own thinking. They are valuable precisely because the same joke will be heard differently in different contexts and thus can help us to talk through our different experiences of being raced. As Wu writes, “Race is meaningless in the abstract; it acquires its meanings as it operates on its surroundings. With race, the truism is all the more apt that the same words can take on different meanings depending on the speaker, the audience, the tone, the intention and the usage.” Mary Douglas similarly suggests that the reason our culture has such trouble drawing a fixed line between jokes and obscenity is that unlike traditional cultures, we do not occupy “a single moral order” and there are no agreed-upon boundaries.

And that brings us back to Guillermo’s appeal that Silverman’s “chink” joke might be used as “talking words.” From my perspective as a white southern-born male, Silverman is raising important questions about race and racism which white audiences need to hear if they are going to come to grips with a multicultural society. From Aoki’s perspective, the same joke evokes a painful history, using words that many Asian-Americans hear too often. At the risk of sounding naive and idealistic, maybe that’s something we should be talking about, however awkward the conversation is apt to be.

Rotten Tomatoes
The New Yorker on Sarah Silverman

Image Credits:

1. Mary Douglas’ “Implicit Meanings”

2. Sarah Silverman

Please feel free to comment.


  • I applaud Sarah Silverman for trying to change the discourse of who is allowed to make and laugh at which jokes. That awkward laughter has been there plenty of times on a day to day basis where no one knows if they are ‘allowed’ to laugh or not. While I do not commend Silverman for taking comments a step or two too far, I do appreciate that she, like many other comedians, is just trying to embrace these boundries of who can say what. We talk so much about colorblindness, but turn around and accept racial/racist jokes from comedians of a certain race more easily, instead of treating them as they would a white comedian.

    I think intersectionality plays a huge role in viewing Sarah Silverman as a comedian. It is impossible to judge her comedy without including several aspects of who she is, either as a woman, ‘white’, Jewish, et al. Because she herself acknowledges these labels and jokes about them, she is seen as rascist and not colorblind, as she ‘should be’. But haven’t we discussed what’s wrong about being colorblind anyway? How it’s not always a great thing because it prohibits what people are thinking and just stifles the obvious differences of people? She’s not claiming to be a seroius speaker, talking about serious matters, she is a comedian. A comedian who makes jokes about awkward, uncomfortable, but everyday situations that we deal with on a day to day basis. Talk of rascism is out there constantly, if we can’t laugh at the obvious things we see happening every day, how will we ever see how ludicrous it all really is?

  • Exnomination & Intersectionality

    As mentioned by Jenkins, there is a complex relationship among the true racially-related sentiments of Sarah Silverman and the motivations behind her comedy routine. Apparently attempting to bring simmering racial issues to the forefront, I believe Silverman has healthy intentions to incite thoughtful discussion and enlightening arguments. The very existence of controversy over Silverman’s routine, however, indicates the suppression of racial topics within dominant American (and particularly white) social discourse. This fact marrs the innocence of Silverman’s intentionally-provocative, racially-charged comedy.

    Silverman seems to claim her Jewish heritage as a “minority pass,” so to speak. Since she is technically a member of an historically-persecuted ethnic group that happens to be a minority in the United States, she attempts to seek common ground with other minorities groups to transform her racist jokes from offensive to acceptable.

    In my opinion, this attempt at using intersectionality and hybridity is a ill-conceived justification for-albeit well-intentioned- racial comedy bits that quite possibly incite more sincere belief in stereotypes and racial division rather than it encourages open-minded discussion and a radical change in contemporary American social discourse.

    Silverman, regardless of her Jewish heritage, is still accepted as white in America, and is still a subject of exnomination, whether she claims it or not. Her references to race, by default, cannot include any amount of empathy for her scapegoats, but rather emphasize an incessant fixation on the stereotypes of racial ‘Others’ and the historically significant and abhorrantly derogatory terms for ethnic groups (such as “Jap,” “Chink,” and “Nigger”) that she uses without hesitation in an attempt to expose these terms and deny their significance.

    This denial, in my opinion, is form of “enlightened racism,” because it indicates a blind ignorance to the sensitivities of other ethnic groups to symbolic representations and expressions for whose suppression, for decades, have been doggedly striven.

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  • A time to test the new waters?

    Silverman is a comic that is living in a society that is rapidly changing, the sensitivity towards racial commedy is changing, and her jokes reflect the uncharted area between right and wrong when it comes to jokes. She might not be telling the jokes from her own feelings about the topics, or she might be hiding them behind the many personas she uses to tell the jokes. With the added influence of different cultures in the US in this decade and the next, the fragmented audience will have to sit back and shake their heads for a while as the different cultures learn what is funny, and what is crossing the line. Carlos Mencia warns the audience before every show that there will be a few members of the audience that will not agree with him, or that the jokes might cut too far, but the fact that he is a Hispanic comic making a living telling jokes is a step in the right direction. He and other comics who are testing the waters are taking a few steps forward, in a bigger picture that will allow us to better understand one another as time goes on.

  • the N word, etc.

    It might be useful to discriminate different kinds of “television” here:

    Network broadcast (Conan O’Brian)Basic cable (Daily Show–which does bleep)subscription cable (HBO–including Politically Incorrect, Curb Your Enthusiasm (Sykes saying the N word), etc. Is Chappelle on HBO?

    These are governed by different laws, agencies and gatekeepers and agendas. Silverman’s film falls into a different category.

    It might be useful to ask as well why it is that network wouldn’t use the N word, while it continues to allow jokes that assume gay male sex is always anal and thus always abhorrant, that jail and prison for men means being anally raped and that this is funny. Before and after 9/11 derogatory jokes about “Arabs” remained common on networks.

    What topics remain taboo on TV (the spectrum of it) and theatrical film comedy? and why?

    It seems like menstruation jokes are off limits…why is that?

  • A joke is a joke!

    I’m not sure why people get so bent out of shape about these sorts of comedy routines. To have the nightly news talking about race in this way would be one thing, to have a comedian talking in this way is quite another. She’s telling jokes! She isn’t trying to change America, and she’s certainly in the wrong business if she wants people to go home and talk about “what they learned about race tonight”. People just do not do that. You go to a live comedy show to laugh – not to learn. I feel like Silverman’s jokes are taken out of context, where academics everywhere try to cram them full of meaning, forgetting that jokes are just about the most meaningless things out there.

    No one will go see Silverman and then have a deep conversation about race relations in America!

  • Laughing AT Her

    Controversial issues always bring high ratings to the media industry. I think Silverman has become the media’s “instrument” to achieve more attention. Although she was banned, but other TV station adopted her, proving that her sharp jokes are attractive and might bring more ratings.

    “Silverman’s jokes do not in any simple or direct way represent her personal views.” This statement is not fully correct. Silverman, the audience, the readers, have different perspective in looking at this issue. The way this issue was looked and perceived by the society is called Discourse Analysis. It can be characterized as a way of approaching and thinking about a problem. As John Dewey illustrates: “Critical or Discourse Analysis is nothing more than a deconstructive reading and interpretation of a problem or text (while keeping in mind that postmodern theories conceive of every interpretation of reality and, therefore, of reality itself as a text” (Experience & Education). When Silverman “adopted a comic persona,” used it for her jokes, and later on when her audience perceived that the issue of race was taking a big part in her jokes, it has become the discourse of viewing this society.

    I suggest, we must carefully examine our readings. Her jokes are subjective and do not actually reflecting the society. We should laughing AT her as an instrument for media industry. We should not laughing WITH her for using racial jokes.

  • It’s a free country=A Joke=Funny Ha-ha

    Who cares about Silverman’s joke–comediennes relieve my stress when they poke fun at aspects of daily life… let them feel free to satirize anything they want and express themselves, thats what makes them funny. The key here is irony*: most people DON’T get it and some people don’t know how to use it. Silverman complicates things when she claims she is not making a racist joke but gaining awareness by making a joke about racism. (gimme a break!)that is her way of trying to appease things without having to apologize because lets face it: her “shocking jokes” are her signature and gets her the fame, when has she last done her community service to actually promote awareness. But WHY should she have to explain things: it was a joke, meant to be taken as a joke. I guess the controversy really stems from the connotation of the word “chink” and audiences’ ability to reconize the irony. Anyway,it is really pointless to analyze comedians’ materials; it’s like watching a dog chase his own tail. If you are laughing at Sarah or whoever she is suppose to represent in the joke aired on Conan, then you get the irony. If you are laughing at what she says, the word “chink” then you are a racist. hahaha In the end, lets just blame this on NBC (a non-cable station), they should have just bleeped out the word, someone fell asleep or something and opened this flood of muck.

  • S Silverman prrof you can sleep yoru way into comedy if your Jewish

    Have yet to know a single funny female comedian, there were a few in the early 90’s that were “ok”. But I have never had a woman make me laugh that hard.

    Margaret Cho? Woopi Goldberg? if these ladies are funny to you, then you lack a real sense of huor. These people usually rant on political issues that only they are concerned about, and to be honest I can’t remember the last time I laughed at any of them. WOopi is a good story teller, but she is by far not funny.

    Try these:Dane Cook

    Carlos Mencia (get uncencored standup)

    Robert Schimmel

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  • Nice information. Thanks for sharing this article.

  • I suggest, we must carefully examine our readings. Her jokes are subjective and do not actually reflecting the society. We should laughing AT her as an instrument for media industry. We should not laughing WITH her for using racial jokes.

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  • Much of the Silverman controversy centers around what anthropologists often call joking relations: in any given culture, there are rules, sometimes implicit, often explicit, about which people can joke with each other, about what content is appropriate for joking in specific contents. During times of social anxiety, these rules are closely policed and transgressions of these boundaries are severely punished. Yet, in times of greater security, cultures may suspend or extend the rules to broaden the community which is allowed inside a particular set of joking relationships. But who determines which jokes are safe and permissible? She openly courts such questions by appearing on The Jimmy Kimmel Show, doing verbatim versions of Dave Chappel skits. Can a white woman make the same jokes as a black man or does changing the race of the performer change everything?

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